Author Archives: Vikram Jayakumar

About Vikram Jayakumar

Passionate about Football and Manchester United.

Breaking Barriers: A chat with Seut Baraing, one of Cambodia’s finest

Height has been a factor for some, if not many managers, when they select their players. Often, managers want tall, commandeering defenders who can win aerial battles and towering forwards who can easily head in goals. Thus, many shorter footballers often get overlooked because of their height. Take for example Angel Gomes at Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjær chose not to field the attacking midfielder because he wasn’t tall enough and, hence, could be easily bullied by the physical nature of the league.

However, some of the world’s best footballers are by no means the tallest. The late Diego Maradona stood at 1.65m. Alejandro “Papu” Gómez is also 1.65m tall, while Lionel Messi stands at 1.7m. Angel Gomes himself has done relatively well at Portuguese top flight side Boavista, where he is currently on loan at from Lille OSC.

Seut Baraing may be an unfamiliar name to most, but he is one other player that falls into this category of short but immensely talented footballers. Never let his 1.6m height fool you. The right-back has a ton of pace, stamina, and physicality. He has a remarkable ability to run down the flanks to support attacking plays and easily sprints back to fulfill his defensive responsibilities. The 21-year-old is part of a new generation of technically gifted Cambodian footballers, and it is my honour to share his story.

Siem Reap Born and Bred

Seut Baraing was born in Siem Reap and started playing football “properly” when he was at Srah Soang High School. Before that, Baraing developed the love for the beautiful game in the open grounds outside his village temple. Back then, his peers and him could only play football bare foot, and this continued all the way until he was in high school.

However, while Baraing was crazy about football, his family was not (at first).

“Every time I try to go and play football, my family doesn’t let me. 11 years ago, football in Cambodia was not like how [developed] it is now. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. I would go every evening to play football outside the temple grounds and I would come back home late [at night]. They would tell me to focus on my studies instead.”

During the intitial year at Srah Soang High, Baraing could not was not allowed to play football because his mother had informed the school football team coach that she forbade him from playing. Yet a determined Baraing wasn’t going to let his mother stand in the way of his dreams. A year later, his passion for the game was overwhelming and he approached the football coach, who was impressed by his desire and got him a spot on the team.

In 2009, Baraing would go on to represent his school in the Siem Reap provincial tournament, which Srah Soang High finished as runners-up. Despite narrowly losing in the final, their second placed finish meant that they were eligible to represent Sieam Reap alongside the champion school in the Government Cup that was held at Phnom Penh. Up till that point, Baraing had been playing barefoot, but the government cup required the footballers to play with boots.

“They took all the first and second placed teams from each province to play in the Government Cup. When we went to Phnom Penh was when we started to wear boots. It was the first-time wearing boots for me. It was funny because all of us were wearing boots for the first time and I was one of the few players who could really kick far with the boots on. We were not used to it.”

The Phnom Penh Crown Adventure

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

It was about this time when Phnom Penh Crown started to invest their resources in building an academy for footballers. There wasn’t much done by professional clubs for internal youth development before this, and the club were trailblazers in this regard. The club had two trials – one trial in each province to shortlist promising candidates and another one for shortlisted candidates at Phnom Penh to trim the squad to form a U-13 team.

“The trials happened in 2010. I was the only one from Siem Reap who made it to the second round of trials in Phnom Penh. I remember them calling all the schools in Siem Reap to send footballers for the trial. A few months later, I went to the second trial at Phnom Penh and I managed to impress enough to get selected for the Phnom Penh U-13 team.”

While it was a joyous occasion for Baraing, it was somewhat bitter sweet because he had to reside to Phnom Penh alone and stay far away from his family. Unlike most of his new teammates, he had been the only one from Siem Reap, which made him feel a tad bit isolated at first. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before he became well acquainted with his peers. Life at Phnom Penh was really good for Baraing, as the club took care of his accommodations, food, and even sent him to one of the best international schools in the city.

A few months after joining the academy, along with 10 of his teammates, Baraing came to Singapore to participate in the Soccer Sixes 2012 tournament held by the Singapore Cricket Club. It was the first time Baraing had left the country, and he had always dreamt of flying.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

“Before Phnom Penh Crown, I never thought that I could fly. I have always dreamed of flying and getting on an airplane but I didn’t think it was possible. When I went to the academy, this dream then became [a reality]. We spent 5 days in Singapore and we played against a team from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Singapore was the first country I traveled to outside of Cambodia and I love it so much. Until now, I love Singapore. I even came here for holiday a few years ago.”

Returning to Cambodia, Baraing was called up to represent the Cambodian National Under-13 team in a tournament in Malaysia. For the next few years, international travel would be a common theme for the footballer.

“Because [I wanted to pursue] my footballing dreams, I [was forced to] stay far from my family. Phnom Penh Crown built the first academy in Cambodia with the aim of challenging other countries and not just being the best in Cambodia. We have gone to Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, and so many other countries to improve the standard of football. It wasn’t just the academy but the national team as well. I rose up the ranks of the various youth levels and also had the chance to play at a lot of places as well.

“Before I left for Phnom Penh Crown, my father asked me if I was serious abut playing football. He told me to go there and not to just have fun and return. He said I needed to go all out and become successful. I told him that I really wanted to go and show him that I can do it.”

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

And Baraing did show his father. It was under head coach Sam Schweingruber in 2016 that Baraing had his big break. Schweingruber wanted to blood in more academy prospects into the team and called Baraing up for first team training in 2015. While he had impressed during training, the Cambodian footballing authorities would not allow Phnom Penh Crown to field a 15-year-old Baraing because they felt he was too young and therefore needed protection.

“So, I could only train with the first team but I cannot play for the league. I was too young according to them. I remembered the rule where they did not allow very young players. In 2016, when I was 17 years old, I managed to make my first team debut.”

Baraing would go onto cement his position in the Phnom Penh Crown team, and Anthony Aymard mentioned how he was blown away by his technical ability.

Photo Credits: Phnom Penh Crown FC

In 2017, then Cambodian National Team manager, Lee Tae Hoon, handed Baraing his debut for the Cambodian National Team. His first start came against a titan of Asian football, Saudi Arabia. Even though Cambodia lost against Saudi Arabia, it was a day to remember for the left-back. Lee would soon be replaced by Leonardo Vitorino, who continued to call up Baraing for the national team. Under the Brazilian, Baraing faced Jordan and India. Featuring regularly in the national team is one goal that the left-back has in mind, and he is continuously looking for ways to better himself so that he can cement his position.

Coping with His Height

As I mentioned in the introduction, I wanted to know how Baraing adapted to his lack of height while he plays.

“I cannot stay close with taller attackers when the opponents play the long ball. I cannot jump and challenge for the ball with them because of their height. So, I learned to play more intelligently. I wait for them to make their first touch and then the second touch I’ll come in to take the ball from them and I go. A few days a week, I always do extra training to work on my other areas. It is very important to look for the overlap and play the ball when. I also work a lot on my speed so I work a lot on my fitness.”

Baraing grew up idolizing Marcelo, and he always tried to analyze the way the Brazilian moved. The Cambodian International is an aggressive player who is never afraid of making challenges. He works on the other areas of his game and, in some ways, his relative shortness has also made him a more intelligent footballer.

Returning Home with Angkor Tigers and Future Aspirations

After 4 years with Phnom Penh Crown, Baraing made a surprise move to Angkor Tigers for a season-long loan. Since leaving home in 2010 to join the Phnom Penh academy, Baraing had never spent an extended period of time with his family and felt like he needed to do so after so long. Thankfully, both clubs agreed on terms for a season-long loan but family was not the only factor that convinced Baraing to link up with Angkor Tigers.

Photo Credits: Angkor Tiger FC

Besides having the desire to play a team from his native Siem Reap, it was the close friendship he shared with head coach Oriol Mohedano at Phnom Penh Crown that spurred him to agree with the deal. Oriol took over as Angkor Tigers head coach after leaving Phnom Penh Crown and has remained there since 2017.

“Every year when I come to Siem Reap, coach Oriol would ask me when I will come and play for the Tigers. He would always ask me when I will play for the team in my province. I think it is nice that I was born in Siem Reap and I can play for a team in Siem Reap. That being said, whatever I had came from Phnom Penh Crown. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In his short but eventful career thus far, Baraing has already fulfilled most of his goals but one still remains elusive.

“I have three dreams and two I have already fulfilled. First, I want to play for Phnom Penh Crown. Second, I wanted to play for the national team. Third, I want to play overseas. The third dream is not yet fulfilled but every day I work hard and try my best to fulfil the last one.”

