In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate as Saito to give up football altogether. In this second part, I dive deep into Saito’s post-playing football journey and look at how he set up Global Football Academy (GFA) in Singapore, Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia, and his latest venture, Football For Everyone.
Starting A New Life After Retiring As A Player
After putting an end to his footballing career despite offers from second division sides in Bolivia, Saito returned to Singapore in 2009 to engage in another IT Sales job, (interestingly, Saito did his degree in Sports Science) but also to start his own football business – Global Football Academy. In the beginning, the core business was to start a football academy to cater to the then approximately 20,000 strong Japanese community in Singapore.
“Back then, there weren’t many academies that targeted the Japanese community. So, my partner and I started our own. We started small and then we had 200, and then 300 [kids] and then we got bigger and bigger and bigger. On top of that, we also saw a sports marketing opportunity and we started approaching Japanese companies to see if they wanted to collaborate.”
Yet, GFA began to expand at an unprecedented rate and Saito knew that it would be impossible for him to juggle both his job and football business. He had to give up one and it was a no brainer for Saito – football was always his first love and he was happy to make it a viable lifelong career.
However, it wasn’t just in Singapore that Saito established a sports business presence. In other parts of Southeast Asia, like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Saito began to engage in other initiatives. It was in Cambodia in particular where Saito decided to establish himself more. In 2012, together with another partner, Saito set up the Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia.
“Cambodia is interesting. We [started] a football academy but the volume of sports marketing is also much. much bigger than in Singapore. When it comes to the economy of a country, Singapore is much bigger. However, but in Cambodia, there is a lot of possibilities and many things we can do [for sports marketing]. Initially, many Japanese companies struggled to make a break through in Cambodia because the ordinary means of marketing like TV or radio commercials do not work well over there.”
Saito capitalized on this issue and proposed to Japanese firms that football can become an excellent platform for their marketing. Saito is a strong advocate that “football can draw the people and get their attention.” It was his steadfast belief and his experience with GFA in Singapore that convinced mega corporations like Toyota and Yamaha to work together with Saito.
“Our first project was with Toyota. To do business with Toyota is very very difficult. You cannot even open the door [to collaborate with them]. They have high expectations and they want results but also quality. Because of this, they only work with entities that they can trust. So, we were one of the lucky ones.”
His first day in Cambodia is something that Saito remembers very fondly.
“I remember my first day in Cambodia. I was supposed to meet our sponsors office after touching down. It was my first time in Cambodia and I don’t know much about the country. So, I was supposed to meet my partner in Cambodia but it happened such that i was to meet with our potential sponsors, Toyota Cambodia, first before meeting him . So, I met them and while I was new to Cambodia, I had a lot of experience with sport marketing in Singapore. I pitched them my idea and I expected a big company like theirs to take a few weeks to respond. But, right away, they were sold and asked me how much. I met my partner and told him that we have a sponsor [for our profit and non-profit initiatives].”
Focusing more on Cambodia for Future Endeavours
In 2019, Saito left his role at GFA and sold off most of his shares. He started a new company in Singapore, Football For Everyone. However, Saito aims to focus more on Cambodia and has recently left Singapore to return to Cambodia. For him, there is a lot of untapped potential in the Cambodian economy as well as in Cambodian football, and he has seen first hand how the country has progressed over the years.
“When I first arrived at Cambodia, it was pitch black at night. Now, there are lighted streets. There are big shopping malls now and five-star hotels. They are dramatically changing every year. Regarding football, ten years ago, not many people watched it. But there were signs that football would boom. When the national team plays, there are 60,000 fans watching the match. It’s amazing because their [stadium] capacity is 50,000. So the national team turnout is good. If the domestic league improves, then there can be a lot of opportunities.
“So I started watching Cambodian football closely. Of course there is poverty in Cambodia. However, if we help the poor through football, we can help people. So my company goes to orphanages and similar places every month to conduct football clinics. So Japanese companies, as part of their CSR efforts, contribute to the community.”
Besides community outreach efforts to help the needy, Saito also does his part to help with the development of budding footballers. Saito is also a Mizuno marketing partner in Cambodia (and Myanmar). Instead of selling Mizuno products, Saito promotes the Mizuno brand by scouting for young talented Cambodian footballers and having them sign as supporters of Mizuno. These players become ambassadors of the Mizuno brand and wear their apparel. Saito hasn’t done too bad in this department as well. Roughly 25 to 30 percent of Cambodian players in the top flight right now wear Mizuno boots. This might be a small fraction to some, but mind you, 10 years ago, practically no one was wearing Mizuno boots in the country.
Cambodia is a footballing nation that is clearly on the rise, and it is only a matter of time before more start to take notice of the C-League and the wealth of young talent in the country.
The Man that Played Football with 40,000 Kids
“You know, until age 32, I played football all the way and football gave me a lot. It taught me a lot and I wanted to give back to society. When I came to Cambodia, I came across so many kids that wanted to play but they had no opportunity to do so. They had no environment, proper training, nor proper pitch to play.
“I don’t plan them to become a professional. No, that is not what I want to do. I want them to give them the opportunity to play and be happy; to share the positive energy that’s in football. I want to continue this. In fact, over the course of the past 9 years, I counted the number of kids I worked with. I have played football with 40,000 Cambodian kids.”
40,000 is certainly an impressive number, and, as mentioned earlier, Saito notes how this was only possible because of the endless support of his Japanese sponsors who provide him with the means to conduct numerous clinics, and with an extraordinary level of dedication from his staff. It is truly remarkable how Saito has made such a positive impact on the lives of literally tens of thousands of less fortunate Cambodian children.
Photo Credits: Tai Saito
More importantly, Saito highlights how the level of Cambodian football among children has significantly increased since he first started conducting such clinics over a decade ago. He cites two reasons for this increase in footballing standards. For one, there have been more grassroots initiatives across the country for football. Also, Cambodian clubs have gradually been focusing more on youth development, with most clubs having established U-14 to U-18 teams.
Despite the increasing football standards, there is still a gap that Cambodian football needs to close with other teams in Southeast Asia.
“Last year, Tampines Rovers played in the AFC Cup against Nagaworld and won by 3 goals, so there still is a gap, but the gap is reducing. Things are changing.”
Besides providing a platform for children to express themselves through football and helping current hot prospects with sponsorship opportunities, Saito also recently saw one of his academy players gain entry into Phnom Penh Crown’s U-15 side, something which he is incredibly proud of.
What’s next for Saito? Besides concentrating more on Soriya and his football clinics in Cambodia, Saito intends to boost his initiatives in Myanmar. As a result (and also due to the ongoing pandemic), however, Saito would be spending significantly less time in Singapore. Whatever the endeavor, and wherever it may take him, I am sure that Saito will leave a positive impact, as he always does.
Featured Image provided by Saito. Photo Credits: Tai Saito
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