Asian Football

An Alternative Route To Singaporean Professional Football

In a sport that is equally political as it is reliant on skill and determination, we often forget that even in the small market that is Singaporean football, many players take atypical routes to the top of the game, making their rise more remarkable and commendable.    

This can definitely be said for Ryhan Stewart, who at the age of 21 has already amassed 50 career SPL appearances and played every minute last season when available for a Young Lions side that is on the rise. Ryhan, unlike most of his teammates, never attended Singapore’s illustrious Sports School, never played for the powerhouse NFA teams in Singapore’s youth leagues and didn’t receive a single underage national team call up until he was 19 years old. 

Image Credits: Young Lions

The aforementioned might not strike you as massive hurdles, however when you take into account the fact that a large percentage of his compatriots were brought up in the FAS’ youth system, it makes his rise all the more eye-catching and raises questions about Singapore’s youth football paradigm. 

 Ryhan’s combination of power and poise alongside his vocal nature stem from his time overseas in addition to the tumultuous journey he’s had to be within reach of a senior call-up. Having experienced different styles of football from young, Ryhan feels that his time in Europe and the UAE made him a more aggressive player, massively contributing to him earning SPL honours with the most successful tackles last season. 

“Being able to play overseas taught me different styles of play and forced me to adapt my game, especially in Finland. The players were all already 180cm tall at 14-15 years old, so they were physically imposing in addition to being very good technically. It forced me to improve quickly in both aspects to be able to compete.” 

He returned to Singapore at the age of 14, bouncing around different clubs after failing to enrol in the ever-dominant Sports School. His future was uncertain, bouncing around various youth-setups before chancing upon one of Tampines’ Prime League coaches whilst doing individual training ahead of the 2017 season. He may have talked up a big game, securing himself a trial, but his feet and tenacity backed it up on the pitch, going on to sign for them. Things looked like they were on the up for Ryhan when going into the 2018 SPL season he was part of a select group of Prime League and NFA players trialing for a contract with Tampines’ first team in which he beat out players his senior for a deal. He did not make any appearances that season, featuring on the bench for numerous AFC and SPL matches but that wasn’t enough to avoid being released at the end of the season at 18. Ryhan was left with no choice but to play for his school Temasek Polytechnic, and here again his hard work and a bit of luck provided him an opportunity at Warriors after performing well in a friendly against them. Here he thrived, enjoying a breakout season, featuring in a variety of positions for them leading to under-22 national team training call ups culminating in the 2019 SEA games.

Ryhan has never had anything handed to him on the pitch, and plays with a massive chip on his shoulder. It has led to criticism for his aggression on the pitch, with some fans citing a “lack of respect and sportsmanship” in his play. In any professional sport, where tempers run high, there will be instances where people’s emotions may get the better themselves, however Ryhan has a clear understanding of the boundary and clearly shows a desire to win above all, a competitive edge that players need to reach the next level. 

Ryhan spoke on this matter, stating  “I’ve always played with aggression and a desire to win, probably stemming from being a smaller player in my youth days. I had to make up for lack of size somehow, and it’s stuck with me.”

Ryhan expectations for himself and his teammates are high, he demands the best from everyone and is an extremely determined and driven individual. This coincides with his immense leadership qualities that are Troy Deeney-esque, someone who never misses an opportunity to speak his mind, often doing so and stepping on people’s toes in the process. It may strike some as harsh and raise some eyebrows within the dressing room, but his intensity and drive to succeed is infectious and will carry him to heights beyond Singaporean football.

Image Credits: FAS

Another young man with a story differing those around him is 20-year-old Jordan Emaviwe who received national recognition in 2017 when the Straits Times reported on his move to FC Chiasso of Switzerland. At the young age of 16, Jordan was thrust into the national spotlight, drawing comparisons to past Singaporean stars who played in Europe. Now back in Singapore plying his trade with Young Lions (on loan from Balestier Khalsa), the towering 1.93m tall defender and midfielder reflected on his experiences in Switzerland’s youth footballing system.

“It was a higher standard of play, the pace the game was played at was a huge difference but it made me improve massively” he said of the football played in his Switzerland.

Many would assume that his physicality would be his strong suit and something he relied heavily on, however Jordan possesses incredible technical ability and a certain finesse about his game that is hard to find for players his height. From deft touches in the middle of the park to his love for nutmegs, he strays far from the conventions that come with his height. He says he owes this to his time in Switzerland where he really honed his technique, an aspect he hadn’t focused on as much previously, which now provides him with a skillset that many Singaporeans his age don’t possess. 

Jordan, similar to Ryhan, was not a student at Singapore Sports School, nor was he a part of any NFA teams, having been rejected  previous to his stint in Switzerland. That in itself is baffling for Singapore’s elite development programme to have felt he wasn’t good enough, yet he was good enough to secure a contract with a professional team in Switzerland. 

“It was definitely disappointing at the time because it was the ultimate recognition for players at that age, but I didn’t let it affect me negatively. I used it as motivation to get to the next level and I think it worked out quite well for me.”

The unique journey Jordan has undertaken gives up and coming footballers in Singapore a reason to dream. European football has always eluded Singaporeans, with Ikhsan Fandi being the only name to come to mind in the modern era. However, with the likes of Jordan taking the leap overseas during his youth career and being able to learn a different style of football, he has been able to mature as an individual and as a player and has broken down some barriers for Singaporeans in the process. 

Jordan, alongside Ryhan, also credits his success thus far to their parents’ drive and support of their footballing endeavours. Having parents who engaged in sport as well as contributed greatly to their own passion, looking to repay their faith and support and carve out opportunities for themselves whereby their parents would look on with pride.

The two young men are still coming off the back of terrific showings in Singapore’s U23 AFC qualification where they narrowly missed out on qualification to the final tournament in Uzbekistan. National Service may be where they spend the majority of their days, but with their sights firmly set on the 2022 SPL season and the upcoming AFF U23 tournament in Cambodia, they have been working their socks off to improve on their past performances. Their ambitions to further their careers by playing overseas are emblematic of their hunger to improve and test themselves against the best, and hopefully serve as inspiration for the future of Singapore’s youth.

Image Credits: Young Lions and FAS

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