I wanted to share Baraing’s story to partly shed more light on football in Cambodia but also highlight that shorter footballers need not be overlooked because of their height. Of course, some managers would want to play a team of tall imposing footballers because it suits their system better. However, I think it is important for members of the football fraternity to be open to any possibility.

One thing is for certain though, expect to see some moments of magic from Baraing this upcoming season. Who knows, he might just secure a move overseas.

Featured Image credits: Angkor Tigers FC

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Revisiting The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme

I grew up in an era when the Singapore National Team featured several naturalized players. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme was introduced in 1993 by the Table Tennis Association, and the Football Association of Singapore adopted it in 2000. Itimi Dickson, Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Qiu Li, Mirko Grabovac, Egmar Gonçalves, and Mustafić Fahrudin are some foreign-born players that gained citizenship through the scheme and went on to represent the Lions during the 2000s and early 2010s.

This period was also coincidentally when the Singapore National Team did exceptionally well, winning 3 AFF Suzuki Cups between 2004 and 2012. Many would argue that the foreign players did improve the overall calibre of the national team during this period, especially since Singapore had only won one international tournament – the Tiger Cup in 1998.

Yet, it wasn’t just the foreign-born players that were exceptional. Singapore boasted many exceptional local-born players during this period as well. Noh Alam Shah, Indra Sahdan, Aide Iskandar, S. Subramani, Noh Rahman, Sharil Ishak, Khairul Amri, and Baihakki Khaizan made important contributions during this period as well. In that sense, naturalized players complimented the existing crop of local footballers at the time, instead of simply carrying the entire team to glory.

However, the FAS stopped utilizing the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme a long time ago, and players like Aleksandar Đurić had to apply for citizenship in their private capacity. In recent years, there have been calls for the scheme to be reintroduced for certain players, but nothing has materialized. It raises an interesting question nonetheless – should it be reintroduced? Why? Or, why not?

In 2020, the FAS did respond to queries over the Foreign Talent Scheme. A spokesperson mentioned that:

“The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) believes that the development of a sustainable pipeline of quality local players is vital towards producing a successful National Team as well as the long term growth of Singapore football. This is evident in our investments in the ramped up efforts to scout for young talent, provide more playing opportunities as well as enhance the pathways and structure for the development of local youth players, as we assess and prepare those who are capable to represent Singapore in senior levels.

“We remain open to the possibility of integrating naturalised players into the National Teams to achieve the mid-to-long term goals of the FAS. Apart from the mandatory requirement for such players to have lived here continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18, they should also demonstrate their capability and capacity to complement our local players, raise the level of the competitive football environment and show they are fully committed to be citizens of Singapore, its culture and way of life.”

In theory, the FAS response suggests that the organization is open to the idea of naturalizing exceptional players. Yet, why have they failed to do so? The past decade has seen 2 notable and deserving players miss out on naturalization. Sirina Camara and Jordan Webb had fulfilled the mandatory 5-year residency rule implemented by FIFA, but Singaporean citizenship was not offered to either player. Webb spent 10 years in Singapore and in 2017, managed to get his Permanent Residency here. Unfortunately, Webb is no longer based in Singapore as he recently returned to Canada after the 2020 season concluded. On the other hand, Camara left for France in 2018 after 7 years here. Turning down better offers overseas, both players were keen on representing Singapore and made Singapore their home.

Like Webb, Song Ui-yong has received his Permanent Residency, and I sincerely hope that he gains his Singapore citizenship soon. The South Korean came to Home United in 2012 and has remained at the club even after they became privatized in 2020.

So why is it taking so long? Or why did past earmarked players not received citizenship? The short answer is – we don’t know. That being said, here are two possible reasons why.

Putting Singaporean Players First?

Naturalized players who came through the scheme undoubtedly improved the calibre of the team at least for a while. However, their inclusion meant limited spaces for local footballers who were trying hard to make their national team debut or add to their senior caps.

The inclusion of many naturalized players poses a few challenges. For one, it limits the opportunities for Singaporean players who need national team caps to move to other Southeast Asian clubs. Of course, it also means that Singaporean players need to work harder to break into the national team, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for most naturalized players and the same group of local players to be chosen by the national team manager during the 2000s and early 2010s. This means that the chance to play overseas, which is tied to national caps, was off the cards for the bulk of local footballers.

Playing overseas undoubtedly raises the standard of a player and thus, having more Singaporeans have stints abroad would only help improve the quality of the national pool.

National Service?

While younger naturalized footballers in the past did not have to serve national service, I’m not too sure if the government would allow such an exception for future naturalized players that are at an age still eligible for NS, especially after the Ben Davies National Service defaulting saga in 2019.

One can safely assume that simply naturalizing players, who are aged between 17 and 25, is out of the equation. As such, giving Singapore citizenship to talented foreign players would surely stir controversy after the fuss kicked up by the government following Ben Davies’ decision to default on NS.

Naturalizing players based on Heritage – Whatever happened to Perry Ng and Luke O’Nien?

This is an interesting one. Other countries in the region have spent a fair bit of their resources to scout for players in Europe that have heritage or ancestry. Malaysia has several players like La’Vere Corbin-Ong, Matthew Davies, and Darren Lok. Likewise, the Philippines have a host of players who were born overseas. The most famous one is arguably Neil Etheridge, currently on loan at Birmingham City from Cardiff City. Cambodia has French-born players like Thierry Bin and Boris Kok. Indonesia has many Dutch-born players with Indonesian heritage with Stefano Lilipaly being one such individual.

What about Singapore then? I think it is worth investing some time to scout for more players that have Singaporean heritage with a view to naturalize them. There were talks to naturalize Luke O’Nien, who is at Sunderland AFC, and Perry Ng, who recently moved to Cardiff City, but nothing materialized. Having O’Nien and Ng in the Singapore national football team would only improve the quality of the team and also offer Singaporean internationals the chance to play alongside regulars in the English Football League.

Singapore did dabble with this idea in the past with Danish footballer Benjamin Kristoffersen Lee, whose father was Singaporean, but later gave it up for Danish nationality. Lee played in the lower divisions in Denmark before playing with the Young Lions in the 2012 season. He was not naturalized, but it demonstrated that the FAS has encountered players with Singaporean heritage previously. Yet it still begs the question as to why it is not something that the FAS has given more serious consideration.

Final Thoughts for Now

I think the core focus of the FAS should be improving youth development internally. Producing world-class footballers from within should be the ultimate goal. Yet, at the same time, I think naturalization would complement efforts to improve the overall quality of the national team. The FAS should seriously consider scouting for players with Singaporean heritage and reintroducing the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme where they expedite the citizenship process of worthy candidates who have made Singapore their home. Of course, the question of granting citizenship is a touchy subject. Yet, there are obvious merits regarding the naturalization of some really talented players. The issue is how the FAS ensures that internal youth development doesn’t become secondary to blooding in more naturalized players. If that happens, Singapore will never move forward as a footballing nation.

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Where do I begin with the Young Lions? The club was formed in 2003 to provide some of the most talented Under-23 footballers with regular professional footballing experience. Besides having the chance to play together on a regular basis and maintaining team cohesion, the Young Lions project provided these players the opportunity to play against senior footballers and national team stalwarts. It was created with the primary goal of helping the national Under-23 team perform well in regional international tournaments like the SEA Games. However, the project has largely been a failure.

Jose Raymond recently wrote an article titled OPINION: Time to scrap the Young Lions, and truth be told, he makes excellent points. The Young Lions have not performed well in the SEA Games. That is in fact an understatement – their showings have been significantly poor. The national under-23 team “has not made the finals of the SEA Games final at all, and have been knocked out at the group stages in 2003, 2005, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

I agree mostly with Mr. Raymond, but his article also got me thinking about ways we can salvage the current Young Lions side. Let’s be honest, it seems like that the Young Lions project would most likely continue. The FAS has invested too much in the project to let it go to waste. Instead of scrapping it, how then do we save this sinking ship? How do we materialize the FAS’s vision of the Young Lions becoming a platform for developing elite footballers for Singapore?

