Category Archives: Asian Football

The Longest Serving French Jaguar: A chat with Anthony Aymard Part 2

Be sure to check out part 1 of this article if you haven’t already

Before I begin with part 2, let me share some of my thoughts about part 1 of this article. The one thing worth admiring about foreigners like Aymard who try their luck overseas is that they often have to risk everything in pursuit of a career in football. That’s something that is fairly missing in Singapore – taking a risk to pursue your dreams. Yes, Aymard had former teammates like Sirina Camara, Franklin Anzité, Nordine Talhi, Jonathan Toto, and Frederic Mendy to aid him when he took a chance by traveling to Singapore in search for a club in 2012. However, the risks involved cannot be understated. He left everything behind in France. Many would see this as a foolish gamble, but I do not. It’s testament to Aymard’s love for football and his desire to become a professional. I truly believe that Singaporean footballers may want to consider doing the same for their own development as professional players. With that out of the way, let’s dive into part 2 of this story…

Becoming the Longest Serving Frenchman at Tanjong Pagar

After a successful trial with Tanjong Pagar United, Aymard successfully secured a 6-month contract with the Jaguars. However, the rest of 2012 was bittersweet for the Frenchman, who relished regular playing time as a starting centre-back, but Tanjong Pagar ultimately ended the season second-last [12th] in the league. Despite the poor league standing, Aymard felt that he showed what he could do to the Tanjong Pagar hierarchy.

“We lost almost every game. It was a very young team with great quality but it was also a new club – well sort of old club that returned – but everything had to be built again. In that 6 months that I played for them, I knew that the manager and chairman [at the time] liked me. At the end of the season, they did not know who was the coach for the next season – whether Terry [Pathmanathan] stay or go – but they wanted me to stay.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“So, I was happy but I wanted to talk a bit about [staying] long term. I know it’s difficult. Many people told me that I’m lucky because in Singapore, you never sign more than one-year contract. So, I asked the boss; I said, ‘can you sign me [on a] 2 years contract?’ He told me its okay, it won’t be a problem. I asked him for an increased salary.”

And he received a bumper salary after penning the 2-year contract with the Jagaurs. Aymard recounts how he was given peanuts while playing for Étoile FC. The only plus side was that he was given accommodation for free. While with Étoile, he was staying right opposite Sunshine Place at Choa Chu Kang Avenue 3 (surprisingly, near me). However, Étoile had a low budget, so they had informed players that they would be housed at “distant” locations to save costs on rental. Heading to training was tough for the then young Frenchman because it took him an hour to reach the stadium via public transport.

On the other hand, it was a totally different story for Aymard when he was playing for Tanjong Pagar during his first 6 months in 2012. He stayed at a nice condominium in Clementi, and, since the Jaguars played and trained at Clementi Stadium, it was extremely convenient for him. After signing the 2-year contract, he relocated to Queenstown, since Tanjong Pagar moved back to Queenstown Stadium. The stadium had been previously occupied by Étoile, who had disbanded as a professional club early 2012.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

The following year, in 2013, Tanjong Pagar enjoyed a remarkable season and improved immensely from their poor showings a season earlier. Under the guidance of former Étoile manager Patrick Vallee, the club finished the season in 6th position and reached the final of the Singapore Cup. A new quartet of foreigners, including marquee signing ex-Morocco international and former AS Nancy star Monsef Zerka, linked up with the squad. Aymard was the only foreign player retained from the 2012 season but became an instrumental player that season for the Jaguars. He was no longer the sole Frenchman, however, with all foreign spots filled with French passport holders. It is little surprise given Patrick Vallee was a Frenchman himself. At the end of the season, due to his continued solid performances at the back, he was given a one-year contract by the Tanjong Pagar hierarchy.

The 2014 season was a mediocre one for the Jaguars and it would also proved to be their last. The club had to pull out of the league due to financial troubles at the end of the season. It was a double whammy for Aymard as well, because he tore his ACL towards the end of the season. Unlike the rest of the squad, though, Aymard had one more year left on his contract with the Jaguars and Tanjong Pagar honoured the last year of his contract.

“I had the surgery in Singapre. Then, I went back to France for rehabilitation for a few months and then I came back in 2015, I was under contract with Tanjong Pagar but there is no more training; no more game; no more club. You know the rules in Singapore, because of the contract they still have to pay me. So I finished my rehabilitation some time in February in Singapore at a clinic in Rarffles Place and then I started to train. It was my 5th year in Singapore and I came to know some contacts by that time. I knew the coach in Geylang, Jorg [Steinebrunner], and I asked him if I could come over and just train with [the team] to get fit. He told me it wasn’t a problem. 2015 was not a holiday season but something like that,”

It was definitely a break from competitive professional football for Aymard, who trained with Geylang for the remainder of the year. However, his time with Singapore would soon come to an end, as another Southeast Asian adventure laid in waiting.

The Cambodian Experience & the showdown with Camara that never happened

At the end of 2015, Anthony Aymard got in contact with a French player with Cambodian heritage, Thierry Chantha Bin, who was playing with Phnom Penh Crown FC at that point in time. Thierry gew up in France and had experience playing for French football team academies and lower division teams.

“I did not know [Thierry] personally but he appeared on [my] social media a few times. He plays in Malaysia now but then he was at Phnom Penh. Since he had two passports, he played as a local player and Phnom Penh had a foreign coach – a guy from Switzerland. So I reached out and asked Thierry who told me he’d help out and talk to the coach and see if he’s looking for a foreign player. So, he gave me the contact of the coach who asked me if i can come down for trial next season, sometime early January.”

Aymard didn’t hesitate. He was not about to let go of another opportunity to further his professional career and take on a new challenge. He flew down to have his trial with Phnom Penh Crown and after impressing the coaches, he secured a 2-year contract with the Cambodian titans.

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

The experience with Phnom Peng was a truly unforgettable one for Aymard. After all, it was a completely different experience playing in Cambodia as opposed to playing in Singapore. For one, there were considerably more people watching the fixtures in stadiums. Aymard recounted how Cambodians really followed their local clubs and even during training, fans turned out to support their players.

“We had a really nice stadium. Before I came, all the clubs in Cambodia played in one stadium – the national stadium. It had an artificial pitch and most games were played at 3 or 4pm in the afternoon. But when I came there, thankfully [with the financial muscle of their boss], Phnom Penh Crown had a new stadium and they had such beautiful grass. It was totally new for me.

“There was so much more support from locals and fans at the games. It was totally different from my experience in Singapore. In Singapore, maybe there’s 4 to 5 people working in the office but in Cambodia, the salary of locals might be low but they have so many people doing a wide range of jobs in the office. They do media, they film the training, they do events, and they do a lot of other things.”

Aymard came close to winning the C-league with Phnom Penh Crown during his 2-year stint with the club. However, the club came up short on in both years he was there – with the club finishing 5th in both years. Yet, in 2016, Phnom Penh managed to qualify for the 2017 AFC Cup play-off spot.

2017 would prove be Aymard’s final year however, as the torn ACL injury he suffered 2 years before would come back to haunt him.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“In 2016, I played really good and the club was very happy with me. I think I was the only foreigner who got retained [yet again] from the 2016 squad who remained with the club in 2017. Then, I remember it was a pre-season game. I had no issues during the game but after the game, when I went back home, I remember my knee, the one I had an operation on, suddenly started to swell really badly. So I said okay, let’s see. Then after 2 to 3 days, it became normal again. Then after another game or intensive training, boom – the swelling happened again. So I told the coach – oh in 2 seasons I had 6 coaches [at Phnom Penh] and it was this Ukrainian guy – and I told him about the issue.

“He told me to rest for our pre-season game in China because he wanted me to be fit for China. He told me that it was important for the boss, the club and everything. But, I said the problem is with intensive training. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could cope with the training in China. We agreed to see how it goes. So, I played the first game and my knee was normal during the game but after the game, my knee was swollen again. I couldn’t continue on so I went back to the manager and told him I needed to do something about my knee.”

In Singapore, Aymard enjoyed quick and efficient healthcare when he tore his ACL. He literally had a consultation, a diagnosis and surgical procedure all within the same week. He still holds our healthcare system in high regard and knew he was in the good hands of doctors. However, it wasn’t the same in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh medical team wanted to bring Aymard for a MRI, but he didn’t trust the services offered locally. Instead, the club made an appointment with a specialist clinic they regularly sent their players to, which was located in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

He flew down to Ho Chi Minh and did a MRI with the clinic. The results came back and it was far from good news. While Aymard’s ACL was fine, his cartilage in his knee cap that had issues. He flew back to Ho Chi Minh two weeks later for an operation that sidelined him for 4 to 6 weeks, and it was heart-wrenching for Aymard because he had to miss a golden opportunity of featuring in the AFC playoff round. What made things worse was that Phnom Penh Crown was supposed to face Home United in that tie.

“I was supposed to play Sirina but I didn’t get to play the game. It’s a crazy story because Sirina and I are like brothers. We only played together for one year [at Étoile] but we lived in Singapore together for 5 years. I remember during that match I was in the stands. It was very sad. [Sirina and I] knew for a few months that we were going to be playing that match for a few months and we were looking forward to it.

“The surgeon told me 4 to 6 weeks I would recover but in the end it took me 6 months to recover. Surgery was okay and everything but my knee was never the same after that. It was as if my knees had no power and my quads became so weak. It was always a bit painful to train. The club was very upset with me. At the end, I finished the season in the last 3 to 4 months. I finished the season so-so. I was really playing on one leg. It was [still] very painful.

“So, the club doesn’t renew my contract and then for me. And my first son, was born in Cambodia, you know in 2016. My family was with me for the whole 2 years in Cambodia. After the club didn’t renew my contract, I wanted to go to Malaysia – even though I knew my leg was in such a bad condition. I was looking for one last club, one more season and than I told myself its time to go back home.

