Do Read Part 1 If you have not already~
For younger and newer fans to the Singapore Premier League, Balestier Central merged with Clementi Khalsa at the end of 2002 to form Balestier Khalsa. Yes, that’s right Balestier Khalsa, existed as two separate teams nearly two decades ago. But enough of a lesson on the past, let’s get back to Jun’s tale.
Almost Breaking Into The First-Team With Balestier Central
In the previous part, Jun was faced with a dilemma. Should he accept the offer to play for Balestier Central’s Prime League team?
After all, he had played at the level before and he had miserably failed, and while he wanted to push himself and improve, he was enjoying his football at the National Football Division One level. If he returned to the Prime League, it was either going to be a redemptive experience or further trauma. After carefully weighing his options, Jun made his decision.
Thankfully, it was the right one. At Balestier Central, Jun truly took his game to the next level. His traumatic experience with Marine Castle United was a thing of the past as he dazzled in the Prime League this time around.
“I keep on telling myself that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes again and it also helped that I knew what to expect after playing at this level during my time with Marine Castle United.”
Back then, household name PN Sivaji, who would go on to manage the Singapore Under-23 team Home United, Burmese side Shan United as well as the Singapore National Team as a caretaker, was in charge of Balestier Central. After some eye-catching performances for the Prime League side, Sivaji called Jun up to the first team in April 2001, four months after first signing for the club.
Jun remembers training alongside Thai international Suree Sukha, who turned out for Balestier in 2001. If that name rings a bell it shouldn’t surprise you. After all, Sukha was one of three Thai footballers to be snapped up by Manchester City in 2007 following Thaksin Shinawatra’s takeover of the club. Till today, Jun feels that he was one of the best players he’s ever shared the pitch with.
Training with the first team clearly had its merits. However, it was difficult for Jun to cope with training given his busy schedule. Besides studying at ITE Dover, Jun was also working part-time as a barman at a banquet to earn extra pocket money. Somehow, though, he made it work.
“Coach Sivaji would call me at night sometimes and I’d be working behind the bar counter. He’d ask if I can attend the following day’s training. Even though I know that I was ending late, I always told him that I can make it. I would make sure I wake up early and head down for training because I knew I can’t miss out on these kinds of chances.”
Why was he working at a banquet? Shouldn’t he have been earning enough while playing for Balestier?
Well, while some things have changed in Singapore football. The issue of low pay has unfortunately existed since Jun’s time and still remains a major problem today. At Marine Castle United, he was given an allowance of $50 a month and more often than not, his pay was delayed. At Balestier Central, he was paid $250 a month – which is similar to what under-23 players are earning today.
However, despite the low pay, the chance to play drove Jun on. The fact that he was making the S.League bench regularly also strengthened his belief that he was on the brink of making it as a professional. In due time, he could have but then…
Serving The Nation – A Transition Point?
The call to serve the nation was sounded and in August 2001, it was Jun’s turn to hang up his football boots and lace-up his combat ones. For a player that believed he was on the cusp of playing for the first team, National Service halted that progress. While some players could gain permission from their superiors to take some time off to attend club training sessions, Jun was not as lucky. While his former teammates were busy training during the weekdays, Jun was busy with his own training – Artillery drills in camp.
However, Jun did feature for Balestier Central one last time at the end of 2001. After his Basic Military training, he received a call from his coaches who asked if he could feature in their last Prime League game of the season. Being the ever-passionate football player that he was, he was not about to let such an opportunity slip up. He begged his Platoon Commanders to play in the match and thankfully since the game fell on a weekend, he was able to feature. And so, he did! Little did he know that it would be the last time that Jun would play at that level.
The following year, PN Sivaji would leave his post at Balestier Khalsa and assume a dual role in the national team set-up where he assumed both national team assistant coach and Under-23 head coach positions. As part of the national U-23 team’s preparations for an upcoming tournament, apparently, Sivaji had actually asked about Jun’s availability. Jun found this out through players from the provisional U-23 squad. However, Jun knew that there was no chance for him to get released. After all, his unit did not even allow him to play for the SAFSA football team.
“I remember always going to the admin office to read the morning newspapers. Then one morning, I remembered seeing an article that announced the players Sivaji had called up for the U-23 team. My name was not there but that made me even more disappointed. After all, all the players’ names were familiar to me and the coach was my own – Sivaji.”
However, Jun told himself that he was going to bounce back from this and push on. He had signed a two-year contract with Balestier in 2001 and only played a season with the club before getting enlisted. Technically, he still had an additional year of contractual obligation and in his mind, Jun felt that he was a footballer. After finishing his service, he believed that he was going to pursue a professional football career. In his mind, it was the obvious next step.
It seemed like the stars aligned in his favour too. A few weeks before his ORD (the end of his full-time service), Jun had been playing with Sunday league teams and it was during one of these games that he caught the eye of Rafi Ali. Impressed with what he saw, Rafi approached Jun and noted down his number. Sometime later, Rafi called Jun and said that he had put in a good word for him with his club’s coach.
“He told me that I can move to Jurong FC once I finished my service and that all that was left was for me to sign on the dotted line.”
However, during this time Jun had a change of heart. The immense desire he felt for pursuing a professional career had faded away.
“I broke the news to him. So, I told him that I decided to stop football but I thanked him for the opportunity.”
Jun does admit that it was really strange that he worked so hard and even during his National Service, it was the knowledge that he was going to be able to play professionally that really kept him going. Yet, at the very end, he had this unexplainable change in heart. Once he left the Army, he looked for a stable job.