We first need to find out what issues exist, and there are two glaring problems that have plagued the club for a long time now – finding the perfect head coach for the club and improving the overall quality of youth players in Singapore. I think improving the quality of youth players in Singapore merits a separate article altogether. The Young Lions have not really had a brilliant coach that specializes in youth development and who also is really familiar with Singaporean football. For some reason, I couldn’t find a complete list of coaches who helmed the project. So I did a bit of archival research work. These are some of the Young Lions coaches:

List of Some Young Lions Coaches
No.Coach Years
1P N Sivaji2003
2Kim Poulsen2004
3Fandi Ahmad2005-2006
4V. Sundramoorthy2007-2010
5Robin Chitrakar2011-2012
6Aide Iskandar 2013-15
7Jürgen Raab2015
8Richard Tardy2016 (caretaker)
9Patrick Hesse2016-2017
10V. Selvaraj2017
11Richard Tardy2017 (caretaker)
12Vincent Subramaniam2017
13Fandi Ahmad2018-2019
14Nazir Nasir2020 – present
If there is any inaccurate information – do let me know

That being said, out of the lot, Fandi Ahmad and Kim Poulsen are arguably the most successful. Under Poulsen and then Fandi, the club finished 3rd in the 2004 and 2006 seasons respectively. These 3rd-place finishes are their highest ever finish to date. Other managers have been less successful, and, more often than not, the Young Lions find themselves at the bottom of the league. So, who would be the right candidate?

Gavin Lee could be a good fit for the Young Lions given his ability to bring the best out of youth players at Tampines Rovers. His youth-centric policy has turned Tampines Rovers into the Singaporean Ajax of sorts. However, just like Ajax, Gavin’s Tampines side has done relatively well because he can successfully blood in exciting prospects around more senior heads. Yet, Gavin has to be given due credit because he believes in developing young players into first-team regulars.

Amirul Adli, Joel Chew, Shah Syahiran, Ryaan Sanizal, and Syahrul Sazali have become significantly better players under his charge. It would be interesting to see the impact he would have on Iman Hakim and Marc Ryan Tan, who are both real wonderkids, this upcoming season. Boris Kopitović and Taufik Suparno are the only senior strikers at Tampines, and Marc would indeed find opportunities aplenty. He featured nine times for Young Lions in the brief 2020 campaign but never played a full 90 minutes before. His two starts (where he was hauled off midway through the second half) and seven substitute appearances add up to 252 minutes of professional play. Likewise, Iman Hakim has been stellar for Albirex, and under Gavin’s tutelage, he is sure to become even better. In any case, while a move to Young Lions might prove to be an exciting project worth undertaking, it would be a step down for Gavin. The man is destined for bigger projects outside of Singapore, and it is only a matter of time before we see him manage in bigger leagues overseas.

One name pops to mind – Lee Lim Saeng. The former Home United head coach is a revered figure in the local footballing landscape. He won the Singapore Cup with the Protectors and guided them to two runner-up positions during his 4-year spell with the club. The Korean has gone on to achieve spectacular feats since leaving Singapore’s shores. After leaving Home United in 2014, Lee went on to the Chinese Super League where he held head or assistant coaching positions at Shenzhen FC, Yanbian Funde, and Tianjin Teda between 2013 and 2018. Between 2018 and 2019, Lee was appointed as the Korean FA (KFA) technical director for the national Under-20 team. Suwon Samsung Bluewings swooped in for Lee in 2019, and he won the Korean FA Cup with them. He departed Suwon in 2020 and is currently engaging in an ad-hoc consultant role with the Korean FA.

The obvious question would then be why would someone like Lee be interested in the Young Lions project. That is an excellent question to ask. Given his current role as KFA consultant, it would appear that Lee is interested in the prospect of national team management. The Young Lions job would traditionally entail managing the national under-23 side for international fixtures and competitions. It would be interesting if Lee took up the Young Lions job and the national under-23 team position. Many local players that have had a chance to work under Lee know the impact he has on a team and how he can transform a player.

Some fans might be doubtful as to whether a new coach might help or not. Instead, they might argue that scrapping the Young Lions is the way forward in ensuring that each club is incentivised to train its youth players. Here’s the thing though, do each club truly have the facilities for youth development? I don’t believe so. Furthermore, there isn’t any club that is ready to join or return to the Singapore Premier League. While there are rumours that Warriors FC might rejoin this campaign, nothing has materialised thus far. There have been even talks that Albirex Niigata might have to sit out because of their inability to fill up their squad with players. If no team rejoins and Albirex pulls out, there will be only eight teams remaining in the league (7 if Brunei chooses to pull out). In such a scenario, perhaps it is impractical to scrap the Young Lions.

Nevertheless, the FAS should bring Lee into their set up – preferably as the Young Lions and National U-23 Head coach. The FAS needs to consistently update and improve their plans to develop Singapore football. With Lee’s current role in the KFA, his experience coaching in top-flight football across East Asia, and his familiarity with Singapore, he would become an important asset. I say give someone like Lee 3 years at Young Lions. Time is a crucial factor because it allows Lee to implement the changes he wishes to make. At the end of the three years, if nothing significant changes, then I guess the Young Lions should be permanently ended. Let’s give the project one last opportunity to yield some results.

Featured Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess whether the current Under-23 ruling for local Singapore Premier League teams has indeed yielded substantial merits.

The Under-23 rule was first implemented in 2018 when the S.League was rebranded into the SPL. Two new and major rules were implemented that year. Firstly, each team could register no more than 6 players over the age of 30 in the squad. Secondly, and more importantly, each team had to sign a minimum of 6 under-23 players and start 3 of them in the first eleven for every fixture. That year also marked the end of the Prime League [the U-23 league]. Therefore, the U-23 ruling was intended to ensure that younger players had a chance to play for first-team football and develop their game.

This new rule was not some random effort by the FAS to shake up the league, but an initiative to tackle the ineffective youth system that plagued Singaporean football. In many regards, it was seen as an immediate response to the abysmal displays by the Singapore U-15, U-17, and U-22 teams in 2017. I remember how the National Under-15 team got thumped by Japan 11-0, and changes were definitely required. Yet, I don’t know if the solution to youth development lies in the new Under-23 rule. Even though the ruling has yielded some merits, they pale in comparison to the disadvantages it brings.

There have been merits to the implementation of the rule for sure. For one, we have seen the emergence of real hot prospects due to the U-23 rule that we may not have seen had it not been implemented. Saifullah Akbar, Arshad Shamim (both Lion City Sailors), Farhan Zulkifl (Hougang United), Shah Shahiran (Tampines Rovers), and Harith Kanadi (Geylang International) are examples of some of the hot prospects that have featured regularly.

Project 2034 can be a truly realistic goal for Singapore if there are changes to the current youth footballing set-up. The U-23 rule could be seen to help with this goal, since it would equip the youth footballers today who would probably become the core of the national team in 13 years. Still, I don’t think it is practical making it mandatory that three U-23 players start each fixture.

While many young stalwarts have shown that they can hold their own against the senior players, not every U-23 player is ready for weekly senior team football. The U-23 rule essentially rushes players into a bigger stage. Not every youth player is Khairin Nadim or Iman Hakim, and often players bloom later on in their careers. The return of the Prime League would help in this regard, or perhaps integration of U-23 teams into the National Football League Divisions is the solution so that younger players can play against more physical and older footballers.

The current U-23 measures are also rather impractical. For example, the under-23 ruling ridiculously requires that at least 3 players below the age of 23 be fielded in the first-half. The rules state that “if any Under-23 Player is substituted in the first half of the match, such player shall be replaced by another Under-23 Player, except in the case of an Under-23 player who is ordered off the field of play in the first half.” This particular rule gained attention during the 2020 Season restart, when Tanjong Pagar got penalized for their match against Geylang International when Syabil Hisham, a U-23 player, suffered an injury and was replaced by thirty-year-old Brazilian forward Luiz Junior in the 45th minute of the first half. Geylang had won the match 1-0, but the infringement by Tanjong Pagar meant that the Eagles were awarded a 3-0 victory instead. Like I said earlier, the rule makes little sense.

Most importantly, the U-23 rule forces senior players to prematurely end their careers. Many SPL teams sign more than the minimum 6 players, since they need to start 3 each match and to ensure that there are enough players were there to be any injuries. With 4 foreign players probably starting each game and three U-23 players, only 4 local players above the age of 23 are fielded. Besides limited opportunities to play, there are so few spots on teams because clubs stack their teams with Under-23 players. A number of professional footballers are currently unable to find a club largely because of the ruling. Some high-profile names include Ignatius Ang, R Aaravin, Zulkifli Hashim, Suria Prakash, Yeo Hao Ngee, and Zulfadhmi Suzliman are just a few of those experienced players without a club at the moment largely because of the U-23 rule. It is also worrying because clubs may simply release their current under-23 players when they reach 24, which would make the rule a significant hinderance to Singapore football’s development down the line.