“So, I went to Malaysia. I was training with a club in the North in Ipoh. It was PKNP and I stayed with them for 10 days. It was good. I played 3 to 4 friendly games but you know in Malaysia, they want 190cm [height] for center-back while I’m 180cm [tall]. So they said I’m quite small for centre-back and they told me no.”

After the failed attempt in Malaysia, together with his wife, Aymard decided that it was time to return to France. He played Sunday football for fun for a bit but now he’s almost stop playing altogether.

Life After Football

Returning to France, he had to make money for his family, and so he worked at a college and helped to oversee the academic and character progression of students for a year. While at the side, he was setting up an online business. Nowadays, family responsibilities and taking care of his online business takes up most of his time.

“No more football for me. It’s just watching the TV and supporting my hometown club [Le Puy]. Bringing the family to the stadium every Friday to watch the game.”

Aymard was supposed to return to Singapore for a family holiday this past April, but COVID-19 dashed all plans.

“I booked a ticket and the hotels. I was supposed to come to Singapore for 5 days and then go to KL for 5 days and then Bali for 10 days and then one night in Singapore before returning to France. I managed to get the refund for everything but it’s sad. My wife is French but her roots lie in Indonesia. I met her while in Indonesia and this was the time when I was playing in Singapore. She had gone back to Jakarta when I was teaching at the college in 2018 but man, I haven’t been in Singapore for five years now. I really want to come back.”

Even though Camara and Aymard missed the chance to face one another in that AFC Cup Play off fixture three years ago, they still remain very close. In fact, they met each other last Christmas and went out together with Franklin Anzité.

“My experience in Asia, it changed me a lot you know. It is something very special for me. I still stay in contact with Asraf Rashid, Syed Karim and Hafiz Nor. Hafiz Nor is my guy; a very good player. Everything changed when I played with Tanjong Pagar. It was playing with local players that taught me a lot and mixing with them I learned so much about the racial and religious harmony that exists in the country. I’ve never seen a country like this where there is so much respect for each other’s religion. Like, having holidays for the Hindu special days, the Muslim special days, for the Christian special days. France really needs to learn from this.

“I have no regrets in my career. You have to see where I come from, an amateur background – this was my dream. In 2014, we had become one of the more senior foreign players in the league. In Singapore, foreign players do not last that long but I am disappointed with the ACL. If I had no ACL, I may have had the chance to go to another club.

Photo Credits: Sirina Camara

“At the end of 2015 when I was training with Geylang, I had an offer from Hougang United. Then, their striker was Josef Kaplan and I had a good relationship with him. He was at Geylang for the 2015 season and he told me that he had already agreed to a contract with Hougang. [Kaplan] told me he’d talk to the coach and see if they’d be interested. I went to Hounag and had a two week trial and they liked me. They offered me a contract but I couldn’t agree to the terms because like most clubs, I had to share an apartment with another player but I had my wife with me. She was pregnant and we will have a son in 2016 so I needed privacy and some space for my family.”

From something that was supposed to be a year-long stint in Singapore, it turned out to be a quite an adventure for Aymard. Coming to Singapore opened up a professional career for him, and it also gave him the opportunity to meet his wife. It also gave him life-long friends. Étoile FC brought Camara and Aymard together but it was their time playing for local clubs that brought them closer to one another. The football dream may be over, but the friendships and memories forged here look to last.

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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It would appear that I truly have a knack of tracking down former Étoile FC players…

To ardent Tanjong Pagar United fans, Anthony Aymard is not an unfamiliar name. The French defender spent 3 seasons with the Jaguars between 2012 and 2015. I managed to track down Anthony Aymard recently and interview the player about his time in Singapore and journey as a footballer. In part 1 of his story, I will look at how he makes the move to Singapore and plays for Étoile, his return to France, and how he managed to secure a contract with Tanjong Pagar – interestingly where he’d go on to become the longest serving French player for the club (and mind you, they had a number of Frenchmen between 2011 and 2014).

Beginnings in Central France

Like Sirina Camara and Jonathan Toto, Aymard came to Singapore through Étoile FC in 2011. However, unlike his peers, he never came from a professional youth set up. Born in central France, Aymard grew up in Saint-Étienne and rose through the age groups of Le Puy Foot 43 Auvergne. Back then, Le Puy was an amateur club, but it has since become a semi-professional outfit. The team currently plays in the Championnat National 2, the 4th tier of French football. After years playing at various stages of the youth football, Aymard managed to break into the first team set up in 2009. During one such first-team training session, his life was about to change.

Aymard Positioned Bottom Extreme Left. Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

Aymard turned up to training and noticed a new face, someone who was about to change his life. This individual was none other than ex-Gombak United player Johan Gouttefangeas, the man responsible for the creation of Étoile and launching the French-based club in 2010. Gouttefangeas actually came from the same city as Aymard. Even though he was not playing for Le Puy, he had been training with the club for a while. Soon, Aymard and Gouttefangeas became acquainted. Gouttefangeas, impressed with Aymard’s ability, discussed his impending project with Étoile.

“He told me that [since] I just started playing at the senior level at 20, I think [by going to Singapore], I could really do something. He said, ‘you could go there and try to see if you could break into the team. Maybe you could could come in as a substitute for games.’ Either way, he said it would be a good experience for me.”

Aymard was incredibly interested in the Étoile project, but he did not lie. Had you asked him where Singapore was on the map, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

As the Étoile project increasingly materialized, trials were conducted sometime in late 2009 for French players to be recruited for the club in Singapore. Aymard may have linked up with the 2010 side that won the S.League in their debut season. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury nearing the trials that sidelined him for a couple of months. As such, he had to miss the trials for the 2010 season.

Yet, in early 2011, an opportunity to play for Étoile beckoned once again for Aymard as the club held another trial at Toulouse. After the club’s success of clinching the S.League title, they wanted to continue their momentum but only retained a few players, with many either returning to France, joining Singaporean clubs, or transferring to other teams in the region.

“I remember getting a call on the 31st of December and I was with friends at Barcelona for holiday. The call was from Gouttefangeas and he asked if I could come down to Toulouse next week for a trial. And so I said okay.”

During the trials, Aymard really stood out because he realized that he came from the lowest footballing level. Other players had either played professionally or semi-professionally. He was the only player who came from a fully amateur background. Despite the gulf in level, Aymard shone brilliantly during the trials and Gouttefangeas rang him up a week later to offer him an opportunity to play in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“I was still a student at that point and I had 6 months left for my degree. So, I had to discuss this with my friends. My dad told my I’m insane and questioned what I was going to do there [in Singapore]. I told him I needed the experience and justified the move saying I will come back learning how to speak English. The funny part was that, since I was only with the French players, I went to Singapore with zero English and I came back with zero English. The idea was to go to Singapore for a year and come back to finish the remaining 6 months of my degree.”

The First Season with Étoile and Return to France

Aymard left Paris and headed to Bangkok to link up with the Étoile squad for a training camp and played a series of friendlies against Thai sides, including Muangthong United. Playing in humid and hot temperatures was a challenging experience for the Frenchman.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“We played one friendly against Muangthong, a good team in Thailand. [The Étoile players] didn’t know each other but we could all see that there was quality in the team. I remember playing the match at 3pm. For the first 30 minutes, we smashed 2 goals past them. Then, after that, we were done. It was so hot and we were all exhausted. Then Muangthong scored a few past us and we lost something like 4-2.”

After a 10 day pre-season stint at Thailand, Aymard headed to Singapore for the Charity Shield against Tampines and was pleasantly surprised to find his name in the starting eleven. Usually playing as a centre-back in France, he played at right-back for that match but didn’t expect to start much later for the season, given his lack of professional experience. Yet, Aymard found himself playing quite a bit that season. In fact, he was the primary right-back for Étoile and played a total of 26 games.

Despite the significant game time, Aymard and co. were unable to repeat the momentous feat of their compatriots a season earlier. The French-based club finished in 5th position, which was disappointing to say the least. It would be the final season for Étoile in the S.League, and the club pulled out of the league altogether, opting to focus on grassroots football instead – something that Étoile is still engaged in. Aymard reveals that monetary issues led to the closure of the club. Towards the end of 2011, salary problems plagued the clubs for months, with the club paying partial payments of their salaries. In the end, Étoile managed to pay most players who came back to Singapore for the 2012 season. Yet, there were also some, like those that did not return, supposedly missing 2 to 3 months of their salary.

“You know, the last 2 to 3 games of the season. I remember that some players were talking in the changing room that if they recieve no salary, they would not play. The boss didn’t want word to spread around outside of Singapore. So, he would pay some money urging the players to play and promising them they will get the rest later on.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Johan Gouttefangeas was the chairman of the club but he was not the financier of the club. There was some businessman in Singapore financing it and so I remember filing a report with MOM (Ministry of Manpower) and in 2 to 3 months I received my money. I remembered before the report with MOM, I kept on emailing him and emailing him but there was nothing, no response. Then after the report, I remember the [financier’s] secretary calls me up and tells me they have the money and whether I could come on down to Raffles Place. I remember that. She gives me a cheque and I was kind of [uncertain] because when we were playing at Etoile, we would cash in the cheques [issued to us] but they would bounce back. There was no money.”

Aymard only received his owed salary mid-way during the 2012 S.League season when he returned to start his second chapter in Singapore. This time with Tanjong Pagar. Also it’s important to note that the financier is not associated with Etoile FC Academy run by Ludovic Casset.

Return to Singapore and The Quest to Find for a Club

After the end of the 2011 season, Aymard went back to France and waited patiently for an official contract from Étoile. The club officials had promised the players that the 2012 season would be better financially if the club kept going. However, the contract never came. Instead, an email explaining the club’s decision to pull out of the league entirely.

