If Varghese Jayan is an unfamiliar to you now, it won’t be soon. A speedy left winger, he recently signed with NEROCA FC in October 2020. On paper, it doesn’t seem like much – an Indian national signing with an Indian club, but there is so much to this story. For the past 3 years, Varghese has been juggling his polytechnic education, football, and a host of part-time jobs to support himself alone in Singapore.
What makes his story remarkable is that the man never had formal football training before coming to Singapore, but in a matter of three years, he managed to secure a professional contract in the I-League. The fact that he only played in the National Football League here makes this story even more special. I got the chance to have a chat with Varghese over Zoom the other day, and it is my pleasure to share the story of a real role model for aspiring players; he is a person who overcame numerous obstacles to get to where he is today.
In this first part, I look at his humble beginnings and some of the challenges he faced during his first 2 years in Singapore.
The Story Begins in India
Born in the city Kolenchery, which is located in Kerala, India, in 1998, it was cricket rather than football that Varghese played regularly. Even though Kerala is known to be a football crazy state, it was all about cricket for Varghese during the early years. It was only during his 6th Standard when he was introduced to football during his Physical Education lessons. It was love at first touch (sight) for Varghese, who played every day after school. There were no goal posts, it was really just kicking about barefoot. In his 9th Standard, Varghese had the opportunity to trial with a new academy that was founded near his village. However, he had to borrow his boots and equipment from his peers because he had nothing, whatsoever. It was the first time he had proper football training, and for the next year, he stayed at the academy. It was the first of many times where Varghese had to leave home for extended periods in his career thus far.
“Somehow, I don’t know how but somehow, I managed to get selected into the academy. It’s funny because everyone besides me had previous experience of coming from an academy or played in the school team. I was the only one who didn’t know anything about football. Before this, I only played village football where we just ran after the ball. So, during that one year, I learned all the fundamentals – how to pass and how to receive the ball. I was only there a year or so because I had signs of asthma and a dust allergy. I have difficulties when there is too much dust. So, I had to move away from football.”
Varghese would remain in Kerala till the 12th Standard (Higher Secondary Certificate). He would then move to Chennai, Tamil Nadu to study for a year at SRM University for an entrance exam to get an opportunity to travel to Singapore to pursue tertiary education. The stakes for high for a young Varghese, as candidates had to maintain a minimum of 70% score or else they were kicked out from the course.
Living in Chennai was an entirely different experience for Varghese. He had to live on his own because it took him 13 hours by train to travel to his hometown. It wasn’t long before Varghese became well-versed in Tamil. In Chennai, Varghese had the opportunity to play once again, and he casually played with the people he met there.
“I don’t think I was in the mind to come to Singapore. I knew nothing about Singapore at that point in time. I didn’t know it was such a modern, first-world country. My motive was to fulfill my parents desire because they had a lot of hopes for me. I just wanted to play football. I didn’t know they had football in Singapore but my parents told me to concentrate on my studies so I just studied and managed to get more than 70% for my grades.”
Thankfully though, Varghese managed to scrape through his exams and made the cut to earn the chance to pursue a diploma with Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore in 2017.
Singapore – Early Beginnings
Coming to Singapore was quite an experience for Varghese, but nothing beats his first day here. After touching down, Varghese moved to his accommodation in Tampines, and his desire to play football overcame him. He had a strong urge to play, but as he said earlier, he knew absolutely nothing about the country. So, he took his boots and walked around to find a field or pitch to play. He approached random strangers and asked where the nearest field was. Looking back, he realizes that many he approached would have certainly found him kind of crazy. Somehow, Varghese in his quest to find a field, stumbles upon SAFRA and enters it. He sees a field and observes that there were people playing but since he didn’t know anyone he just sat and watched them play.
Then, an older gentleman approached him. He wanted to ask Varghese about the Kerala Blasters shirt that he had been wearing. The older gentleman had been following the Indian Super League at that time and asked Varghese if he was a Kerala Blasters player. Varghese explained that he had been a fan of the club and that he was here in Singapore to study. To his surprise, the gentleman was none other than Johar bin Yousuf, the Temasek polytechnic women’s football team coach. After taking down his number, Johar called him to play for social teams in the subsequent days.
“Then, school started and soon after they had trials for the school team. Because of my dust allergy, I played as a Goalkeeper in Kerala [after the stint with the Academy] because I could not run a lot. But when I came to Temasek poly, I went to the trials as a Goalkeeper. So back then, the coach was Steven Tan and he asked me where was I from. I did well in the trials and I made the final cut of 32 players. It was also the start of my relationship with Steven Tan, he is someone I am close with.”
Steven Tan is not an unfamiliar name in the Singaporean footballing fraternity. A stalwart during the 1990s for the national team and the Malaysia Cup squad, he was especially renowned for his super-sub ability. He also managed Tampines Rovers between 2011 and 2012.
“When we began training, I told coach Steven that I used to play as an outfield player before my dust allergy gave me problems. So, coach tried me out as an outfield player. During that first ever training session, I remember the squad having a few Prime League players. I did well when it comes to the individual components like shooting and dribbling but when it comes to the tactical aspects, like awareness and positioning, I didn’t know. So, after the session, coach Steven [groomed me] into a winger.”