So, what then? Do we remove the Under-23 rule? I don’t think scrapping it entirely is the best move forward, but instead of 3 Under-23 players starting each match, having only 1 Under-23 player makes sense. Ensuring that a minimum number of Under-23 players are registered for the senior-team is important, but keeping 4 players instead of 6 makes more sense if only one player needs to start. The FAS needs to overhaul its current COE League and create a better system to tackle the issue of declining youth standards. If there is one department that the FAS needs to invest in it, it is certainly in youth coaching and youth training facilities for clubs. Where can the FAS obtain this money? A number of sources are available, but the most practical one would probably be the Tote Board.

The FAS nonetheless should be commended for trying something new. They have the right intention with the implementation of the U-23 rule. I do not think attacking them for it is fair. Still, it is important that stakeholders provide constructive criticism. For football in Singapore to grow, all stakeholders – the fans, the clubs, the players, the FAS, the media, and the sponsors – must come together and help the sport grow collectively. As fans, we should offer constructive criticism and offer support wherever we can. Hopefully, we see some changes made to the U-23 rule soon.

This is probably the start of a number of posts I aim to write to address certain issues that are setting football in Singapore back. Stay tuned for more in the upcoming weeks.

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike most Cambodian internationals, Thierry, while ethnically Khmer, was born in France and even represented the French U-16 team. Don’t let that misguide you, though, Thierry is a patriotic Cambodian and is proud to don the national team jersey every single time. For those of you unfamiliar with Thierry, he plays as a defensive midfielder and he is one of the best Southeast Asian DMs today. I have always wanted to know more about Thierry, and I had the privilege to talk to him a few weeks ago. This is his story.

Humble Beginnings

Thierry was born in Villepinte, which is a commune located in the north-east suburbs of Paris, to Cambodian parents. Thierry’s parents had fled Cambodia during the 1970s just before Pol Pot took control of the state. However, while he was born a French citizen, Thierry’s heart always belonged to Cambodia. He was brought up in a traditional Cambodian household, learning Khmer, eating Cambodian cuisine, and celebrating traditional Cambodian holidays.

Nevertheless, it was in France where Thierry developed his passion for the beautiful game. Like many of us, Theirry grew up with football, and he often played it with his friends. Ever since he was young, he had always been an ardent Manchester United fan (good man) and he idolized David Beckham. While he may have played football casually before he reached his teenage years, that was about to change as he became a teen. At age 14, Thierry signed with the academy of renowned French club RC Strasbourg [who now play in Ligue 1]. It was during his time at the academy when Thierry honed his craft as a footballer, and the experience motivated him to try and become a professional player.

Thierry left the Strasbourg Academy and sought for a professional career elsewhere in France. However, the dream to play at the highest level in France failed to materialize, and Thierry played in the lower divisions in France, turning out for reputable teams like FC Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and FCM Aubervilliers. However, Thierry wanted more – to become a professional player had been his dream for years, and he knew he would look back with regret if he never tried his hardest to become one.

In 2012, Thierry, motivated by his passion to play football professionally without having to work part-time, decided to move to Cambodia to carve out a professional career for himself. It was only the second time Thierry had been in Cambodia (he had been in Cambodia in 2007 with his family). Thierry went to Cambodia as part of a team of foreign players with Cambodian ancestry and heritage. This team went for trials, and a few players managed to earn contracts with Cambodian clubs. Thierry was one such player, and Phnom Penh Crown came in for the defensive midfield general. It would mark the start of a 4-year association with the club.

Living the Dream with Phnom Penh Crown FC , Misfortune with Krabi FC & Almost Playing in Singapore

The transition from football in France to Cambodia was an interesting one for Thierry.

“The environment and the infrastructure were [completely different]. However, I know I didn’t expect the conditions in Cambodia to be the same in France. I wasn’t sad and or anything. I was doing my best to enjoy my work. The only thing I [sort of] faced a challenge with, is the weather. Even now, it is very hot. For me, I like the cold weather. So, when I came here, it was very hot for me at first and it didn’t help that matches were played at 3pm. So, it was very difficult. Now thankfully, few teams have flood lights so matches can be played at 6pm.”

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

During his 4-year stint with Phnom Penh Crown, Thierry would go on to win the C-League title on two occasions. It was also during his time at Phnom Penh when Thierry met his wife in 2013. In 2016, Thierry would end his stint with Phnom Penh on what could be best described as not in the best of terms. It is something that he still is unhappy about – the manner in which he departed the club. Thailand would be his next destination, with Krabi FC his new team [then playing in the 2016 Thai Division 1 League]. A Brazilian coach at Phnom Penh helped Thierry get into contact with Krabi, and the Thai outfit signed him up on a three-year deal.

“Football in Thailand was good. They have good pitches and you’re surrounded by good players. I loved the football there.”

However, that spell would end sooner than expected, as after 6 months, the Thai club replaced their head coach. Unfortunately, Thierry wasn’t in the new coach’s plans, and he would return to Cambodia via a loan to Électricité du Cambodge FC for a few months.

Interestingly, before the move to Krabi transpired, Thierry had an offer from a Singaporean club in 2016. Who was this club? Let the man tell you himself:

“I almost signed for Tampines Rovers. I did not sign with them because I was a big fan of football in Thailand and I really wanted to play there instead.”

I won’t lie. When Thierry revealed this to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was also wondering about what could have been. Surely, it would have been a real coup for the Stags to sign a player of Thierry’s quality.

When asked about whether that was a possibility in the distant future, he had this to say:

“I’m interested to play anywhere so long as I am happy and comfortable with it.”

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

Raising his Game to the Next Level – Stints with Terengganu, Sukhothai & Perak

Fortunately, Thierry found an escape from his ordeal with Krabi, as Terengganu FC came knocking on his door. Playing for Terengganu is something that Thierry looks back with fond memories.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The experience in Malaysia was very very good. I really enjoyed my football and the life I lived there. I really admired the players, the staff, the coaches, and the fans. Everything was very good. One moment that I remember is when I played in the Malaysia Cup with Terengganu in 2018. My daughter was also born in Terengganu in 2019 so it has a special place in my heart.”

After a 2-year spell with the Turtles, an offer from Thailand came beckoning again in 2020. This time, Thai league 1 side Sukothai came in with an offer. Unfortunately, his time in Thailand would be marred with yet another issue. Thierry mutually terminated his contract with the club after 3 months into his one-year deal with them. An issue developed between his agent and the coaches which resulted in his decision to leave the country.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Thierry had different offers on the table, but after a brilliant spell with Terengganu, he had his heart set on a return to Malaysia. This time, Perak became his new home. However, Thierry couldn’t feature much for the Bos Gaurus because the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“It was very difficult. Being home for 3 months with no training; no football. I was with my family thankfully because I had friends [other teammates] who had no family around them like I did.”

However, Thierry’s fine performances at defensive midfield helped Perak finish 4th in the Malaysia Super League. His impressive performances did not go unnoticed, and a slew of clubs came in with offers for the Cambodian talisman. However, Thierry decided to return to Cambodia instead, signing for Visakha FC.

The Current Visakha Project

To those unfamiliar with Cambodian football, Visakha FC are a relatively new club that have made some serious strides in becoming a real force to contend with. The club was formed in 2016, and in 2020, they won their first accolade, the Hun Sen Cup [think of it as the Cambodian F.A. Cup]. The club have some serious financial backing and through their injections, are trying to revolutionize Cambodian football. Some of the stalwarts playing alongside Thierry this season include Afghan international and former FC St. Pauli II player Mustafa Zazai and Cambodian international and ex-PKNP forward Keo Sokpheng.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Another reason why Thierry wanted to come back was because Visakha offered him a multi-year contract. Besides the prospect of being part of the Visakha project in the long-run and helping it grow, Thierry also wanted the job security. At 29, Thierry is still far away from retirement, but he is already thinking ahead and looking at post-playing possibilities.

“If I go abroad to play, I always only sign a one-year contract and I need that stability now. It is sort of a gamble. I chose Visakha because they are the best club in Cambodia right now – they are the best club in terms of team, management, and infrastructure. Really, everything is the best.”

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

Besides his accolades at the club level, Thierry is also an accomplished international footballer for Cambodia. Once upon a time, however, Thierry was on track to represent France. He had played for the French Under-16 team in the past. While opportunities to represent France at the youth level became limited due to huge number of talented French players, his youth caps illustrate the quality that Thierry brings to the table.

Fast forward a few years, while with Phnom Penh, Thierry got called up to the Cambodian Under-23 team in 2013. While it was proud achievement for Thierry, his dream was still to represent the national senior team one day. He didn’t have to wait for long because in 2014, Thierry’s dream materialized into reality.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The best day ever. I enjoyed every [national team] training before that match. It was a dream for me to represent my country. I was lucky to get the chance to be the captain of the team. It was a big honour for me. I am very proud because I worked very hard for this, and it is sort of like a reward.”