Unlike some of his other teammates, Aymard had limited contacts and had no chance to try his luck elsewhere in the region. Neither did he have a chance with other clubs in Singapore because they had mostly filled out their foreign player slots by the time Étoile’s decided to exit the league. Instead, he played for 6 months with Le Puy yet again and also juggled working at Decathlon during this period.

The goal was to try his luck yet again mid-way through the S.League in June. Aymard knew Sirina Camara was still there, and he often called Aymard to come to Singapore for holiday and to try. So he decided to try his luck in Singapore with no offers on the table. Thankfully, he did have friends in the country. Besides Sirina, he also knew Jonathan Toto, Franklin Anzité, and Frederic Mendy.

Franklin Anzité was away on international duty with Central African Republic when Aymard arrived in Singapore and gave his housekeys to Mendy so that Aymard could have a place to stay while searching for an opportunity.

“I prepared my CV but I really had no contacts whatsoever. Then I recalled something. In 2011, I remember one of the biggest sports channels in France came over to Singapore to do a documentary on Étoile. They followed us around and interviewed us and showed our game against Tampines. So I looked up the documentary on youtube and I saw a FAS representative who spoke in the video and I took down his name.”

This FAS representative was none other than Ridzal Saat, who was Deputy Director for Development and Planning in the FAS. In 2014, Saat would be headhunted by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to become its Services Manager for Asia.

“I tried to find his contact and I did. So I emailed him before leaving for Singapore, asking about any way I could reach out to clubs to ask about transfers. Three to four days later, 24 hours after landing in Singapore, [Saat] emailed me back. He informed me that he heard Tanjong Pagar was looking for new foreign players after letting go some of them. He gave me their manager details who I contacted and the manager asked me to come the next day for training at Queenstown Stadium.

“I remember telling Sirina when I landed I have no club. Sirina responded telling we could go to Hougang and here and there to try and get me a club. Then after Saat’s email the next day, I told Sirina I’m training with Tanjong Pagar. He was shocked at how fast I managed to get a trial.

“The coach at the time was Singapore legend Terry Pathmanathan and he was a very strict guy. You know, no smiles. But, he was a centre-back as a player and he was focusing on me a lot. There was another player on trial and that was Carlos Delgado. That time they already had 2 foreign players and Tanjong Pagar needed just two more to fill their foreign player spots. After 1 to 2 players, the assistant coach, Tokijan, told me to go and take the beep test.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Thankfully, Aymard managed to pass the beep test and he was offered a 6 month contract. What is truly remarkable is how lucky Aymard was. He returned to Singapore in June 2012 with absolutely nothing – no concrete offers whatsoever. He had a return ticket a month later. To him, if he had received a contract, he would stay. If not, he was going to enjoy this month long vacation with his former teammates before returning home and deciding what’s next. Yet, the stars seemed to have aligned in his favour and everything worked out just fine for the talented Frenchman.

In Part 2, I look at Aymard’s time playing with Tanjong Pagar and later on with Phnom Penh Crown Football Club as well as what he’s up to nowadays.

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The Sailors started brightly against the Eagles, with Stipe Plazibat opening the floodgates with a debut goal in the 8th minute. The assist came from none other than Tajeli Salamat, a player I interviewed a few months ago. Shadan Sulaiman’s corner kick was met by Tajeli, whose drooping header found Stipe in the 6-yard box, whose strike easily found the back of the net. 

In the 17th minute, an unmarked Nur Luqman wasted a golden opportunity to equalize when his lobbed effort beat Sailors keeper Hassan Sunny also beat the post. Minutes later, Stipe came close to adding to his tally, but Zainol Gulam pulled a magnificent save. Similarly, Tajeli once again made his presence known in the match by keeping the visitors out with a goal-line clearance in the 35th minute after a spectacular move by the Eagles.

Drama unfolded just before the break, as Geylang goalkeeper Zainol Gulam committed a nasty challenge on Arshad Shamim in the penalty box, which resulted in a red card for the custodian. Substitute keeper Hairul Syirhan went the right way and almost kept out Song Ui-yong’s penalty, but the South Korean’s strike was too much for Syirhan to handle. Stipe made it three in the 84th minute with another simple tap in from Gabriel Quak’s low-driven pass. 4 minutes later, Singapore icon Sharil Ishak made it 4-0. 

Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

All eyes would have indeed been on Stipe Plazibat for this fixture. The Croatian transferred from Hougang United to the Sailors during the league’s suspension. He was brought in to replace Australian forward Andy Pengelly, who returned home to Australia following the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Pengelly came in with a lot of promise. He scored an impressive 52 goals in 34 games for the semi-professional outfit, Brisbane Queensland National Premier League (NPL). While it would have been interesting to see how Pengelly would have fared in Singapore, I don’t know if he was what the Sailors needed. He could have been a “Hidden Gem” that potentially set the league on fire. I mean, he did score in his first game for the Sailors. However, he could have struggled later on as well. We would never know. 

Stipe, on the other hand, is a proven striker in Singapore. Scratch that, he is arguably the best foreign player in our shores right now. With him leading their frontline, the Sailors have that statement signing that seemingly eluded them at the start of the season. His double against the Eagles brings his tally to 11 goals in 7 appearances for this season. The forward scored 9 in 6 for Hougang before the league’s suspension. 

At the start of the season, the Sailors looked like a disjointed team that had no bite. Pengelly scored the first goal against Tanjong Pagar, but the subsequent 4-0 thrashing by Tampines showed that the Sailors had a long way to go. The long break of 211 days certainly helped to promote team cohesion, and that probably helped build chemistry. That being said, I Stipe Plazibat’s acquisition helps to lessen the load on Song Ui-Yong and Sharil Ishak, the two primary sources for goals for Home United for the past couple of years. 

This is the Sailors’ first win of the season, and it sees them move up to 6th place. However, with two games in hand, they could see themselves top of the table if they win both fixtures. The Sailors play against Albirex Niigata next, and a win against the three-time league champions would really emphasize their calibre. It would be a real test against the White Swans though, who cruised past Young Lions in a 4-0 win this past weekend. Geylang, on the other hand, are now in 5th place after the loss and host Balestier Khalsa this Saturday. Based on Balestier’s match against Tanjong Pagar, Geylang have an excellent chance to come away with a victory.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

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The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European leagues, 5 substitutions are allowed as opposed to 3. More importantly, there is a lot at stake for clubs this season, given how the top 3 teams will be eligible for continental competition next season onwards. The revisions to the AFC Champions League means that the top-placed Singaporean club would have an automatic berth in the group stages, and for the first time in a decade, we will definitely have a Singaporean representative in Asia’s premier continental competition. The second and third placed Singaporean sides would have an automatic place in the AFC Cup group stages.

Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

I’m just really excited for local football to be back.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

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Taking Youth Football to Another level – A chat with Habil Hakim

For Singapore footballing standards in Singapore to grow, we need to ensure that there are enough opportunities for youth players to develop. This is why football academies are essential. Given the limited number of professional Singapore Premier League clubs, and by extension, the limited number of Centre of Excellences (COEs), football academies play an instrumental role in developing our youth. These academies become institutions of formal learning for both sets of players, those who want to pursue a professional career or recreational players who want to get better.

In 2011, the F-17 football academy was launched to provide training programs tailored for male and female players across the various age groups. As one would expect from a school established by the Son of Singapore Football, the current coaching line-up is filled with a wealth of experienced personnel. Within their ranks, they have former S.league veterans, Syed Azmir, Fadhil Salim, Sevki Sha’ban and Abdul Rahman Hassan. Among them is a rising star in his own right, Habil Hakim bin Roslan. Habil is the current acting technical director with F-17. However, don’t get it wrong. Habil wasn’t handed the role on a silver platter – his story is one that exemplifies sheer hard work and determination.

I managed to speak to Habil a couple of months back (yes, I know, this is long overdue) and understanding the local football academy scene was a real eye-opener for me. 

Beginnings in Football

Habil Hakim played as a goalkeeper growing up. As a young boy, he played for Tampines Rovers Under-10s and rose through their youth levels till the under-17 level. At Tampines, Habil was coached by the late David Sivalingam, who had a massive influence on Habil. He was someone that Habil regularly saw during trainings and matches, and his guidance benefited Habil a lot.

Sivalingam was an excellent coach and it is hardly surprising that Habil looked up to him. The late coach did well with the NFA U-18 team that Harris Harun featured in and guided them to winning the Prime League in 2008. What’s remarkable is that the team were unbeaten that title-winning season. Sivalingam was managing the Youth Olympics Games team before suddenly and unfortunately passed away. Sivalingam may no longer be around, but he still influences Habil in many ways.

Besides growing up playing as a goalkeeper, Habil also grew up playing the game that most football fanatics love, Football Manager. Playing the game hours on end, he fell in love with the idea of management as an alternate pathway for his footballing career. Habil was an N-Level student who completed his NITEC and was doing his Higher NITEC in mechanical engineering when he decided to drop out. As soon as he turned 18, he embarked on this new journey of football coaching and management.

“I went to take my preliminary coaching license when I was 18 and everyone there (at the course) was telling me how young I was. I mean, I did it all for the game. (At the beginning), I got attached as an assistant coach with CDC programmes at ITE Balestier and I slowly gained confidence. Then, after that, I went to National Service.

“During my National Service, I was a high elements instructor and I was already dealing with NPCC kids. So even back then, I had some certifications working with youth and safety.”

After National Service, the job hunt began for Habil who was searching widely for a full-time coaching job. Soon, he found one at a place which he still treasures up to this day. It was here that he learned a lot of valuable skills and honed his coaching ability.

Image provided by Habil Hakim

Venturing into Academy Management

For the next 5 years, a Japanese Academy here in Singapore became home for Habil. This is where his journey into academy management and coaching truly started. However, the start was far from a bed of roses. Habil’s salary back then was a mere $1,000 before CPF and while most Singaporeans would be put off by such low pay, Habil seized the opportunity.