In clean and green Singapore, Varghese had no dust to worry about, so he never suffered any issues with his dust allergy. However, Varghese wasn’t just content with football at the school level. He really wanted to push himself further and play for a club here. After inquiring around, he managed to earn a trial with Eunos Crescent FC with the help of a friend of his. The chairman of Eunos Crescent at the time was Don Darwin, the current vice-chairman of Balestier Khalasa FC. Varghese impressed yet again and he managed to sign with the NFL side. In his first year in Singapore, Varghese juggled his time between school training and training with Eunos Crescent. His first year served as a foundation for Varghese to build up his tactical ability.
A True Self-Made Man
During his three years in Singapore, Varghese needed to be financially independent. Varghese had a relatively comfortable life in India – his parents owned their own house and they had a car. However, the exchange rate differences between the Singaporean dollar and the Indian rupee made it really expensive for Varghese’s parents to support their son financially. Varghese himself did not want his parents to give up their possessions or alter their livelihood by taking a loan for him. Instead, he wanted to support himself.
His first job was working the night shift at the Changi Airport outlet. What that meant was that Varghese, after his evening training sessions, had to rush back home to bathe so that he can go to work. His shift would start at 11pm and end at 7am. That first year was difficult for Varghese, who had to attend classes after his shift, and he napped whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Varghese would go onto job hop various part-time gigs so that he could pay his polytechnic tuition fees and also ensure he had a daily allowance to sustain himself.
One person that supported him through this period was Steven Tan. Getting Varghese a pair of boots and a bunch of apparel, Steven’s help really motivated Varghese to focus on football. Besides Steven, he also had the aid from some of his fellow Indian students who came to Temasek Poly to study.
Geylang – Getting A taste of Prime League football before it shut down
In his first year in Singapore, one of his Temasek Poly teammates invited Varghese to participate in a friendly game as part of a make-shift Jungfrau Punggol team against Geylang International FC Prime League team at Jalan Besar Stadium.
“The coach asked me to play on the right-hand side and I was in a team of an assortment of players playing against a young Geylang Prime League side that had tons of energy. All these Prime League boys wanted to go to the S.League, so they were all in good shape and my team had many main players missing. The first 20 minutes of that game, the coach made play as a right-back and then after that I played at the right-wing position. The next half, he was redeployed in the centre of midfield and towards the closing stages of the game, I was again played at centre-back. I played 4 positions that game and I think I did quite well. The S.League coach, Noor Ali, was watching that game and after the match, he came up to me and introduced himself.”
Varghese hit it off well with Noor Ali and the Geylang coach invited Varghese to train with the Prime League. Unfortunately, the stint would last but a month, with the Prime League being scrapped in 2018. Furthermore, Noor Ali left to head over to Japan as part of a coaching stint with J2 club Matsumoto Yamaga, where he managed the Under 18 ‘B’ team.
Refining his Tactical Skills with Balestier Khalsa
After his first year and the short stint with Geylang, Darwin provided Varghese with the opportunity to train with the Balestier’s first team. It was one of the best experiences Varghese ever encountered. He worked with Marko Kraljević, whom he greatly admires.
However, he was given a lot of tough love by the Balestier management and players. At the time, Varghese still severely lacked the tactical element in his game. For the first 6 months, it was hell.
“During the whole session [at the start], I was the one making mistake after mistake. End of the day, the players are professional. So, when you make mistakes, of course they will scold you and get mad at you. But, you need to learn and bounce back. I had my friend, whom I really consider more of a brother, Sufianto Salleh who really guided me. Other players Raihan Rahman and Zaiful Nizam also motivated me. First-team coach Rosman and Goalkeeping coach Rizal also guided me during this period. It wan’t like I was making mistakes for the sake of it. I was working my butt off. There can’t be any room for emotions. If I made a mistake, I told myself the only thing I needed to do was to improve.”
With the help of the senior players, Varghese improved leaps and bounds after the 6 months. Varghese’s story serves as a reminder that stars aren’t born overnight, and it really takes resilience from the player to soldier on and improve. Varghese also believes that coach Marko’s kindness was one reason why he improved as well. He does have a point. With the level he was at, Marko could have sent him back home, since he was disrupting the first-team training. Instead, Marko allowed Varghese to stay on and gain a valuable learning experience.
In order to ensure that it was convenient for him to attend training, since Balestier was pretty far from Changi Airport, Varghese left his part-time job and instead took up a job at a KFC outlet that was opposite the Toa Payoh Stadium. Late-night shifts were a thing of the past as Varghese worked between the period school ended and before his training commenced.
During his training days, Varghese always looked at the East Bengal team pennant that was located in the Balestier dressing room. The tigers had played against East Bengal in the AFC Cup a few years before, and Varghese was constantly motivated to push himself harder so that one day he could play professional football in India.
Even though Balestier provided him with an invaluable experience, he could not officially link up with the Balestier side. The Prime League was still around when Varghese first arrived in Singapore, but they cancelled the league in lieu of the U-23 rule, where a minimum of three Under-23 players need to feature in the starting 11 for each fixture. In 2018, Varghese turned 20 and, thus, could not be signed for the Balestier U-19 team as well. As such, he was limited to training stints with the first team as opposed to any match experience with the Tigers. Instead, Varghese signed with another NFL side, Katong FC, and worked with team manager, Tee Tan. Soon, Varghese’s fortunes would change, and the winger would be en route to India to play professionally. That, my friends, will be discussed in the second part. Stay tuned.
Featured Image provided by Varghese Jayan
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