The biggest moment of his footballing career came not long after when Thierry captained Cambodia against the footballing titans of Asia themselves, the Japanese national team in 2015. Playing against Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo. It will forever be a precious memory for Thierry. That same year, Thierry also scored his first international goal against Macau. He had been plagued with injuries in 2014, and that goal (especially at home in front of 60,000 passionate Cambodian fans) was another magical moment he recalls. Thierry does believe that the Cambodian national team has greatly progressed since his debut in 2014, but he notes how there is room for much more improvement.

“I wish that more Cambodian footballers move abroad and step out of their comfort zone. I do feel that the C-League is improving, but footballers need to go overseas and test themselves to become better. Going overseas will really challenge you. You need to take that risk.”

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

“I think there are many barriers. The Language, the food, and the distance from the family are some reasons why Cambodians don’t try to go overseas. To young Cambodian players, I would tell them to sacrifice everything for their own development. They need to make sure that they work hard and eat properly. They need to train extra and really push themselves. The coach can’t always spoon feed you or keep an eye on you. Right now, some players think after reaching the national team, they don’t have to push anymore.”

Thierry has also overcome many personal struggles in his journey thus far. Often only showcasing the positive things that have happened, many do not know how much he struggled with his injuries and finding clubs to play for.

“When I was at Phnom Penh Crown, I was out of contract for 3 months and I was really stressed about finding a team. Luckily, I managed to find one. I do think that had I stayed with Phnom Penh Crown, I might have not left Cambodia. I struggled a lot for 3 months. I was lucky to have my wife and family who really believed in me and gave me the strength to fight harder.”

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

There are a number of people that Thierry believes that played a big part in his journey in Cambodia. His parents and wife had immensely supported the player, especially when he was struggling. One other person that played a big part is Anthony Aymard, the ex-Tanjong Pagar defender, who helped Thierry a lot. They are still in regular contact with each other.

Interestingly, while he has a massive social media following, there is no big team that handles his socials. It is all ran by the man himself – Thierry (with the help of his wife, at times).

What’s next for Thierry? Well besides playing an active role in helping Vaisakha attain new heights, Thierry also wants to mentor young Cambodian footballers. He believes many young Cambodian talents lack the necessary skills required for overseas football. Besides issues with language, Thierry wants to help equip players with the necessary knowledge on transfers, contracts, and marketing themselves.

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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Meet Geylang International FC Sensation Darren Teh Part 2: The Story Continues

In part 1, I looked at Darren Teh’s beginnings as a footballer and the professional journey he embarked on. Since signing with Geylang in 2017, Darren Teh has largely been a mainstay in the Eagles backline. In this second part, I will look at his professional career thus far, his national team call-up, and his thoughts on fatherhood and his post-playing career.

The Loyal Eagle

For Darren, his second year with the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) Football team gave him the confidence to pursue a professional career after he completed his National Service. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Darren was very much a raw footballer – with no international or S.League experience and only two years with the NFA under his belt. Winning the treble with SAFSA, therefore, helped open doors for him.

In 2017, at 20 years old, Darren was about to finish his NS and sought for a professional club to transform his footballing aspirations into reality. One of his NFA coaches, Muhammad Effendi Bin Rahmat, was the Assistant Head coach at Warriors and invited Darren to link up with the Prime League squad. However, Darren didn’t feel like Warriors were the best fit for him and was in search for a move to another club. It was then when Umar Akhbar (who was his former NFA team-mate) called Darren and asked if he’d be interested in trying out for Geylang’s Prime League squad. Feeling like he had nothing to lose, Darren went for the trials.

Photo Credits: Geylang International FC

Back in 2017, Noor Ali (who is now the current first team head coach) was the assistant head coach of the first team squad and the Prime League head coach at the time. During his trial, Darren played with confidence, and he did remarkably well. Noor Ali signed him up, and Darren’s professional career was about to begin sooner than he thought.

Many people often assume that Darren started his professional football journey by slugging it out in the Prime League before he got promoted to the senior team. However, that is a major misconception. Darren only played one solitary game with the Prime League squad before lady luck came to his side. Head coach Hasrin Jailani decided, together with his coaching staff, that they wanted to promote two Prime League players into the senior side. While Darren was lucky that the management provided him an opportunity, make no mistake – Darren earned it. If anything, it speaks volumes about Darren’s work ethic and natural ability.

“It was a good call [end of the day] to go to Geylang. I thought I’d be playing Prime League football first but I managed to earn a spot in the S.League team. I remember back then, the S.League team was pretty strong. It was about a year after they dissolved the Lions XI team so Geytlang signed a number of players. We had Gabriel Quak, Safirul Sulaiman, Faritz Hameed, Isa Halim, Syazwan Buhari and Shafiq Ghani.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

A few weeks before his ORD date, Noor Ali rang Darren up and informed him that he had been selected as part of the Geylang team that was scheduled to play against Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in a friendly. Darren remembered driving into Johor for the match and staying in the KSL resort. Shortly after the match, Darren was signed up to a S.League contract.

Darren’s full debut came against Brunei DPMM at Bedok Stadium – a Brunei side that had the fearsome forward duo of Billy Mehmet and Rafael Ramazotti. Faritz Hameed’s injury meant that Darren had an opportunity to shine and shine he did. Darren was a constant presence during the match and his side came out victorious in a 2-0 win over the Bruneian team.

Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League: Geylang International FC vs Brunei DPMM FC (20 April 2017) Credits: Singapore Premier League

However, despite doing well against the DPMM, Darren rarely featured after that and found himself on the bench. It wasn’t until Hasrin Jailani’s sacking mid-season and Noor Ali’s appointment that Darren found chances aplenty. The right-back practically played every single game. Besides providing him opportunities and regular game time, Darren also admires Noor Ali as a coach.

“To me, he is a fantastic coach. Really, he is fantastic. It’s not because he gave me the exposure or what. But honestly, he is really one of the better coaches that I have actually [worked together with].”

Noor Ali, however, left for a extended coaching stint with J2 Team, Matsumoto Yamaga FC, at the start of 2018. As part of the arrangement, Yamaga coach Hirotaka Usui replaced Noor Ali and took reign of the Geylang coaching duties. While Darren fared well under the Japanese, it’s when Noor Ali returned to the fold that he really progressed. This season, Darren continued his fine development and even managed to score his first professional goal.

Representing Singapore: U-23 and National Team Adevntures

His fine performances in his debut season with the Eagles did not go unnoticed, and quite deservedly, he was called up to the Singapore U-23 side that played friendly matches in anticipation of the SEA Games. Matches against Myanmar and India marked the start of Darren’s international exposure, and after getting a taste of it, Darren relished the opportunity for more.

As part of the SEA Games preparation, then-head coach Richard Tardy selected Darren for a training camp that was to be held in Perth. Despite a stellar debut season with the Eagles, Darren failed to make the cut for the final SEA Games squad.

“It was one of my regrets so far – not making it for the SEA Games team. In Perth, it was really cold at the time and it was [constantly] raining. I also have sinus and it was really hard for me to cope with the weather. I actually started in one of the friendly games but I did really badly in that game. So we had two games and I [performed poorly] for the camp overall. The camp was also used as a final selection for the SEA Games and I was actually dropped out of the squad. I made the squad all the way till the last cut – I was one of the last 5 to get dropped. I was really sad at that point in time. I still remember collecting the SEA Games red blazer (that Singaporean athletes wear for the Olympics and Asian as well as SEA Games) and I had to pass Ammirul Emmran my blazer. I still remember receiving the text message that I got dropped and I really felt [devastated].”

Even though it was a crushing blow to a young Darren, it did not stop him from pursuing his ambitions to represent Singapore.

In 2019, Darren finally earned the call-up he had long been waiting for as he was selected for the Singapore national team for matches against Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While most Singaporeans mark their debuts against other regional or lesser ranked national teams, Darren made his debut as a substitute against Jordan and later on his first full start against Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia in a World Cup Qualification match.

With 2 caps already to his name, it is only a matter of time before Darren adds more to that tally. If his performances during the 2020 SPL Season were anything to go by, Darren would surely feature for the Lions once again.