Earning His Coaching Badges & Understanding His Love For Asian Football
While he may have stopped playing football, Jun would not leave the scene entirely. 2 years after calling quits on professional football, he returned to the fray, albeit in a different capacity. He had dived into the hospitality industry following his ORD, but the itch to do something football-related was always there. He had to cure it somehow.
Like most retired footballers, he believed that it was natural to transition into coaching as a long-term career. However, unlike most retired professionals who have long careers, Jun did not meet the minimum two-year S.League playing experience that would have allowed him to bypass the preliminary coaching qualifications.
“I love football and after attending the FAS preliminary Coaching Course in 2005, I felt that coaching was the one for me. It allowed me to remain in the scene. Then a year later, I took my AFC ‘C’ license. At the time, I really did believe that coaching was the career for me. However, as time went on, I wanted to remain involved in some way. So, I sort of misunderstood what I really wanted.”
Jun did get the opportunity to coach though, but it was not a local club that presented this opportunity to him. Instead, it was Albirex Niigata (S), who had joined the S.League in 2004. In addition to forming an Albirex satellite team in Singapore, the White Swans had also opened an academy sometime in the mid-2000s. Jun and a friend managed to get the gig, and they’d be the only two Singaporeans in an entirely Japanese-run institution.
You might be wondering. Why Jun? Well to those who don’t know Jun is competent in Japanese. He actually picked up the language from lessons during his secondary school days. He had good reason to learn the language as well. Back then, it wasn’t the English Premier League that captivated him but rather the J.League.
“I dreamt of playing in the J.League and I told myself as a teenager, somewhat naively, maybe it’d be good to learn some Japanese first so that there would be no problem communicating. For four years I learned Japanese and it was really helpful later on for all my trips to Japan and for all the interviews that I held there.”
Unlike most of his peers whose parents had a role when it came to which club to support, Jun’s parents did not watch the sport. As such, he was a neutral fan, and it was one day in 1995 when Jun fell in love with Japanese football. The Umbro Cup was broadcasted on TV, and Jun was amazed to see Japan hold their own against mighty England. While the Blue Samurais would go on to lose, the fact that an Asian team only lost 2-1 to England really piqued Jun’s interest in Japanese football.
“Back then, there was a striker who played – a striker who I still support today. It was Kazuyoshi Miura – better known as King Kazu. Back then, he was already 28 years old.”
Of course, he would eventually meet his idol later down the line but in many ways, that Umbro Cup fixture acted as a gateway for Jun to watch more Asian football. It also gave Jun a lot of hope to see fellow Asian footballers who were of similar physical stature competing at the highest level against the world’s best. In many ways, this explains Junpiter’s Futbol’s direction of experiencing some of the best Asian leagues.
Interestingly, one of the reasons why he chose Dover ITE was because it was near a couple of Japanese schools, including Shibuya Makuhari Senior High School. He had always wanted to get involved with the school’s soccer some time. Then, finally, he mustered up enough courage and walked straight to the Japanese institution, where he requested to see the school’s football coach.
“I did not have a lot of issues communicating with them because I had adequate knowledge of Japanese. So, I went in and I told the coach that I was from Dover ITE and that my school is interested in playing a friendly game with your school. Of course, my school was not aware but the Japanese school was excited by the fact that a local school wanted to play against a Japanese school. They agreed and when I went back to ITE, I told my coach that the Japanese school want to challenge us. I essentially facilitated the match.”
And for those of you curious about the match’s outcome, both teams drew in an exciting 2-2 encounter.
Giving back to Football a different way: Junpiter Futbol
So after leaving Albirex, Jun still felt the need to contribute to the local football scene in some capacity. One thing that he’d lament to his friends over the years was the lack of local coverage of Singaporean and wider Asian sports leagues.
“I grew up reading The New Paper and they do a pretty good job covering Singaporean football but there is only so much that you could read about. I wanted to cover Asian football leagues so that people here can learn. “
Yet, after some time, he realised that instead of complaining about the lack of coverage, he should help address this problem. In 2011, the same year his daughter was born, Junpiter Futbol was launched.
At first, however, Jun had difficulties finding local footballers to interview. Thus, he decided to look to his past and interview a former teammate of his – former Malaysia Cup stalwart Lee Man Hon. An interview with Malek Awab soon followed and then the interviews kept coming in (and as someone who does interviews, this statement is so true).
Besides covering local stories and fixtures, Jun also has an expanded reach across Asia and is, in fact, the first media company from Singapore to gain media rights to cover the J.League. Jun has also travelled extensively to the Middle East and has interviewed a slew of stars. In Southeast Asia, other than Singapore, Indonesia is one other country that Junpiter Futbol has a strong presence in. By interviewing players from these leagues, it is Jun’s hope that the local fraternity can get inspired by the progress made by other Asian football leagues and that Singapore can follow in their footsteps.
The pandemic has unfortunately severely affected Junpiter’s Futbol ability to travel overseas to cover matches. However, that doesn’t mean that Junpiter hasn’t been able to contribute to the local football fraternity.
During Tampines Rovers’s maiden AFC Champions League voyage, Jun helped provide extra coverage for certain matches by hiring a photographer in Uzbekistan. It was a logistic nightmare but despite the challenges, Jun managed to gain a ton of photos – photos that players and fans alike can look at and reminisce about.
Of course, while this might be the end of the article, by no means is it the end of Jun’s journey. Expect more to come moving forward as Junpiter Futbol continues to contribute to the local and broader Asian football community.
Featured Images Credit: Junpiter Futbol.
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