“The promise was you learn a lot for that (pay). I told myself, you know what, I’m just going to grab it. I’m fresh in this line of work and I really needed to learn a lot of things. When I spoke with my boss then, he told me that he would teach me things that other people would not and also about the academy business.”

The learning curve was steep. Habil was given a lot of tough love and he was always expected to give his best. After all, he was the only Singaporean then and was surrounded by other expat coaches from Japan as well as former Hougang United player, Robert Chinedu Eziakor (who’s currently a coach with the Cheetahs).  No local coaches have ever lasted that long with the academy, but it was through Habil’s perseverance that he not only managed to survive but also become a significantly better coach.

“It was tough. I remember my first meeting. As a rookie, I did not know what to expect or do. So, I went there without any materials or without dressing properly and my mentor would look at me and tell me to go back (home). He’d tell me to think (about why I was sent home). So the next meeting, I would come with some materials, like pens and some paper for note-taking, but I would not be well dressed. So my mentor would tell me it’s not good enough and told me to go back (home) again. Then, when I was finally prepared and dressed appropriately, he let me into the meeting.

“It was like a progression and this is the same for a lot of things with the academy. We have training plans that need to be vetted and if it weren’t up to the mark, my boss would either use a pen and cross out the entire training plan or crumple the paper and throw it away.”

When Habil’s training plans got routinely rejected by his mentor, he came up with three plans instead of one. In the event where his mentor rejected the first one, I had two more at the ready for vetting. That impressed his mentor a lot and Habil learned that his mentor was trying to instil a sense of professionalism in him. His boss was no bully. He just expected a lot and set high standards so that his coaches improve.

One other big takeaway for Habil was learning the fundamentals about the business side of running academies. His mentor taught Habil everything he needed to know on how to run youth tournaments. His mentor then challenged him to find sponsors for an upcoming tournament as a means for Habil to learn, something that he learned a lot from.


After 5 years, Habil moved on to greener pastures for a new challenge. F-17 came to him with a proposal and an offer. To Habil, it was the best feeling in the world because it was a testament to how far it had grown. Instead of applying for a job, his ability and efforts had merited him an offer that was too good to turn down.

Habil was blown away by the structure of the organization and the facilities at their disposal. However, he only accepted their offer on the condition that he was able to do things his way (or instead, the Japanese way he learned at his previous academy) because he felt that the kids at F-17 could be pushed more.

According to Habil, the training plan is the most crucial element for coaching to be successful. Previously, he has encountered many coaches who do not have any training plan and go into training with whatever is in their head. When he explained it to me, it made sense why a training plan is so important for the development of youth footballers.

“If you have a training plan, you start asking yourself questions like, ‘why is this training needed?’ It allows you to (determine) how much time you would want to spend on a certain drill and what coaching points you would want to give.”

From a coach’s point of view, this is something that had been lacking in the local scene. At F-17, coaches are expected to maintain a professional image, prepare training plans, teach values, and have open communications within the coaching team.

In 2017, Habil was promoted as the General Manager of F-17. In this role, he oversees the recruitment of coaches and acts as an intermediary between the directors and coaching team. Habil has always looked up to Johor Darul Ta’zim owner, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, as a role model in how he manages. The Crown Prince of Johor has revolutionized the Johor club and have made them into a real Asian powerhouse. Similarly, Habil wants F-17 to be a platform to revolutionize football in Singapore and improve the overall footballing standards.

Credits: Funroots International

Since becoming GM, F-17 has secured multiple partnerships with academies overseas. In 2018, F-17 managed to secure a partnership with David Villa’s DV7 Academy in Japan. F-17 players are sent over to Japan for training stints to improve their game but also coaches learn a lot from the different training methods ran by DV7. Besides the Japan link, links had been formed in academies in Spain and Thailand. Currently, F17 has also partnered up with Wolverhampton Wanderers where the coaches in Singapore learn from their counterparts in England through webinars.

Credits: Funroots International

Giving a Voice to Youth Football

One thing that impressed me was how Habil runs a video podcast series called Youth Football Talk, which runs on IGTV. In this series, he gives youth footballers a chance to tell their stories and share their experiences. As someone who tries to tell footballing stories myself, I do appreciate Habil’s commitment in this initiative. These are just a few of his episodes.

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Future Aspirations?

I had to ask Habil this question though: What about progressing his career into managing and coaching first-team squads? He responded with the following analogy.

“There are doctors who can treat everything, and there are specialists as well. Like the specialist doctors, I want to be a youth specialist. I want to stay in this youth category. Some have been asking me why I don’t manage the Under-23s or the adults, and I mean I could do that for leisure, but it really isn’t my main interest.”

One thing is for sure, though. There are bigger things in store for Habil’s future. Recently, Habil was approached by a football academy in Japan who were interested in signing him. The academy paid for his flight and hotel and flew him to Japan for a 3-day trip to discuss a potential move. However, Covid-19 might have put a hold on Habil’s aspirations, but his future is a bright one.

I think Habil Hakim’s story shows that hard work and resilience pays off. Yes, opportunities are important but Hakim, in all honesty, is a self-made man. He started with literally nothing, and he really made the best of the opportunities that he received. This interview also gave me hope for the future of Singaporean football. Some may ridicule Project 2034, Edwin Tong’s ambitious plan for Singapore to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals, but if there were more coaches like Habil Hakim out there, it is not an impossible target. We need to work on the current generation of youth footballers to improve our footballing future.

I also am a big fan of Singaporean players and coaches venturing overseas to further their game. Players and coaches can’t expect to get better if they stay in Singapore. Moving overseas to hone their craft is necessary for development. On that note, I do sincerely hope that Habil does go to Japan and takes his coaching game to another level.

Featured Image by Habil Hakim.

P.S Shout out to our reader Mhod Mahsum for helping us reach out!

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Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 2: Takeaways thus far as Head Coach

In Part 1, I looked at Gavin’s journey to coaching in top flight football. In Part 2, I look at Gavin’s first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach and some of the things he has learned and experienced.

Takeaways from His First Year

There was a lot of buzz when Gavin got appointed as the Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019. People who knew Gavin were very excited and supportive about the decision. Here, there was an up and coming young football coach who had his own ideas. However, there were also people, who didn’t know Gavin, that were skeptical about the move. They wondered whether Gavin could manage a team that had several players who were older than him.

Even though Tampines failed to win the league in 2019, it’s safe to say that the club has progressed a lot under Gavin’s stewardship. In 2018, Gavin had been assistant coach to Jürgen Raab. Under the former East German international, the club finished 4th in the league, finished bottom of their AFC Cup group and were knocked out by Home United in the quarter-finals of the Singapore Cup.

By contrast, as I mentioned earlier in the article, Gavin steered the Stags to a second-place finish in the SPL, won the Singapore Cup and came second in their AFC Cup group, narrowly missing out on qualification from the Group Stages in the AFC Cup by goal difference. Gavin has a plan for the Stags and it has been working thus far.

One thing that Gavin realized quite quickly as Tampines Rovers’ head coach is that even though he was working with adults, grown men, his players were still boys at heart.

“All they want to do is enjoy training; enjoy football just like the JSSL players I worked with. People often forget that even though they are adults, they want to enjoy football. My message to the team from day 1 has been that I want [my players] to be looking forward to training. I do not want my players to be dragging their feet to training and seeing it as work. We are all so privileged to be working in football and being paid to do what we love. If we do not enjoy what we do, it is going to be a problem. I know sitting on the bench is not going to be enjoyable. I understand that, but at the very least, when it comes to training, players need to enjoy being on the pitch.”

Gavin also gave me insights on how the recruitment process happens behind the scenes. Being the head coach, he will highlight certain areas that need reinforcement and, together with his technical team (Desmond Ong, Mustafic Fahrudin and William Phang) source for players. Of course, to play for a club like Tampines, a player is expected to be of a certain caliber. However, for Gavin, he pays particular attention to the character of the player, which he believes is “as important if not more important than the technical ability of a player.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

That being said, Gavin counts himself lucky to be working with a host of national team players before turning thirty years old. Daniel Bennet, Madhu Mohana, Irwan Shah, Yasir Hanapi, Baihaiki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Hassan Sunny and Ammirul Adli are just some of the names that he has worked with.

However, he conceded that planning ahead can be a challenge in the Singapore Premier League, and that is because of the league’s unpredictability. I agree with him. No one saw it coming when the FAS asked Warriors FC, the 7-time S.League champions and most successful team in Singaporean football, to sit out of the current 2020 campaign due to the club’s financial issues. One problem that Gavin has navigated around is the issue of transfers, where the Tampines head coach has promoted a number of players from the club’s Prime League squad.

“We do want to think ahead and as much as we can see ahead, we will plan for it. However, when it comes to the unpredictability of Singapore football, it is tough. [At the same time,] I think we have shown that we are serious about bringing young players in like [Ammirul] Adli, Irfan Najeeb, Shah Shahiran, and Joel Chew. If they are good enough, they are old enough.”

“At the same time, I’ve been saying this to reporters a lot since Baihakki joined us, if you’re good enough, you’re young enough as well. I think once they introduced the under-23 rule, it forced a number of senior players out of the door. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If you’re good enough, you’re young enough. It works both ways. You can’t be telling me that someone like Bai, who is good enough for Thai League 1, is too old for Singapore football. I do not buy that. If Daniel Bennet is good enough to play in the SPL, it is not Daniel Bennet’s fault [that he is 42 years old.]”

The importance of management and bringing in a culture to the club is another takeaway for Gavin.

“I hate this term, control. In football in general, you hear this term a lot; controlling players; managing players. I don’t see it that way. I see it as working together with players. It stems back to JSSL where I was given an opportunity to be the director of coaching and general manager quite young. [I was] Working with people older than me so I had to learn how to work with them. You can’t force things on people, you can only convince or influence them. Those skills were useful coming to Tampines.”