Future Aspirations and Thoughts on Fatherhood

Like all Singaporean players, Darren aspires to play abroad, and it is a goal he wants to achieve before he retires. He recounts how Baihakki Khaizan was sharing the importance of moving abroad and getting the much needed exposure with other players during his time with the national team. However, Darren also realizes that he needs to rack up more national team caps before foreign clubs would come knocking at his door. Thankfully, Darren has already made the first step, which is to make his debut for the national team, but making more appearances for Singapore is the next step for Darren to secure a move overseas.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Besides becoming a regular Singapore international, Darren also hopes to do well in the AFC Cup next season after Geylang International secured a spot by finishing as the third-best Singaporean side. Doing well in the competition would also be a good platform for Darren to take his game to the next level. However, while a move abroad is something that Darren is aiming for, he is not keen on moving to another team in Singapore.

“I’ve been with Geylang for 4 years. I feel that I have an identity with Geylang. The only time I will leave is when I have more reasons to leave than stay and I don’t have any reasons to leave Geylang. Honestly, besides Lion City [Sailors] and their money, I think all the clubs are almost the same. On any day, anyone could win.”

Besides having aspirations on the pitch, Darren also has many goals he wants to achieve off the pitch. At the top of the list: being a great father to his son. As a young dad, I was intrigued to find out more about how Darren juggled his various responsibilities and his thoughts on fatherhood.

“Bering a dad itself, it wasn’t something that I expected at a young age. Yet, it has been an exciting journey. Before becoming a dad, I was really just like a happy-go-lucky person – if I can play football, I am satisfied. I was pretty comfortable. Then when I had my son, Kylian – I took it from Mbappé by the way. My wife decided on the girl’s name and I decided on a boy’s name. So when the gender was revealed, I decided on Kylian because it sounded good and I did not want a common name.

“Kylian’s arrival really changed me as a person. I wanted to scale greater heights and it also explains why I took up another career as a financial manager because I know that I cannot play football forever. That being said, I also ensured my footballing levels were really high. I was more focused in each game and before the game I always think of winning it for him. That gave me an extra motivation.”

However, it has not been an easy ride for Darren to juggle his various commitments.

“I felt like I neglected Kylian. At the same time I feel like I’m at an age where I can hustle for work and carve out a career for myself. Trainings are usually in the evening and by the time they are over, Kylian is already asleep. It’s only usually during the afternoon when I come home for my afternoon naps that I do spend time with him during the weekdays. During the weekends, I make it a point to bring him out and spend time with him.”

To end off, I think it was rather interesting that Darren decided to pick up a career as a financial manager while also playing football. So, naturally I couldn’t help but probe.

“I did do my diploma and I had to clock in 200 hours of coaching as part of internship requirements. During that whole process, I won’t deny that I did enjoy seeing my players progress and develop. But, deep down I didn’t feel the drive to coach younger kids. If I ever do become a coach, I want to do it at the highest level but I also know that to get there I need to climb there slowly [and start off with the younger age groups]. So, I do enjoy playing but for me personally, I don’t see myself as a coach during my post-playing career. I would contribute back to football by doing some coaching when I eventually retire but I don’t see it as a career.”

Darren Teh’s journey as a professional player thus far is a reminder to Singaporeans that football can be a viable career in Singapore. More often than not, we discourage young players from pursuing a professional footballing career. Yes, while I agree that there have been countless instances of players getting underpaid or delayed salaries in the past, I think initiatives need to be undertaken so that footballers can get the education they need to pursue post-footballing playing careers. Darren’s decision to engage in another job right now and learn a new trait is a lesson for other footballers to reflect upon. Coaching opportunities at the highest level in Singapore are far and few, and unless players invest their time to gain new skills, they’d end up juggling multiple coaching gigs.

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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.

Varghese with Anders Aplin. Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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.”

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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.

Reflections

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.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

“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.”

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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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Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

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.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“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.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“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].”

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

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.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

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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If Varghese Jayan is an unfamiliar to you now, it won’t be soon. A speedy left winger, he recently signed with NEROCA FC in October 2020. On paper, it doesn’t seem like much – an Indian national signing with an Indian club, but there is so much to this story. For the past 3 years, Varghese has been juggling his polytechnic education, football, and a host of part-time jobs to support himself alone in Singapore.

What makes his story remarkable is that the man never had formal football training before coming to Singapore, but in a matter of three years, he managed to secure a professional contract in the I-League. The fact that he only played in the National Football League here makes this story even more special. I got the chance to have a chat with Varghese over Zoom the other day, and it is my pleasure to share the story of a real role model for aspiring players; he is a person who overcame numerous obstacles to get to where he is today.

Varghese training with NEROCA FC. Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

In this first part, I look at his humble beginnings and some of the challenges he faced during his first 2 years in Singapore.

The Story Begins in India

Born in the city Kolenchery, which is located in Kerala, India, in 1998, it was cricket rather than football that Varghese played regularly. Even though Kerala is known to be a football crazy state, it was all about cricket for Varghese during the early years. It was only during his 6th Standard when he was introduced to football during his Physical Education lessons. It was love at first touch (sight) for Varghese, who played every day after school. There were no goal posts, it was really just kicking about barefoot. In his 9th Standard, Varghese had the opportunity to trial with a new academy that was founded near his village. However, he had to borrow his boots and equipment from his peers because he had nothing, whatsoever.  It was the first time he had proper football training, and for the next year, he stayed at the academy. It was the first of many times where Varghese had to leave home for extended periods in his career thus far.

“Somehow, I don’t know how but somehow, I managed to get selected into the academy. It’s funny because everyone besides me had previous experience of coming from an academy or played in the school team. I was the only one who didn’t know anything about football. Before this, I only played village football where we just ran after the ball. So, during that one year, I learned all the fundamentals – how to pass and how to receive the ball. I was only there a year or so because I had signs of asthma and a dust allergy. I have difficulties when there is too much dust. So, I had to move away from football.”

Varghese would remain in Kerala till the 12th Standard (Higher Secondary Certificate). He would then move to Chennai, Tamil Nadu to study for a year at SRM University for an entrance exam to get an opportunity to travel to Singapore to pursue tertiary education. The stakes for high for a young Varghese, as candidates had to maintain a minimum of 70% score or else they were kicked out from the course.

Living in Chennai was an entirely different experience for Varghese. He had to live on his own because it took him 13 hours by train to travel to his hometown. It wasn’t long before Varghese became well-versed in Tamil. In Chennai, Varghese had the opportunity to play once again, and he casually played with the people he met there.

“I don’t think I was in the mind to come to Singapore. I knew nothing about Singapore at that point in time. I didn’t know it was such a modern, first-world country. My motive was to fulfill my parents desire because they had a lot of hopes for me. I just wanted to play football. I didn’t know they had football in Singapore but my parents told me to concentrate on my studies so I just studied and managed to get more than 70% for my grades.”

Thankfully though, Varghese managed to scrape through his exams and made the cut to earn the chance to pursue a diploma with Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore in 2017.

Singapore – Early Beginnings

Coming to Singapore was quite an experience for Varghese, but nothing beats his first day here. After touching down, Varghese moved to his accommodation in Tampines, and his desire to play football overcame him. He had a strong urge to play, but as he said earlier, he knew absolutely nothing about the country. So, he took his boots and walked around to find a field or pitch to play. He approached random strangers and asked where the nearest field was. Looking back, he realizes that many he approached would have certainly found him kind of crazy. Somehow, Varghese in his quest to find a field, stumbles upon SAFRA and enters it. He sees a field and observes that there were people playing but since he didn’t know anyone he just sat and watched them play.

Then, an older gentleman approached him. He wanted to ask Varghese about the Kerala Blasters shirt that he had been wearing. The older gentleman had been following the Indian Super League at that time and asked Varghese if he was a Kerala Blasters player. Varghese explained that he had been a fan of the club and that he was here in Singapore to study. To his surprise, the gentleman was none other than Johar bin Yousuf, the Temasek polytechnic women’s football team coach. After taking down his number, Johar called him to play for social teams in the subsequent days.

“Then, school started and soon after they had trials for the school team. Because of my dust allergy, I played as a Goalkeeper in Kerala [after the stint with the Academy] because I could not run a lot. But when I came to Temasek poly, I went to the trials as a Goalkeeper. So back then, the coach was Steven Tan and he asked me where was I from. I did well in the trials and I made the final cut of 32 players. It was also the start of my relationship with Steven Tan, he is someone I am close with.”

Steven Tan is not an unfamiliar name in the Singaporean footballing fraternity. A stalwart during the 1990s for the national team and the Malaysia Cup squad, he was especially renowned for his super-sub ability. He also managed Tampines Rovers between 2011 and 2012.

