Asian Football Interviews

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man who made football his life-long career Part 1: The rarely spoken about playing career

To the grassroots football fraternity in Singapore, Taiichiro Saito is a familiar name. Saito was the founder of Global Football Academy (GFA) and is the current founder and managing director of two organizations – Soriya (in Cambodia) and Football For Everyone. While COVID-19 may have grounded him in Singapore for months, Saito would have been otherwise engaged in his multiple for-profit and non-profit initiatives in Cambodia and Myanmar. A firm believer in the power of football improving lives, his passion for the game was absolutely evident during our meet up. One thing is for certain, Saito is arguably one of the most down to earth human beings I have ever had the chance to interact with. He has many footballing stories, and in this two-part article, I shall try to cover some of them in this two-part article about his journey so far.

While many know Saito the coach or the managing director, not many know Saito the player. Part 1 aims to shed some light on what I dare say is truly an interesting footballing career.

Early Life In Southeast Asia and Football Beginnings in Japan

Saito may be of Japanese nationality and origin, but he was not born in Japan. Instead, he was born in the Philippines. His father’s business engagements meant his family had to relocate to the Southeast Asian states, and Saito was raised in the Philippines till he was three years old. A return to Japan soon followed, and it was here, shortly after his fourth birthday, where his footballing journey truly began. Enrolled in a local club academy, Saito was at his academy two to three times a week all the way until he turned 10 years old. However, his father’s business initiatives once again resulted in Saito returning to Southeast Asia – this time to Singapore.

“I was in the Japanese School (in Singapore) and I was still playing. At the time, I belonged to three teams. One is the Japanese school team in Singapore. The second one was the ANZA team – the Australia New Zealand Association. And the third one was another Japanese club in Singapore. So everyday was football, football, football, all the way.”

His first stint in Singapore lasted 5 and a half years, but it was surely not to be his last. Saito returned to Japan to pursue his high school education, but also continue his football development. He joined a high school with a pretty reputable football team and played there for three years. Soon after, he managed to get a place in the acclaimed Waseda University, which also is known for producing many J-League and future Japanese national team players on a yearly basis.

Unsurprisingly, competition for places was stiff in the Waseda University team, and Saito had to fight with literally 70 other players for a spot in the starting eleven.

“I couldn’t even make it to the bench. I couldn’t even play. At the time, the level was very very high. (I remember), my senior of two years ended up playing with the Japanese national team. It was very exciting and very inspiring. However, I couldn’t get any chances in those four years.”

A young Saito. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

A highly renowned university globally, let alone in Japan, Saito revealed how many Japanese companies preferred graduates from Waseda University. It was common belief that you’d be sure to get a job from a firm in Japan had you graduated from the institution. Technically, if you couldn’t make it as a professional footballer, you were more or less prepared for another professional or corporate career. While Saito had that option in his hand, he was not satisfied with a non-footballing career. Ever since he was four years old, just like many fans, he had a dream to become a professional football player. While many of us gave that dream up, Saito decided to pursue it wholeheartedly overseas. An opportunity opened up in Singapore, and Saito decided to seize it and return to the country where he spent part of his adolescence.

Playing in the NFL, Injury Crisis and Return to Singapore

“I was almost losing my way because I really wanted to play football as a career. To not play football, felt wired. Then a friend of mine sent me information that the S.League had opened up 2 to 3 years ago. At the time not a lot of email was used. It was, more so, fax machine – information was passed through fax. It was 1998/1999 at the time. Something struck me. I was in Singapore before, I wanted to play football and the S.League just started. At the time, I was in my last year of University and I told myself to apply for a few clubs.”

Saito with Tessensohn Khalsa Rovers. Player-Coach Terry Pathmanathan located at the back, extreme right. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

Saito’s applications at a few S.League teams ended up getting rejected. However, all was not lost, for Saito transferred over to a National Football League (NFL) team instead. When many think of the NFL today, they probably think of amateur and semi-professional teams that lack the financial muscle to seriously contend with the SPL sides. Yet, it was a different era back in the day. Saito was offered a salary, accommodations, and a visa by Tessensohn Khalsa Rovers.

According to the team manager at the time, Saito was the first registered Japanese player in Singapore in 1999. His head coach at the time was, interestingly, Terry Pathmanathan, who was actually player-coach for the club. Saito shared how he was not aware of Terry’s legendary status in Singapore when he first arrived but realized it soon after linking up with the club. Besides playing alongside and being coached by a local icon like Terry, Saito had a solid first year in Singapore.

Unfortunately, towards the end of the season, Saito picked up a serious knee ligament injury which forced him to return to Japan to seek treatment. Treatment did not work out, and Saito had no choice but to give up his playing career. For the next 2 and a half years, Saito worked in IT sales at a Japanese Diem. Then one day, after work, Saito couldn’t control himself any longer and went for a run. To his surprise, there was no longer any pain in his knee ligaments. It emboldened Saito, who was 27 at the time and felt it could be his final ever chance to pursue a career in football. He informed his boss that he wanted to resign, and, for 6 months, Saito began intensive training to get into shape and prepare for a career in football once again.

A move to Singapore beckoned once again, and Saito ended up with another NFL team. However, the salaries for NFL sides significantly dipped since his last stint in the league. Saito worked for a Japanese firm in Singapore and played part-time for 4 years. Then at 30, a unique playing opportunity presented itself in Ghana, of all places.

Opportunities Beckon Overseas: Ghana, Australia and Bolivia

“I think I could have continued playing in the NFL (well into my 30s). However, after a while, I decided I needed to challenge myself to see how far beyond I can go. So I decided to quit the NFL and I decided to quit my part-time job. I went to Ghana, Africa, because Ghana was really well-known as a good football country. I just happened to have a good friend in a Ghana and I went there for 7 months.”

His time in Ghana was a mixed experience for Saito. One one hand, he was amazed by the vast quality and incredible work ethic of the Ghanaian footballers. Saito stayed in Accra, Ghana, and he remembers during his early morning runs, he’d run across this famous bridge in Ghana – “The Circle” as Ghanaians called it. To his surprise, he’d see hundreds of other footballers also running across the same bridge.

Saito was also moved to center midfield because his club, FC Maamobi Midtjylland, believed a player of his physique would be bullied out of play if he played up front in the Ghanaian league. Yet, the opportunity to play never came. While Saito was afforded his salary by the club, they never once fielded him in the 7 months. It’s still a mystery to Saito as to why he couldn’t play.

Saito playing in the NPL in Australia. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

After his time in Ghana, Saito was about to call it quits when another opportunity to play overseas came his way, and Sydney, Australia became Saito’s next destination. Switching over to the right wing, Saito spent a year in Australia – playing with National Premier League NSW side Fraser Park for the first 6 months before moving to Ryde City Gunners (now renamed North Ryde Soccer FC) during the latter half of the year.

The next chapter of Saito’s footballing career saw him ending up in Bolivia. It was also to be the final chapter of his playing career. A trial in the Bolivian top tier failed to attract any sides in the first division, though he had a few offers from second division sides. Saito contemplated about taking up the offer. However, as the salary offered was sort of low, it would have meant he would have to take up another part-time job to stay afloat. As such at the age of 32, Taiichiro Saito retired as a player. However, he was not about to walk away from football. Instead, Saito returned to Singapore and embarked on a football business that kept him in the game, seemingly forever. In Part 2, I shall discuss his endeavours in Southeast Asia and how he using football to empower the masses.

Image provided by Saito (@TaiichiroSaito)

Featured Image from Saito’s twitter account (@TaiichiroSaito)

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