In Part 1, I looked at Varghese’s initial beginnings into football and how he managed to earn a move to Singapore to further his education with Temasek Polytechnic. During his first 2 years in Singapore, Varghese had played for Eunos Crescent and Katong in the National Football League (NFL). He had also had a month-long training stint with Geylang International and a year-long one with Balestier Khalsa. And so the story continues…
Training with the Eagles and playing in the NFL with Balestier United and Jungfrau Punggol
By 2019, when Marko left Kelantan, Varghese had already stopped training with the Tigers for some time. It wasn’t because Balestier Khalsa told him to stop training, but external factors like school assignments and the need to pay school fees took precedence. Then, some months into the year, coach Noor Ali returned to Geylang from his Japanese coaching stint, and Varghese had the opportunity to train with the team yet again.
“So, I called Noor Ali and asked if there was any opportunity for me to re-join Geylang for training sessions. I told him that I had not been training for a while and I needed to train. Thankfully, Noor Ali allowed me to [link up] with the Geylang first team.”
Varghese played alongside stalwarts like Darren Teh and Anders Aplin, and he trained for the next 1 and a half years. However, it was centre-back Shahrin Saberin that became really close with Varghese and assumed a similar brother-like role that Sufianto Salleh played for Varghese.
It is worth mentioning that under Noor Ali, Varghese furthered his development as a winger and really became a better player. Varghese believes that Noor Ali really helped him polish up the tactical side of his game and, just as crucially, refine his fundamentals. Just like coach Marko at Balestier and Coach Steven Tan at Temasek Poly, Varghese is grateful for the ability to work alongside another maverick of a coach.
It was during his few months with Geylang that Varghese also joined NFL side Balestier United. At Balestier United, Varghese worked alongside another great coach, Razif Ariff. Razif worked as a position analyst with the Singapore National Team and is currently a Coaches Developer with the Singapore Football Association.
“Coach Razif had a lot of trust in me when I was playing for Balestier United. I played all the games under him. Even today, he still is in regular contact with me. The assistant coach, Azlan, also had a huge influence over me. I used to have this issue where I took each game and training session too seriously. For me, I believed it was important to have a serious and tough mentality and there was no room for joking around. He would come to me and talk to me.”
During a friendly game with Jungfrau Punggol, Varghese impressed the Jungfrau coaching team so much so that they invited him to join the club for the remainder of the season. Jungfrau would be Varghese’s last NFL club in Singapore before India.
Football with Temasek and Making a ton of friends
Besides his stints with SPL teams and playing in the NFL, Varghese also became a regular for the Temasek Poly football team. In fact, Varghese is the first Indian national to represent the Temasek Polytechnic football team. Playing alongside teammates who turned out for the Young Lions or SPL Prime League teams, there was stiff competition for places.
I reached out to coach Steven Tan, who commented on Varghese’s time in Temasek. He said that, “Varghese is very passionate about football, trains very hard and willing to learn. [He needed] to improve on his tactical part of his game and also believe in himself. The first 2 years was a learning curve for him. In his final year, he was able to play some games. Due to the quality of players in the TP team, it was hard for him to break into the 1st eleven [at first]. But he continued to train hard and I told him the end result will come later.”
It did come later, as Varghese preserved and featured in the first team in his last season. During his time with the Temasek football team, Varghese had many memorable moments. It was, in many ways, his entry point into local football. He recalls one such memorable moment with the team.
“We went to Thailand to play like international friendly matches of sorts with Universities over there. That was my first experience travelling with a team. I did not have that experience before. So, all the players were staying together in a five-star hotel, we were like one big family. We stayed there for 4 days only but we played 2 friendly matches. Playing against the Thai teams was a humbling experience.”
Unlike the majority of Indian national students who travel to Temasek Polytechnic, Varghese shares that he was fortunate to have made countless Singaporean friends, many of whom he considers as his close friends.
“I have made many close friends during my time in Singapore. When I mean close, I mean really close. It’s like how I have my friends in my village while growing up. They are that close. [My Singaporean friends] still chat with me everyday.”
One such friend that Varghese holds dearly is Nicholas Wong – yes that’s right, the same Nicholas Wong that coached and mentored Darren Teh. Varghese had come to know of Nicholas during a social game during his early days in Singapore, but it was not until he was working part time at Leeds United Academy that they formally met. Soon, they developed close bonds. Like Steven, Nicholas had helped Varghese a lot. At the time, while he was never trained by Nicholas, Varghese learned many important off the pitch lessons from Nicholas.
“I remember how we always headed to the coffee shop opposite the Merlion Sports City Fields after training at 1pm. We would still be sitting there until 7.30pm, talking about everything football and just football. Whether be it local football or international football. He was the one that really guided me on a lot of things like how to act as a professional.”
The Journey to NEROCA FC Part 1– Trials in India
The journey to NEROCA was not a smooth sailing one for Varghese. He had travelled to India for trials with other clubs, but these efforts yielded little results. During the 2019/2020 mid-season window, a friend of Varghese informed him out of the blue that there was an opportunity to trial in Punjab. It didn’t take much convincing for Varghese, who wanted to give everything to pursue professional footballing career.