Varghese and Steven Tan. Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

“When we began training, I told coach Steven that I used to play as an outfield player before my dust allergy gave me problems. So, coach tried me out as an outfield player. During that first ever training session, I remember the squad having a few Prime League players. I did well when it comes to the individual components like shooting and dribbling but when it comes to the tactical aspects, like awareness and positioning, I didn’t know. So, after the session, coach Steven [groomed me] into a winger.”

In clean and green Singapore, Varghese had no dust to worry about, so he never suffered any issues with his dust allergy. However, Varghese wasn’t just content with football at the school level. He really wanted to push himself further and play for a club here. After inquiring around, he managed to earn a trial with Eunos Crescent FC with the help of a friend of his. The chairman of Eunos Crescent at the time was Don Darwin, the current vice-chairman of Balestier Khalasa FC. Varghese impressed yet again and he managed to sign with the NFL side. In his first year in Singapore, Varghese juggled his time between school training and training with Eunos Crescent. His first year served as a foundation for Varghese to build up his tactical ability.

A True Self-Made Man

During his three years in Singapore, Varghese needed to be financially independent. Varghese had a relatively comfortable life in India – his parents owned their own house and they had a car. However, the exchange rate differences between the Singaporean dollar and the Indian rupee made it really expensive for Varghese’s parents to support their son financially. Varghese himself did not want his parents to give up their possessions or alter their livelihood by taking a loan for him. Instead, he wanted to support himself.

His first job was working the night shift at the Changi Airport outlet. What that meant was that Varghese, after his evening training sessions, had to rush back home to bathe so that he can go to work. His shift would start at 11pm and end at 7am.  That first year was difficult for Varghese, who had to attend classes after his shift, and he napped whenever he had the opportunity to do so.  Varghese would go onto job hop various part-time gigs so that he could pay his polytechnic tuition fees and also ensure he had a daily allowance to sustain himself.

One person that supported him through this period was Steven Tan. Getting Varghese a pair of boots and a bunch of apparel, Steven’s help really motivated Varghese to focus on football. Besides Steven, he also had the aid from some of his fellow Indian students who came to Temasek Poly to study.

Geylang – Getting A taste of Prime League football before it shut down

In his first year in Singapore, one of his Temasek Poly teammates invited Varghese to participate in a friendly game as part of a make-shift Jungfrau Punggol team against Geylang International FC Prime League team at Jalan Besar Stadium.

“The coach asked me to play on the right-hand side and I was in a team of an assortment of players playing against a young Geylang Prime League side that had tons of energy. All these Prime League boys wanted to go to the S.League, so they were all in good shape and my team had many main players missing. The first 20 minutes of that game, the coach made play as a right-back and then after that I played at the right-wing position. The next half, he was redeployed in the centre of midfield and towards the closing stages of the game, I was again played at centre-back. I played 4 positions that game and I think I did quite well. The S.League coach, Noor Ali, was watching that game and after the match, he came up to me and introduced himself.”

Varghese hit it off well with Noor Ali and the Geylang coach invited Varghese to train with the Prime League. Unfortunately, the stint would last but a month, with the Prime League being scrapped in 2018. Furthermore, Noor Ali left to head over to Japan as part of a coaching stint with J2 club Matsumoto Yamaga, where he managed the Under 18 ‘B’ team.

Refining his Tactical Skills with Balestier Khalsa

After his first year and the short stint with Geylang, Darwin provided Varghese with the opportunity to train with the Balestier’s first team. It was one of the best experiences Varghese ever encountered. He worked with Marko Kraljević, whom he greatly admires.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

However, he was given a lot of tough love by the Balestier management and players. At the time, Varghese still severely lacked the tactical element in his game. For the first 6 months, it was hell.

“During the whole session [at the start], I was the one making mistake after mistake. End of the day, the players are professional. So, when you make mistakes, of course they will scold you and get mad at you. But, you need to learn and bounce back. I had my friend, whom I really consider more of a brother, Sufianto Salleh who really guided me. Other players Raihan Rahman and Zaiful Nizam also motivated me. First-team coach Rosman and Goalkeeping coach Rizal also guided me during this period. It wan’t like I was making mistakes for the sake of it. I was working my butt off. There can’t be any room for emotions. If I made a mistake, I told myself the only thing I needed to do was to improve.”

Varghese with Sufianto Salleh. Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

With the help of the senior players, Varghese improved leaps and bounds after the 6 months. Varghese’s story serves as a reminder that stars aren’t born overnight, and it really takes resilience from the player to soldier on and improve. Varghese also believes that coach Marko’s kindness was one reason why he improved as well. He does have a point. With the level he was at, Marko could have sent him back home, since he was disrupting the first-team training. Instead, Marko allowed Varghese to stay on and gain a valuable learning experience.

In order to ensure that it was convenient for him to attend training, since Balestier was pretty far from Changi Airport, Varghese left his part-time job and instead took up a job at a KFC outlet that was opposite the Toa Payoh Stadium. Late-night shifts were a thing of the past as Varghese worked between the period school ended and before his training commenced.

During his training days, Varghese always looked at the East Bengal team pennant that was located in the Balestier dressing room. The tigers had played against East Bengal in the AFC Cup a few years before, and Varghese was constantly motivated to push himself harder so that one day he could play professional football in India.

Even though Balestier provided him with an invaluable experience, he could not officially link up with the Balestier side. The Prime League was still around when Varghese first arrived in Singapore, but they cancelled the league in lieu of the U-23 rule, where a minimum of three Under-23 players need to feature in the starting 11 for each fixture. In 2018, Varghese turned 20 and, thus, could not be signed for the Balestier U-19 team as well. As such, he was limited to training stints with the first team as opposed to any match experience with the Tigers. Instead, Varghese signed with another NFL side, Katong FC, and worked with team manager, Tee Tan. Soon, Varghese’s fortunes would change, and the winger would be en route to India to play professionally. That, my friends, will be discussed in the second part. Stay tuned.

Featured Image provided by Varghese Jayan

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The Ludovic Casset Story Part 1: Making History in Vietnam

Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his teammates like Abou Diaby and Djibril Cissé went to forge relatively successful careers in Europe, Ludo had an interesting spell in Vietnam.

After all he’s one of the first few players who came to Southeast Asia to play for national teams based on their ancestry. Nowadays you have a slew of such foreign born players playing in the region. Names like English-born La’Vere Lawrence Corbin-Ong who plays for Malaysia, Spanish-born Álvaro Silva who plays for the Philippines, and Dutch-born Stefano Lilipaly who plays for Indonesia come to mind. Yet it wasn’t always the case and even though Ludo did not represent Vietnam, he was the first foreigner of Vietnamese descent to attempt to play for the national football team. In part one of this article, I shall look at his playing career – looking at his time in France, the failed Vietnamese national team trial and his brief but eventful Vietnamese adventure.

Starting his Football Journey with Auxerre and Turning to Vietnam

Just like other French footballers, Ludo embarked on his footballing journey with his local neighborhood team to his Burgundy regional side and then on to AJ Auxerre’s youth teams, rising up the ranks all the way to the Auxerre reserves. At 20, Ludo tore his ACL and was sent to a professional sports therapy and rehabilitation center in Southwest France. It was there when he met Francileudo Santos, a Brazilian-born naturalized Tunisian who played in the 2006 FIFA World Cup with the Tunisian national team. Santos was nursing an injury he had sustained while playing with Ligue 1 club Sochaux.

“We were talking and I got to know him and he got to know me. Then he asked me why I don’t go and play for Vietnam. He told me that I was more Vietnamese than he was Tunisian. Back then, I was 20 years old and I was wondering whether there was actually football in Asia? You know, in the 1990s, Europeans would be thinking if they drew Asian teams for the World Cup, it’s like striking the jackpot. That was then, the thinking, you know. Now, the gap is no longer as wide as it was, but back then you’d be wishing for an Asian team. Santos told me that no matter the country, there is football everywhere.”

Ludo may have dismissed the idea then, but Santos’s words were already planted in his mind. At 23, just as my previous interviews with Frenchmen have demonstrated, Ludo realized that breaking into the first team Auxerre was an almost impossible task. The competition for places were ridiculously stiff. It was at this juncture where Santos’s words resurfaced, and Ludo remembered what the Tunisian forward suggested two years prior.

“I contacted my uncle in Vietnam, who was previously working with the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. He used to come to France because the Ministry had partnerships with a few [French] Universities. He came pretty often – maybe once or twice a year. So, I mailed him and he told me to wait for him to come to France.”