Thankfully, Gavin reveals that the older players knew what he was trying to accomplish at the club and threw their weight behind him. After Gavin managed to win over the core group of Tampines players, the rest of the squad followed suit.

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

“People think I have the most problems with the senior players; that they are the ones who will give me the most problems. They are the players who I have least problems with. To be honest, I have no problems with the senior players. They are the most professional because they get what I’m doing and they’ve got to where they are today because of their professionalism. It’s the younger players that need an education because they can be naive at times, but who better to guide them than the senior players.”

One message that Gavin and the Tampines team tell their young players is to use Tampines as a platform to go abroad. Honestly speaking, a player would probably reach a plateau and stagnate if he plays in Singapore for an extended period of time. It is important for players to move abroad so that they take their game to the next level. Gavin can tell this to his players easily because that is the same message sent to him by the Chairman. However, that doesn’t mean that Gavin has any concrete plans for the future just yet. Although, Gavin does have ambitions, and one of them is to coach a club in the Champions League, something that he has made public about.

“As a coach, the highest possible level is probably the Champions League and I really want to compete in the Champions League. What form that takes, I don’t know. I am not Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti where I can have my pick of clubs. I am not there yet. It’s why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future because I want to be focusing on the present. I need to get now sorted, if I don’t do that I won’t have a future. Well, I would have a future but it is a poorer one. It is something I tell my players, to focus on the now.”

Gavin has also gotten a clearer understanding of how Singapore football works. The various processes, the strengths and weaknesses of the current system in place, as well as the financing are just some of the things that Gavin has come to grips with after his first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach. As a result, he believes that people who criticize local football really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, which is true. Many of us (myself included) can lament about the state of Singaporean football, but without an understanding what issues linger in the local footballing framework, we are not really helping by complaining, are we?

Relishing AFC Football

While the Singapore Premier League is the main focus for the club, Gavin won’t hide the fact that he thoroughly enjoys the AFC Cup, primarily because of the higher level of competition. Take last year for example, the Stags were grouped together with Hanoi FC (champions of Vietnam), Yangon United (champions of Myanmar), and Nagaworld (champions of Cambodia). That campaign was a memorable one for Gavin, whose side came in second and only failed to progress due to goal difference.

“Last year we won 4 games, drew 1 and lost 1. We lost the game to Hanoi and I think people forget how good Hanoi are. Hanoi are potentially one of the best teams in Southeast Asia. So, they’re on the level of JDT. They have such a good team and the football they play is very good as well. I told the team last season that there would be one or two games where we’d concede a little more possession than we’d like and that’s against Hanoi.”

Gavin wasn’t wrong. The Stags won all their other matches but drew their first match against Hanoi at home, 1-1, and lost 2-0 away. Losing out on goal difference was probably rough, but Gavin and his team could hold their heads up high.

People probably think that the 4-3 thriller during the Singapore Cup Final was the most memorable for the Tampines head coach, but it was the Stags’ first AFC Cup match against Yangon that stood out for Gavin. I guess it comes as no surprise since it was Gavin’s first competitive fixture with the club (the AFC Cup/Champions League starts before the commencement of the SPL). What a start it was, though. Tampines cruised past Yangon 3-1 in what I’d call a dream start for any debuting coach.

The Stags have started strong this term in the AFC Cup as well and are still unbeaten in the group stages. The tournament will resume in October and hopefully, Tampines can go far this time round.

Coping with Covid-19

The global pandemic has brought football to a halt in Singapore. There are serious doubts as to whether the Singapore Premier League will continue. As things stand, training sessions have resumed but are limited to groups of 5 per session. While maybe not the most conducive way to train for football, Gavin would take this any day over zoom sessions. It has been a challenge to train during the pandemic, but Gavin and Tampines are doing whatever within their means to make the most out of the situation at hand. What worries the Tampines head coach more is an intensification of the infection.

“My biggest concern for this pandemic is a re-occurrence of it. The health and safety of everyone is so important, and the last thing we want is to go into lockdown (again). So, I trust the authorities and the medical experts making the decisions, but you see other countries having a second wave and the ripple effect of that is terrifying. It’s not just about football. Football is the last thing when it comes to these situations. Health and your livelihood is the most important.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC​

I had this interview with Gavin sometime in mid-July. While it’s been more than a month and with cases dwindling down, there has been no word from the FAS on the resumption of the SPL. I do hope that things get better and that we see professional football return.

To end off, let me say this. I did not know what I was getting myself into before I interviewed Gavin. Here before me was the head coach of one of Singapore’s biggest professional football clubs. After interviewing him I can say that you won’t find many people as passionate about football and the local game as Gavin Lee. He is a charismatic and inspirational figure who goes the extra mile to achieve his goals. I’m not kidding, even during his “free time,” Gavin reads about football, analyzes fixtures, and watches documentaries all in a bid to further his own coaching ability. He is the ideal role model for anyone who wants to turn football into a career, and it was a pleasure to interview him.

Featured Image Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

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The K-League is the new top destination for ASEAN footballers

Starting this season, the K-League has added an extra foreign player slot for players from ASEAN football federation members. Yes, that means that players from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and Myanmar could potentially feature in the K-League seasons to come. However, and mostly because of the coronavirus pandemic restricting travel, there are no Southeast Asian footballers playing in the league this season. However, I am sure that, in due time, and as travel restrictions ease off, we will see Southeast Asians ply their trade in Korea.

The decision to open up an ASEAN slot got me thinking about the merits of such a move. What I can tell you is that I welcome this initiative by the South Korean professional football league, and it is a move that benefits all parties.

Southeast Asian Footballers in East Asia

There are Southeast Asian players who have played in South Korea before, but these players are but a handful. Here’s a list of players who have played in the Korean top flight thus far:

  • Nguyễn Công Phượng (CAM, ST), Incheon United, 2019.
  • Lương Xuân Trường (CM, DM), Incheon United (2016), Gangwon FC, 2017.
  • Álvaro Silva (CB), Daejeon Citizen, 2015.
  • Piyapong Pue-on (ST), Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (FC Seoul), 1984-86.
  • Rodrigo Souza Silva (CAM), Daegu FC, 2017.

I wasn’t kidding. Only 5 players from ASEAN nations have played in the Korean top flight. If you include the 2 East Timor players that played in the K-League 2, that’s a total of 7 ASEAN players who have played in Korea. By contrast, 33 Southeast Asians have played in Japan with 6 players currently playing in the league. Of course, it is important to note that starting from the 2017 season, players from J.League partner nations (Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and Qatar) are exempt from foreign player-related club registration and match day fielding eligibility.

So why is it beneficial for all parties? Quite simply it is…

A New Platform for ASEAN Players and A New Market for K-League

It would be safe to say that most ASEAN players would dream of moving abroad. However, there are limited overseas options for ASEAN footballers who want to take their game to the next level. Usually, work permit issues tend to be a problem for players to move to Europe. However, in recent years, more Southeast Asian footballers are looking towards the J.League as the pinnacle they need to reach. The J.League is an extremely competitive league, and a number of European heavyweights ply their trade there right now. Barcelona icon Iniesta still plays for Vissel Kobe. Besides that, Japan is a traditional Asian powerhouse.

Traditionally, the other strong Asian footballing state has always been South Korea. You could challenge me on this, but the statistics do not lie. K-League clubs have won the Asian Club Championship and AFC Champions league a record 11 times and have come as runners up in the competition 6 times.

ASEAN footballers can take their game to the next level with the K-League and they should grasp the opportunity to do so. Southeast Asian national teams would relish the opportunity for their biggest talents to bring their game to the next level. Korea is a perfect destination for that to happen.

Like every competitive league, it is beyond time for the K-League to grow its market. Like the J.League, it offers fans top-notch action. However, where the K-League falls behind the J.League is in having well-known foreign footballers. This is why the ASEAN quota will come in handy because it circumvents the issue of having wold-renowned footballers within their ranks. There are many talented Southeast Asian footballers with massive fan bases in the region.

Just how big is Southeast Asia?

Well there are approximately 669,487,902 Southeast Asians as of 2020. That is a massive market to tap onto. Obviously not all 669,487,902 people are football fans, and most who do follow their local footballing scenes will probably root for their fellow compatriots. Even then, the market is really huge.

So who should K-League clubs eye in Southeast Asia?

I guess a good question would be to ask who would be ideal signings for K-League clubs. There are a many players who can play in the K-League. These are just some players I’d personally want to see ply their trade in South Korea.

Stefano Lilipaly

  • Nationality: Indonesian/Dutch
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: Bali United

With over 1 million followers on Instagram, Stefano Lilipaly makes the ideal signing for any K-League club. He is a quality player who also brings about increased brand exposure. The right winger is currently playing for Bali United but has featured prominently in the Dutch Eerste Divisie, appearing for Almere City, FC Utrecht, SC Telstar, and SC Cambuur. He also turned out for J.League side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, making a singular appearance for them in the Emperor’s Cup. I think a move to Korea would allow the Indonesian international to have a second crack at football in East Asia. For whatever reason, he never featured in the league with Consadole Sapporo, and a move to a K-League club would allow him to redeem himself. 6 years have passed since that failed stint in Japan and Lilipaly has developed into an Indonesian icon and is a valuable acquisition indeed.