After managing to pull some funds together, he went to Punjab to trial with Minerva Punjab FC [now known as RoundGlass Punjab FC], but it was a case of ill-timing because when he was there, the team had been traveling around the country for their away matches. Varghese stayed at the club’s facilities for approximately 20 days, but there was no training since the team wasn’t there during that period. The Punjab club provided everything from accommodation at the club’s facilities to food for Varghese except for the trial. However, there was a silver lining.
“For the I-League, teams don’t always train at their own facilities. It is always on the go. It can take them up to 5 days to reach their next game, then they will train there for a few days and after that, it takes another few days for them to return or go to their next fixture if it’s an away game. So, I was there with some other players. Clubs, by right, will only take 18 players with them for trips but they will often sign upwards of 30 players for a season. So, since they can’t take everyone with them, some of them stayed behind.
“One player that stayed behind was Baldeep Singh. He had represented India at the national team level [12 caps] and even played against Bayern Munich during a friendly fixture some years ago. He even played for the East Bengal team that won Balestier Khalsa in the AFC Cup in 2015 and Baldeep was one of the scorers for Bengal in that 3-0 win. He was sharing his experience with me and it was a very good motivation. Even though I did not get to train, I had the opportunity to meet such players.”
Varghese had some time to engineer a move since he came in December. The I-League window opens at the very start of January and ends sometime in the middle of the month. While Vargehse was hopeful at first, nothing materialized for him just yet.
Realizing that there was next to no chance for him at Minerva, Varghese looked elsewhere for an opportunity. He managed to get in contact with Akbar Nawas, the Singaporean head coach of Chennai City FC, and tried to arrange a trial. However, it was yet again a case of ill-timing for Varghese. Akbar explained to him how they had more or less finalized their squad for that season, and they had just signed their last foreign signing from Switzerland (Chennai City have a partnership with FC Basel). In essence, he had very little chances of securing a contract. However, Akbar did provide Varghese the opportunity to train with the Chennai City team – an opportunity that he took.
3 days later the mid-season window closed and Varghese returned to Singapore, fortunately landing before the period when Covid-19 drastically escalated. One area that Varghese realized he needed to work on was his strength. The I-League is known to be a very physical league, and he wanted to add a few layers of muscle to ensure he wasn’t going to be bullied around if he ever did get the chance to play in India.
The Journey to NEROCA FC Part 2– Signing his first pro contract
In October 2019, NEROCA FC head coach Gift Raikhan gifted Varghese with the opportunity to transform his footballing dreams into reality. How did the offer come to materialize? So, while Varghese was in Punjab, he got into contact with a club official who used to see Varghese training together with the reserves at the Minerva facilities. He provided Raikan’s contact to Varghese, and the winger did not hesitate to get in touch with him. Varghese passed his CV and highlight reels to Raikhan, and it’s safe to say that the NEROCA boss was impressed. I guess, to some extent, it’s not that surprising. Even though Varghese had zero professional experience, he was only 22 and had put in impressive performances in the NFL (getting 3 Man of the Match awards in his last season with Jungfrau Punggol).
Here are some of Varghese’s clips:
One person that was instrumental in Varghese’s transfer to NEROCA was the legendary R. Vengadasalam, the Mouth in the North. The ex-Woodlands Welliington manager really helped Varghese out in administrative matters regarding the transfer, and he is yet another prominent member of the local footballing fraternity that has helped Varghese.
Varghese recounts how hard it was to pursue football seriously given his circumstances. While his other Indian national peers went back home each semester break, Varghese couldn’t afford to skip his trainings. It took him two years before he could return to Kerala and see his family. He told himself that attending weekly Geylang and Balestier training sessions were simply too priceless for him to miss. At the time, he was also faced with a dilemma. Had he chosen to work extra hours; he couldn’t have trained every day. At the same time, he also had to ensure he had sufficient time dedicated for sleep as well as to finish his assignments. During his 3 and a half years in Singapore, it’s safe to say that it was a balancing act for the winger.
“For me, I really had to budget. I only bought what was necessary. I did not need Nike shoes and apparel. I only need proper accommodations and food. Thankfully, Steven Tan also helped with apparel, and he bought me my boots once. I was really fortunate that in my journey thus far to have so many coaches and teammates who helped me along the way. All my coaches in Singapore took good care of me. “
Thing is, Varghese highlights an interesting point. He explains that he isn’t from a poor family. He had his own two-floor house, and their family owned a car. However, he chose to pay off his tuition fees on his own because the exchange rate and difference in cost of living meant it would have been a major sacrifice for his parents to afford his diploma.
“You have to understand, in SGD, my parents probably make somewhere between 900 to 1000 SGD a month. It is enough in India. However, how can I expect my parents to spend thousands? It would cause a lot of instability at home and I don’t want my parents to sacrifice their livelihood.”
Varghese’s story suggests two things: First, perhaps our NFL Divisions just need a tad bit more funding to increase standards of training and coaching. Varghese did not play in the Prime League, nor professionally. He is a clear example that talent exists in these leagues, and we can quite realistically have a promotion and relegation system. Second, Singaporean players can play overseas if they have the right work ethic and make certain sacrifices for their career. Of course, it is easier said than done, but inculcating a professional work ethic in the minds of young players is important.
What’s next for Varghese? Well, featuring in the I-League is his immediate goal, but the sky is the limit for this young winger. Keep a lookout for him in the years to come. And when he does shine, just remember that he really earned it.
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