A few years later, Ludo’s uncle came up to France and met up with him. When Ludo first told his uncle his intention of playing for the Vietnamese national team, he was taken aback at first. However, he helped his nephew out by reaching to some of his contacts within the Vietnamese Football Federation to see if something could be arranged. It was not long after when Ludo departed France for Vietnam to attend a trial and see if he was good enough for the Vietnamese national team. His world was literally going to change overnight.

The Brief Taste of Vietnamese National Team Football

The moment Ludo landed in Vietnam, he was thrusted into a newfound fame. As he exited the plane, Ludo was met by an official from the Vietnamese ministry in the transit area. He welcomed Ludo and (since Ludo knew virtually zero Vietnamese), in French, began to brief Ludo about what was going to happen next.

Waiting outside were 25 journalists who were armed with multiple questions, ready to fire them away at Ludo. It was a big shock to Ludo because, even at Auxerre, there were never that many journalists during press conferences. Ludo was informed to discuss nothing but football and the Frenchman fully concurred. The hype surrounding Ludo was real. After collecting his baggage, he was met by a sea of people who were eagerly awaiting his arrival. After the glamorous first day in Vietnam, Ludo was engaged in a trial period for the subsequent two weeks – something he looks back with fond memories.

“I had my Rolling Stones moment for two weeks. For two weeks, during the trial period, there were tens of thousands of Vietnamese football fans who attended the two exhibition matches I played in. After the match, [the fans] would have scrap books that they would ask me to sign. I felt like Zidane. There was no Instagram back then, if not I think, my Instagram would explode.

“During my first match I played, I scored a header off a corner. And for me, I play on the defensive side (CDM or CB), so it was really huge for me to score a goal. I got on well with most of the guys but then I started to realize different social groups and social hierarchies within the dressing room. There was an older group of players and the younger group of players. I realized that the younger group of players [were subservient to] the older group of players and also that the older group of players could do whatever they want. The Confucian ideal of respecting your elders was very evident.”

The strong influence of the older guard in the Vietnamese national team would come to affect, or so it’s believed, Ludo’s ability to play for Vietnam. Despite what he believed was a relatively successful trial, Ludo was not chosen to represent Vietnam. The Star reported that the VFF spokesman, at the time, Nguyen Lan Trung, told that then head coach Edson Tavares felt that “Casset was not visibly better than any player of the national squad.” Ludo suspects he was never chosen because some of the older players in the squad disliked the fame and attention that he was receiving. Tavares may have had his hands tied behind his back – we may never know.

During his short spell in the national team set up, Ludo believed that the Vietnamese internationals he played alongside were really good technically. What they lacked instead was tactical ability. Ludo still finds it shame that he never got to represent Vietnam. However, his trip to the state was not a total waste. While the Vietnamese Football Federation may have rejected him, Vietnamese clubs began to take notice of a young Ludo. One in particular, Quảng Nam Đà Nẵng (now known as SHB Đà Nẵng) , reached out with an offer which kickstarted a new chapter in his footballing career.

The Professional Dream with Đà Nẵng – A Mixed First Season

Ludo was brought into a Đà Nẵng side that was in the process of building up a super team. The Frenchman was brought in alongside 4 other national team stalwarts, including the captain, Lê Huỳnh Đức (who is current coaching SHB Đà Nẵng) , that he played alongside during his trial. Besides the financial allure of Đà Nẵng, the late mayor of Đà Nẵng City, Nguyen Ba Thanh, played a crucial role in Ludo’s transfer to the club. He had significant influence over the club because of his status as a powerful politician. He was the one that promised Ludo that he would try to push for him gaining Vietnamese nationality if he signed with Đà Nẵng. While Vietnam has permitted dual nationality in limited circumstances in 2009, it was forbidden for one to have dual nationality back in 2005.

Ludo was given a month to think about the offer from Đà Nẵng, and he went back to Auxerre. Back home in France, Ludo seriously reflected on the offer. He was hesitating to take up the offer since he still had the dream to play in Europe. Then, his Auxerre academy coach told him the reality is of his situation.

“You know in France, there are so many talented players who are better than you. However, because there are only so many places, most of these talented players would never ever end up playing professionally. They’d reach 26 and 27 [years old] and then they’d be the stars of their neighbourhood teams and that’s it. I told myself let’s go to Vietnam and get the exposure. After all, the future is in Asia.”

Back then, the V.League had a foreign import quota of 5 players, but they also had a rule where only 3 players could be on the pitch at any one time. This meant that if one foreign player was to be brought off the bench, one of the three foreigners on the pitch had to be subbed off. With his opportunity already limited by the foreign player rules, a rocky start with his then head coach meant that playing time was seriously limited for a young Ludo.

“The coach was really old school, and it was during their first pre-season training but for me, I had been playing (in France and the trial in Vietnam) all the way till moving to Đà Nẵng. So during some of the drills I had a bit of pain and I told the interpreter to inform the coach that I would do some light training instead. I realized that it was a clash of cultures. In Vietnam, players were expected to play through the pain, whereas in Europe, they expected you to rest and not make the injury worse. And after that, that’s it – my season was over. The coach thought that I was lazy because of the fame I had received during the trial with the national team. They started to play without me.”

During the first half of the season, Ludo played zero matches. Then a miracle happened. After 4 to 5 months, somehow, however, Ludo managed to get dual nationality, and to his knowledge, is the first person to hold dual nationality in Vietnam.

After becoming a Vietnamese citizen and the club registering as a local player, Ludo managed to play a few games. There were other obstacles standing in Ludo’s way – behind the scene politics within his own team. One day, Ludo had decided to go to an infamous bar in the city, and he happened to bump into one of the younger players of the squad and drank together. It would become a mistake that he would long regret.

“The next morning, I go to training and I had this African teammate who had been playing in Vietnam for 8 years. And he told me – just see what happens. You will have [issues]. So, I found out much later that the young player went to the coach and said he heard from a friend that I was out partying. But, it was actually him who was there with me in the bar! And so, I got excluded from selection because the coach believed I liked to party more than train.”

Besides finding his playing time limited, Ludo also experienced what allegedly was a case of match-fixing. Back then, it was a game against Saigon. Saigon needed a win to remain in the Vietnamese top division. On the other hand, Đà Nẵng were already guaranteed of their AFC Champions League place regardless of the result. Perhaps that was why a large number of key players were taken out of the game. However, according to Ludo, the match “played out weird” and Đà Nẵng eventually succumbed to defeat. Then the young Frenchman was in for a huge shock.

“The Stadium was packed with 40,000 fans. A lot of them had been drinking beer and thousands of fans threw their beer cans at the pitch. We were trapped we couldn’t leave the stadium. So the (officials) used the electric (batons) and started hitting the fans to help manage the situation and bring this ruckus to a close. I was wondering why this was happening. One of the players heard that the match was sold, which explained why we were playing weird. I didn’t know what was happening back then. It was truly a new experience for me.”

The season ended on a high for Ludo, as Đà Nẵng managed to qualify for the AFC Champions League and the head coach resigned. A new technical director, Gerd Zeise from Germany, took over instead. Interestingly, Zeise would go on to manage the Myanmar U-20 team and lead them to qualification for the U-20 World Cup. He would later go on to manage the Myanmar national team after the departure of Radojko Avramović, the former Singapore national team head coach who won 3 AFF Championships with the Lions.

Things were seemingly looking up for him, but then he was sent out on loan to a V2.League club. Ludo was devastated because there was a huge gulf in quality between the V1 and V2 leagues. Fortunately, the club recalled him back soon. The club used Ludo sporadically in the league, but he featured prominently in the Champions League.

Image provided by Ludovic Casset. Photo Credits: Ludovic Casset

In Đà Nẵng’s AFC Champions League group, they were tied together with some titans of East Asian football – Gamba Osaka, Dalian Shide and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. The most memorable moment of that Champions League Group stage would probably be one of Ludo’s most painful ones. His side was thrashed by Gamba Osaka in Japan and it was truly a dark day in Ludo’s career.

“In the first match, we played really well and we received a lot of media attention. In the second match against Gamba Osaka in Japan. It was really really cold and raining. I was used to it but the Vietnamese players were not used to this kind of conditions. Gamba Osaka thrashed us so severely and it was so embarrassing. Every attack against us they scored. It was so bad. Perhaps it was because of the media attention we received and it sort of backfired because Osaka came out for blood and they took us really seriously. So much so, they were merciless. ”

Ludo’s time in Vietnam would come to an end after that season in 2006. After 2 and a half years in Vietnam, it was time to bring his episode in the country to a close. In part 2, I’ll look at the end of Ludo’s playing career and how he landed the director position at Etoile FC Academy.

Featured Image provided by Ludovic Casset. Photo Credits: Ludovic Casset

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