Safawi Rasid

  • Nationality: Malaysian
  • Position: Right Winger
  • Current Club: JDT

Be warned, the right winger has a lethal left foot and if he cuts inside the right wing, it would most likely end up as a goal. Just how lethal is he? Take a look at this highlight reel here. On top of that, he is a free-kick specialist, a valuable addition for any team. Personally, I think Rasid has outgrown JDT, and it is time for him to bring his game to the next level. Then again, I could understand why a permanent move away from Johor might not be in the winger’s favour. JDT’s project of becoming a real contender in Asia will probably entice the player to stay. After all, who wouldn’t want to be part of such a magnificent opportunity to make the Malaysian titans an Asian powerhouse. Perhaps a loan move to a K-League club makes sense so that the Malaysian can benefit from higher levels of competition at a regular level. A loan stint is ideal since it gives the K-League club exposure in Malaysia and allows the winger to return to Johor a potentially better player.

Harris Harun

  • Nationality: Singaporean
  • Position: Central Midfielder, Defensive Midfielder
  • Current Club: JDT

At 29 years old, Harris has accomplished a lot. Most of these accomplishments have come during his time with JDT. Since arriving in 2014, the tenacious midfielder has gone on to win the Malaysia Super League every season, the FA Cup in 2016, and the Malaysia Cup in 2019 with the Southern Tigers. However, the highlight of his tenure has to be winning the AFC Cup in 2015 and becoming the first Singaporean to do so. Harris also has been playing regularly in the Asian Champions League, which is important for any K-League club because he has proven that he can play against Asia’s elite. Besides being able to play as a centre-back, the current Singapore and JDT captain is also a natural born leader, and that is something that would be of added value. Even though many Singaporean fans are apathetic about local football, Singaporeans would throw their weight behind Harris if he secures a transfer to the K-League.

Aung Thu

  • Nationality: Burmese
  • Position: Second Striker, Attacking Midfielder
  • Current Club: Yadanarbon Football Club

Kyaw Ko Ko is the pride of Myanmar and the star striker of the nation. However, it is Aung Thu who I believe is better suited for the K-League. His pace, dribbling ability, clinical finishing and his ability to pick out his team mates in the final third have led some to label him as the “Messi of Myanmar.” While he can play in multiple positions, he is best suited as a second striker or an attacking midfielder, where he can assist his team mates or bang in the goals. Yes, some of you may disagree with my assessment that Aung Thu is good enough for the K-League and I agree, Aung Thu still needs to work to develop into the finished product. However, I urge you to look at his 2018 season when he was on loan at BEC Police Tero. In a season that saw the Thai top flight club get relegated, Aung Thu was the third-highest scorer with 11 goals and the second-highest provider of assists with 8. However, he needs to play as an attacking midfielder for him to shine. Last season, Aung Thu was often played out at the wing, which hampered his ability to influence the game as much. In 11 league matches, he only scored 2 goals. I believe that Aung Thu will be a valuable trump card for K league sides.

The players I mentioned above are by no means the only players that could play in the K-League. The list could go on to include a slew of players currently playing in Southeast Asia, such as Safuwan Baharudin and Nguyen Quang Hai, and that’s not to mention the Thai stalwarts playing the J.League like Teerasil Dangda. I am excited to see how other developments take place, specifically a chain reaction where more Southeast Asian players will climb up the rungs of the footballing ladder.

Allow me to clarify; there is a clear football hierarchy within Southeast Asia, where the ultimate goal is to play in the East Asian leagues (K League, Chinese Super League and J.League) and the A-League. One level below that is what I’d consider to be the premier ASEAN leagues, the Thai League 1 and the V.League 1. Slightly below that rung is the Malaysian Super League, followed by the Indonesian Liga 1. Under that rung, I’d classify all the various Southeast Asian leagues. This is the ladder I’m talking about. Now, if the best Southeast Asian footballers start playing in the K-League instead, there are spaces freed up for other Southeast Asian players to come and occupy, and yes, there will be a chain reaction, because most of these leagues have an ASEAN player slot so clubs will most certainly acquire new Southeast Asian players from the lower rungs of the footballing ladder. I can’t wait for that happen, because new opportunities will open up and new stars will be born.

Featured Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 1: The Journey to Topflight Football

Even though Singapore has a professional football league with seven local professional clubs, the pool of players is small. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the fact that most parents discourage their children from pursuing a professional career in sports. While many parents may be supportive of their children taking up sports as a serious hobby or ad hoc activity, they would rather their kids spend their time focusing on their academics. Getting a bachelor’s degree is usually seen as of paramount importance. However, to juggle one’s undergraduate studies and their sporting development is a monumental task. Hence, many often give up football altogether when they decide to pursue higher education in their late teens and early 20s.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. One such exception has to be Anders Aplin, who I interviewed sometime in May. The current Hougang United defender played for Geylang International during his last year in Nanyang Technological University and labelled how challenging that year was. One other person who knows this struggle of balancing academics and sports all too well is Gavin Lee, the current head coach of Tampines Rovers. The 28-year-old studied in NTU while coaching at JSSL full-time.

However, Gavin isn’t just a role model because he managed to fulfil “societal expectations” of obtaining a degree and at the same time pursuing a career in sports. He is a role model because, through his sheer hard work and resilience, he has overcome many barriers and went on to become the head coach of his boyhood club, Tampines Rovers, at the tender age of 28. However, don’t let his age fool you. In his debut season last year, Gavin managed to guide the Stags to a second-place finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). A truly impressive start for any coach.

I managed to interview Gavin sometime last month, and it was an enjoyable interaction. It was really easy to talk to Gavin. So easy that the interview often digressed to other footballing topics, and then it became a heart-warming conversation where we discussed everything under the sun. I won’t lie. I had a lot of fun in this interview, and it’s possibly top of the list for now.

In Part 1 of this interview, I take a look at Gavin’s journey before becoming Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019.

Beginnings in Football

Like many footballers, Gavin started off wanting to become a footballer from a young age. He grew up in Tampines and naturally fell in love with Tampines Rovers. Gavin studied at Tampines Primary, where a number of his then school mates make up the current national team. One schoolmate included Safirul Sulaiman, who Gavin now coaches at Tampines. He also played for the Tampines Rovers under-10 and then under-12 teams before moving onto the NFA set up. At NFA, he was coached by former Singapore stalwart Kadir Yahaya. At NFA, Gavin played in the same team as Harris Harun, Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad, and Gabriel Quak. While these players went on to forge successful professional careers as footballers, Gavin believed that his calling in football was to become a head coach instead.

“If I was going to do something, I wanted to be the best at it. I think I was an above-average player in terms of abilities but I knew I was never going to be as good as some of these players. At a younger age, I have already gotten exposure to coaching. My dad was, well still is, a coach and I remember I used to follow him around and help him out with coaching younger kids during my teenage years.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Subconsciously, I think that rubbed off on me because I’ve always seen my dad as a role model. [My dad] showed me his passion for coaching and Kadir Yahaya came along and showed me what coaching was. So, when I got a little more serious about coaching, I think things just picked off from there.

“I find a lot of you when I’m coaching other people. When you’re playing the game, you are more focused on your own contributions to the team so it can succeed. As a coach, you’re dealing with 25 other human beings and pulling them together in the same direction is not easy. I mean, it is never easy.”

Coping with Academics and Coaching

After finishing his Primary School Leaving Examinations, Gavin went to Pasir Ris Secondary School, where he met Yasir Hanapi, who was one year his senior. However, he would only spend a year there before transferring over to Victoria School in secondary 2, where he played for the school team. When he was secondary 4, Gavin decided that he was going to apply for Victoria Junior College through the Direct School Admission Exercise, citing that he was “never academically bright enough to get in.” After his A levels, like every Singaporean son, Gavin entered national service, and his coaching career reached a standstill. Gavin was never the most enthusiastic serviceman, but he got his job done and after his ORD went to work part-time as a coach with JSSL. However, while his parents supported his aspirations of becoming a football coach, they still (like most Singaporean parents) expect their children to obtain at least a bachelors degree.

“You know, I come from a Singapore family, you need to get the paper [qualifications]. Me trying to be the filial son, I had to try to get that degree. My parents, coming from that generation, always emphasized getting that degree because they didn’t necessarily have that opportunity. So, I had to kill two birds with one stone (getting a degree and progressing as a coach). I didn’t want to do a business degree or any random degree. I looked at my options and asked myself what can help me, so I saw sports science and I knew this could help me.”

Gavin pursued his degree in Sports Science at Nanyang Technological University for 4 years, which Gavin found especially beneficial. Besides refining his logical thinking, his time at University improved his critical analysis, ability to source for new information, and, most importantly, how to conduct research. By his second year at NTU, Gavin was working full time at JSSL. However, work commitments meant that he had little time and opportunity to socialize with his Sports Science cohorts nor participate in any hall activities.

Juggling academics and football is never an easy task, and I wanted to dive deeper into the topic and ask how Gavin managed his time. Gavin concedes that he struggled to balance school and football initially when he was younger during his time in secondary school. He left the NFA when he was in Secondary 4 because he believed that he couldn’t cope with the demands of training and adequately prepare for his GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Since he came from a reputable school, there was also a lot of expectations for Gavin to do well.

“When I was secondary 3 at Victoria School, I was in one of the better classes. I was in class 3D and I remember one of the HODs came in and said the school is expecting thirty 6-pointers from my class. I looked around and told myself, well I’m not going to be one of them. I had 6 to 7 scholars in my class. In hindsight, it was a good thing because it challenged me to focus on my academics. Maybe that’s why I thought I couldn’t manage both that and football (at the time).”

First Foray into coaching in the professional scene

In 2014, while balancing his work with JSSL and his academic responsibilities with NTU, Gavin was handed a fantastic opportunity to enter professional coaching by Alex Weaver. JSSL’s founder and managing director Harvey Davis allowed Gavin to take some time off so that he could work alongside Weaver at Warriors FC (my favourite club). The additional commitment of working with Warriors meant that his already long days became even longer, but despite that, Gavin learned a ton under Weaver’s guidance.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Alex opened the door and showed me a whole new world into coaching. I think that was important because, at the time, I knew there was more when it came to coaching but I didn’t know how to get there. So Alex came in and gave me a signpost saying ‘go here.’ Things just grew from there.”

