Asian Football

Raising The Bar: Woodlands Lions Sends Quartet For Croatia Training Stint

While most 16-year-old Singaporeans will be busy burying their faces in books during this June Holiday as they prepare for their upcoming GCE ‘O’ and ‘N’ Level examinations, three promising footballers from Woodlands Lions will be given a golden opportunity to live a European dream.

Woodlands Lions is undoubtedly a team that loves to make statements. Quite frankly, it comes as no surprise, given that The Mouth Of The North, R. Vengadasalam helms the project. Yet, they certainly will make shockwaves with their latest initiative. On May 30th 2022, the club will send three of their players, Tariq Shahid, Heiirish Beckhaam, and Tristan Jonah, to Zagreb Croatia for a two-week training stint. These young prospects will be accompanied by their head coach, former Singapore national team and Jurong FC stalwart Joseph Pragasam, who joined the club earlier this year.

The quartet will be heading to two clubs in Zagreb, NK Dubrava and NK Tvnue, and will be taken care of by Woodlands Wellintong icon, Mirsolav Kuljanac, who turned out for the Rams between 2000 and 2002. Given that the club is not in the Singapore Premier League (yet), it is remarkable that a grassroots club has undertaken such an effort to help elevate the standards of local football. Naturally, I wanted to find out more and managed to do so when the team held a press conference a few days ago.

As one could expect from the players, the players are thrilled about the stint.

“I am really excited about the chance to gain exposure playing in Croatia because it will certainly push me to become better,” shares Beckhaam, who plays right wing for the Lions. “The standards in Europe are higher and we are hungry to learn as much as we can in those two weeks.”

Tariq similarly shares his eagerness to train at NK Dubrava and NK Tvnue and mentions his admiration for Croatian players.

“Based on the famous Croatian players that I know, like Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, I know that they are skillful on the ball and do a lot off the ball too,” explains the towering forward. “That’s what I plan to learn and bring back to Woodlands Lions, where I will hone these skills further.”

For Tristan, the two-week training experience will provide him with the opportunity to improve his physicality.

“I want to adjust to their physicality when I’m there,” explains the central midfielder. “I know that I am taller than your average 16-year-old in Singapore but that’s not the case when compared to most Europeans. If I can understand the strength and physical level required, I know that will only improve my game when I return to Singapore.”

After a long hiatus from competitive football, Joseph Pragasam is looking forward to seeing the boys use this experience to push themselves to the next level and is keen to add some advanced techniques to his arsenal of coaching methods.

“By going on this trip, the boys will know the gulf between the local level and the level of football in Croatia. Obviously, telling them about the standard is one thing but actually experiencing the level of football in Europe gives them a crystal clear picture of what is needed and that already puts them one step ahead of the bulk of players in their age group.”

All three players have aspirations to become professional footballers and ply their trade overseas. This experience is just the first step in helping them understand what is needed to fulfil those ambitions.

Croatia has always been a football powerhouse and many tend to forget that they finished the 2018 World Cup as runners-up to France. That being said, Singapore football’s connection to Croatia is something many ardent fans will be aware of. Teo Hock Seng and S. Thavaneson, who were guests of honours of the event, fondly recalled several Croatian players who graced the league since the S. League’s inception in 1996.

Both of them also believe such initiatives spearheaded by local teams will only benefit the local game.

“I think the encouragement is important for people like Venga who are genuinely working to elevate the status of Singapore football,” mentions Teo, who is the FAS Vice-President and Komoco Executive Chairman. “Singapore needs to have more of these mushrooming teams who are actually putting in the work to raise the bar.”

“It is a great initiative,” echoes FAS Vice-President and Balestier Khalsa Chairman Thavaneson. “The boys are at the right age for them to get such exposure. Of course, some may say that two weeks is a short time but they need to look at how such a move will help their development in the long run.”

Importantly, Venga mentions that this isn’t a one-off gimmick and the club is intending to send players for such training stints regularly because it is critical for young players to gain this exposure.

This training stint is also part of the Woodlands Lions’ bigger ambitions and the club has already applied to participate in the Singapore Premier League for the 2023 campaign and has been working hard to ensure that they have a stable foundation to be built upon.

Tariq, who joined the club 5 years ago, has seen the club grow from strength to strength since the time he started his journey with the team and believes that “Woodlands Lions is a club that is truly different from every other team in Singapore.”

I agree wholeheartedly. After all, with Venga behind the team, it will surely be one of a kind.

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