Gavin spent close to 2 seasons with Warriors, and during his stint with the club, Weaver wanted Gavin to come on board in a more official capacity. However, the Warriors management did not see the value in Gavin then and did not want to hire an unproven manager. It would be more apt to call his time at Warriors an invaluable stint. The club did not pay Gavin, but the absence of a salary did not matter to him. He knew it would be incredibly difficult for him to get such an incredible experience again. Weaver did “pay” the player with drinks from Starbucks and food from Pastamania. These small gestures by Weaver meant a lot to Gavin, and their bond strengthened as they continued to work together at Warriors.

Gavin is still in contact with the former Warriors head coach, and they are still very close today. Weaver is now a football periodization coach at FC Basel’s Academy, yet the pair still make it a point to FaceTime every week. Gavin has visited Weaver several times in Switzerland and has stayed over at his family’s house. He has also stayed over with Weaver’s parents in Stoke, and Gavin is forever grateful for what the Weavers (Alex and his family) have done for and continue to do for him.

At JSSL, Gavin coached the son of the Tampines Rovers’ chairman Desmond Ong and became acquainted with him through that. Interestingly, Gavin’s father coached the son before Gavin coached him. Back then, Desmond was just a lawyer at Raffles Place. However, he approached Gavin to coach the Tampines Rovers Under-19 team and become assistant to then-head coach Jürgen Raab. Fortunately, he reached an agreement where he could work for both JSSL and Tampines Rovers. By doing so, he had the best of both worlds. How so? Well, Gavin had a step into professional football with Tampines Rovers while he remained coaching some of the best youth players in Singapore with JSSL.

Harvey Davis has been an important figure in Gavin’s career. The JSSL managing director has always recognized that it has been Gavin’s dream to become a head coach one day and has always fully supported his career. However, Gavin did not want to leave JSSL entirely. Yes, the academy needed someone else to help fill some of his responsibilities, but Gavin had invested so much of his time in JSSL that he could not simply walk away from it altogether.

Photo credits: Gavin Lee

“I had put in so much blood sweat and tears into JSSL with Harvey and we’ve developed it into a proper organization. The last thing you want to do is to leave the place in a worst state than when you [first] came on board. But, Harvey was extremely supportive for me to go across [into professional coaching full time] and I guess I never looked back when the opportunity came.”

One big factor that influenced Gavin’s decision to take up the Tampines job was the Stags’ chairman. As ambitious as Gavin is, he needs to partake in something sustainable. He did not want the appointment to be a gimmick – a one-season wonder kind of deal. Thankfully, the board knew Gavin well and were sold by his philosophy and process. While that may be, it also meant that Gavin needed to deliver results on the pitch and show the board that they were right in placing their trust in him.

In part 2, I look into the next chapter of Gavin’s career, his first full season as head coach of Tampines Rovers and see what plans he has in the future.

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The Jonathan Toto Exclusive Part 2 – Football Stardom in Singapore, A Greek Nightmare & Life after Football

In part 1, I examined Jonathan Toto’s career before playing in Singapore. From playing with Koulibaly and Pjanić in the FC Metz Academy to a stint with Hearts in Scotland, Toto had quite the eventful career by the time he was 21. It was this next chapter in Singapore where his footballing career really took off, and due to unfortunate circumstances, ended up peaking. After 2 years in the S.League, Toto secured a move to a Greek club but was then released shortly after, never to be heard from again.

Living the Footballing Fantasy in Singapore

In his short but eventful career, his two years in Singapore were by far the best. It was where he really lived out his footballing dreams as a star player. However, it wasn’t the motivation of becoming a star player that drove Toto’s decision to take up the opportunity to play in Singapore.

“After the failed Qatar trial, I decided to come to Singapore to get as far away as possible from Europe. I was fed up with the European footballing scene and all its problems. I didn’t have any family; I didn’t have any kids; I was young, so i decided to take my chance and come to Singapore. I had an amazing agent who linked me up with Étoile and I signed. This was where in my head, I started to think that a football career could be a real possibility. Before Singapore, I was training hard and playing well but for some reason [like agent troubles] i couldn’t secure a professional contract. I started to think if I was cursed. But Singapore man, I tell you, this was where [a professional] really started [for me].

“It was amazing; A French football club who wants you to make a career in Asia. You would be surrounded by French people, so you won’t be alone and they gave you money. I really enjoyed it. We had a special objective of retaining the S.league title and on top of that we needed to challenge the accomplishment of the previous Étoile FC team. People were talking how the new guys, us, were not that good, so we had a point to prove.”

The offer from Étoile FC was an amazing opportunity for a young Toto hungry for both professional game time and goals. And boy, did he do well in his debut season with the French club. Even though the club finished 5th, which was underwhelming given how the club had won the league the previous campaign, he scored 14 goals in 28 games in all competitions. I must say that a goal-to-game ratio of 0.5 is really respectable for any 21 year-old. Toto had many fond memories playing with Etoile and one of them was playing against Tampines at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

“I remember scoring against Tampines and that day, I saw [Aleksandar] Đurić. I remember people talking about how he was the Ibrahimovic of the league. When I saw him, he was so tall and I was happy to see and play against him. I love it when I’m on the field with superstars, better players, because they challenge me to do better and Đurić was one such player.”

However Aleksandar Đurić was not the only player that Toto looked forward to challenging. One other player was then-Home United talisman Fredric Mendy, who was part of the 2010 Étoile FC Championship winning squad. In many ways, Toto was brought in to replace Mendy for the 2011 campaign and naturally, Toto was fired up every time he faced Home United.

After the 2011 season concluded, Étoile pulled out of the S.League and opted to focus on grassroots football development instead. Many players returned to France or earned moves to other Southeast Asian clubs, with a few of them choosing to remain in Singapore. Toto was one such player who decided to remain in Singapore. Alongside Sirina Camara, he sealed a move to Courts Young Lions for the 2012 SPL campaign. He enjoyed playing football for the Young Lions team and huge reason for that was team manager Eugene Loo, who not only engineered the move but also made both French players feel right at home.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“He is an amazing person and Eugene Loo was always there for us. He was like a friend to both of us. He was somebody who took care of us. He was this person in the FAS who was very kind since the beginning. I remember how Étoile informed some of us hat we will be linked with the FAS to determine where we will play. Eugene called me and I spoke with him and that started my budding relationship with him. That is also how I became a Courts Young Lions player.”

Playing for Young Lions was indeed a special experience for Toto.

“We were two French guys playing in a squad full of local Singaporeans so it was a different experience to playing in Étoile. I was sort of used to this after playing Italy and Scotland but I had Sirina with me. Sirina is like a year younger than me and we were like brothers but Sirina wasn’t like me. I could speak English well but Sirina struggled to early on. They were tough on us, especially, because he was always speaking French. One day I told him, enough is enough and that we should only converse in English. I remember sometimes during training when Sirina asked me a question in French and I replied in English and it was very funny.”

Off the pitch, Toto enjoyed life in Singapore. He shared a condominium with Sirina and Canadian Under-23 player Sherif El-Masri, and he had a ball of a time. Life in Singapore was not that expensive for the forward, who loved the food and the city. Even though they were paid in Singaporean dollars, which was (and still is) weaker than the Euro, they were paid well for local standards, and Toto felt that life was really comfortable.

“I did not want to leave Singapore. People were amazing and I really loved Suntec City. I got all my stuff there. One thing I liked about Singapore was how there were luxury stores and at the same time nearby, you could have hawker centers or food courts where you could get chicken rice for a few dollars. It was amazing. In France, if you go to Paris and if you want to get a croissant or a bageutte, you can never get the same price as you do with the food in Singapore.”

Jonathan wanted to remain in Singapore and carve out a long career in the city-state. However, he couldn’t agree to contractual terms proposed by the clubs that approached him. He wanted the exact terms of the contract he had with Courts Young Lions, but none of the clubs were biting. He would then leave Singapore and head to Greece.

A Greek Nightmare & The Missing Piece to the Sirina Camara Story

After leaving Singapore, however, Toto came to realize that many Singaporean clubs, as well clubs around the region, were keen on signing him. He would later go on to regret this decision. To sum up his time in Greece in two words: “messed up.”

Problems started early on in his stint with Greek second division outfit Doxa Dramas. The agent that brought Toto to Greece told the forward everything he needed to hear, and then he left him there without any news henceforth. Being left alone was just the tip of the iceberg. Unpaid wages was the biggest issue that Toto faced during his time with Doxa Dramas. For an entire season, Toto was rarely paid. In fact, despite a relatively good season, most players in the club were not paid as well.

“They paid us a few times but that was it. It was so difficult to get paid without an agent present. And not just any agent, an agent that really takes care of players. I didn’t have that and I said I had enough of football, I went back to France to focus on myself.”

During his time in Singapore, Toto fell in love with tourism in Singapore, and he decided to invest in tourism. So, together with his family, they stared their own tourism business in Cameroon. Even though most of his wages was never paid while playing in Greece, Toto survived through the profits he earned through his tourism venture. However, his experience his Greece really soured his aspirations of becoming a professional footballer. Not only that, it also made him start asking himself some serious questions.

“I have goals in life, like I wanted to be married by a certain age, I wanted my own house, my driver’s license and have kids at a certain age. After Greece, I asked myself if I’m able to achieve my goals if I continued to play professionally. And the answer was no. I had sacrificed so much in my life for football.

“I started to look at other foreign players who played in Asia and realized they were leading luxurious lifestyles and had to spend alot of money. I did not need that. So, I had to make a decision at that moment after leave Doxa Dramas. If I don’t leave now and do something else, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

When the door to a professional football career was about to shut, a lifeline to keep the footballing dream alive came from an all too familiar friend.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Sirina [Camara] is an amazing person and I don’t think a lot of people know how good a person he really is. After I leave Greece, I go back to France and I get a call from Sirina. Sirina calls and tells me that after what I’ve been through in Greece, he wanted to help me. He was in talks with his coach at Home United about a potential contract. In some sense, he was my soccer agent. He was helping me negotiate my contract [to help me secure the terms that I wanted].

“While Sirina was doing that, I was looking for opportunities outside of football. My heart was still divided. Then, something amazing happened. I applied to university to further my studies and I got accepted into the course I applied for but my heart was divided. Then I get the best news from Sirina. Home United agreed to all the terms that I wanted. So then I had to decide between both offers not just on the same day, but within the same hour.

“I was praying; God, what path should I take and the answer was one that I did not expect. I came to conclusion that it was time I should build my life so I rejected the offer from Home United, even though the club offered me everything that I asked for.”

When Toto revealed this to me, I was momentarily speechless. It dawned on me how a few bad agents left him disenchanted over a career in football. Toto was by no means a bad player. However, poor guidance from agents ended what could have been a great career prematurely.

Understandably, Camara was disappointed with Toto. After all, the defender worked hard to help his friend out and secure all the conditions he wanted. However, Toto felt the need to build something for himself and create the life he wanted. After receiving a degree in tourism, he got employed at a champagne house and focused on his business in Cameroon. On top of that he became a motivational speaker, a pastor and he helped many youths in France. However, Toto felt a burning desire to get himself involved in football yet again.

Becoming an Agent to Help Future Players

Picture credits: Jonathan Toto (@jonathanmindset)

Currently residing in Reims with his wife and kids, becoming a football agent is the next chapter of Toto’s life. He feels that the best way to help French youths, namely young footballers, is to guide them properly as an agent and has been undergoing a 2-year course to make that into a reality.

Quite honestly, Jonathan Toto makes a perfect agent candidate. After suffering a lot from the decisions of bad agents, he wants to ensure that future generations do not face a similar predicament and make the mistakes he did.

“I want to give a chance to young players who are poor an opportunity. It really is all about giving players a chance. You can have a lot of talent and potential but if you do not give that player a chance, no one can discover that. Good agents give these players a chance and I want to give that chance.”

Jonathan Toto’s professional football career may have been brief, but it was eventful and surprising. Plagued by constant agent troubles, Toto wants to become an agent so he can help future generations of footballers achieve their dreams and aspirations. He is looking to return to Singapore one day, and I told him that maybe he should plan something with Sirina Camara. Who knows, maybe Toto comes back as an agent and helps engineer a move to France for Singaporean players?

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Once again, I hope my Tamil Language teachers are proud of me. I did this interview entirely in Tamil.

After interviewing Sriram, my curiosity in Tamil Nadu and I-league football piqued. In my quest to expand my coverage of Asian football, I decided to interview another Indian footballer. This is the story of Jockson Dhas, a tenacious midfielder for Chennai City FC. Jockson made his debut this 2019/2020 season and featured prominently for the club, making 14 appearances and racking up 3 assists. He is a tenacious midfielder who also played as a striker before joining Chennai. He has settled in well, but it’s his journey to reaching this point that really stood out for me.

Beginnings: Growing up in a Football Crazy Environment

Born in Vallavilai, Tamil Nadu, it comes as no surprise that Jockson ended up choosing to pursue a career in football. Unlike most places in India, where cricket is the most popular sport, most people in Vallavilai are football crazy.

“In my village, most people are Christians. Just like the church holding significance to our faith, the football grounds hold significance to our identity. People purely play football in my area, and we start kicking about really young. We have big football tournaments yearly and literally, everyone comes down to spectate the fixtures. So, I grew up in such an environment where football was highly regarded and footballers were very respected by my community.”

Jockson started his footballing journey properly when he was in the 8th standard playing for his school team. However, his interest in playing football started much earlier. When he was much younger, one of the footballers in his village who played in the local tournament, Viju, took him under his wing. For two weeks, he taught Jockson the basics of football, and that ignited his passion for the game.

Growing up, Jockson preferred playing 7-a-side matches, and that preference continued from the time he was kicking about to the moment he entered college. In his home town, 7-a-side tournaments were a common fixture, and there were even 7-a-side festivals taking place. In fact, Jockson reveals that 7-a-side matches are popular in other parts of Tamil Nadu, like Karaikudi and Chennai. The midfielder believes playing regularly in 7-a-side fixtures provided him the foundation he needed. He also headed down to Karaikudi and Chennai for tournaments, a nerve-wracking experience for any young player.

Besides their shared love of football, most people from Vallavilai also work as fishermen. It is of little surprise since Vallavilai is a coastal town. Jockson’s parents were fishermen as well, but to my surprisewastonishment, they never fully supported his aspirations of becoming a footballer.

“I remember coming back home, bruised up after kicking about with my friends and my parents used to always scold me and tell me to focus on my studies instead. They always told me that I would not get anything out of football.”

Yet, that didn’t stop Jockson from pursuing his dreams of playing football professionally one day. However, he faced an uphill task in furthering his footballing development. Jockson had no formal training and couldn’t obtain a sports scholarship. He secured a spot at KCG College of Technology in Chennai, but after spending 3 to 4 months at the college, he discontinued his degree and returned home. While KCG offered him a good education, it didn’t provide him with a high level of football development that he had desired. Since his ultimate goal was playing football professionally, it made little sense for him to spend his time at the school.

Photo provides by Jockson Dhas (@jackz_saha)

Upon reaching home, his parents were distraught. They told him to give up his footballing dreams and focus on getting a proper education. Jockson did feel bad because he understood how hard his parents had worked for him to gain an opportunity to go to college. They believed that Jockson was wasting his potential away by focusing on football.

Leaving Football, Becoming a Fisherman and Returning to the Beautiful Game

Jockson gave up his footballing dreams and decided to follow in his parent’s footsteps and become a fisherman for a while. For 6 months, he worked the seas daily, toiling hard in a fishing vessel. For 6 months, he didn’t play football, instead focusing on his job. Yet, as much as he tried to, he couldn’t suppress his desire to continue his footballing progress and play professionally one day. One day, he had enough, and he quit his job as a fisherman. He got into a massive argument with his parents over pursuing football again, but he deiced that he had to try one more time. He left home with one mission in mind – to become a footballer.

This time, with the help of a mentor figure, Vinoth, Jockson gained entrance in St. Joseph’s College in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. It was a difficult period for Jockson, who was pretty much on his own. After fighting with his parents, he wanted to prove that he can make his dreams into reality, and after working incredibly hard, he was appointed as the captain of the college team in his third year. It was during his time at St. Joseph that Jockson learned the most and he had Edwin Prem, the physical director, to thank for that. He had to cover the tution fees himself after falling out with his parents, but Edwin stepped up to help him.

“[Prem] told me that I’d only have to pay half of the fees initially and if I did well enough, I would be given a full scholarship. However, if I did not perform well enough, I’d have to pay the full fees. He told me that I had no certificates showing that I had formal training.”

Jockson had been a consistent performer while playing for the St. Joseph team. Through his hard work, he managed to earn a scholarship in his first year, where he scored 3 goals and 2 assists in 4 matches for an important competition. His displays caught the attention of many who followed Tamil Nadu football.

“After everything I’ve been through, from my family situation to me leaving football and working as a fisherman, I told myself if there’s even a small chance offered to me to further my game, I shall seize it and not let it go. I’ve been through a lot already for football and I can’t give up.

“Besides the physical director, I also have to thank the assistant physical director Renil and college coach Inbamani for always taking an interest in me and guiding me. They are responsible for helping me progress as much as I did in college. Each of them helped me in different ways. Coach Inbamani really upped my game through training. Prem always criticized my flaws so that I work on them and become a more polished player. Even when I scored a goal or if I felt like I played well, [Prem] would tell me that I could have played better. Back then, I used to be very angry with him but looking back now, I realized what he did helped me become significantly better. Had he not criticized me, I would surely have stagnated at that level.”

The same year he became captain of the St. Joseph’s team, he attended trials for the Tamil Nadu state team that was going to compete in the Santosh Trophy in 2017. The Santosh Trophy is a regional tournament comprising of state association and government institution teams. Jockson impressed during the trials and was duly selected for the competition. Jockson felt a real sense of honour playing for the Tamil Nadu football team and even scored a goal to cap off a memorable experience. His performances earned him an offer from AGS, a government team.

“Unlike the EPL, where you have a system where you start young and work your way up the academy, there was no such thing in Tamil Nadu. You had the Tata Academy in India, but there was really nothing like that in Tamil Nadu. It was only after the formation of Chennaiyin FC for the Indian Super League and the inclusion of Chennai City FC in the I-league that you had proper youth development programmes laid out.”

Up till that point, representing the Tamil Nadu football team in the Santosh Trophy was the pinnacle for most Tamil Nadu footballers. Jockson however, wanted to transcend the Santosh trophy and become a full professional player. He was supposed to turn professional much earlier but he was advised against it.

“People advised me to take up a government team job first so that I still have a job in the event I couldn’t make it as a professional footballer. I felt that made sense to me which was why I decided to wait and take up the AGS job first.”

It was during this time that Jockson’s parents started to really support his career. A lot of people in his hometown kept on singing praises about Jockson and him gaining a government job really pleased his parents, who quite honestly only wanted him to do much better than them.

Starting his professional career

After a year with AGS, Jockson decided that it was time for his professional calling. His friends, Anthony Xavier, Joffin, Johnpal and Raegan kept on encouraging him to seriously pursue his dreams and try out for Chennai City. In particular, Raegan played the biggest role in influencing Jockson to pursue a professional career.

Raegan Albarnas was a teammate and colleague of Jockson’s at AGS but before playing for the government team, Raegan was playing for Chennai City FC in 2017. Seeing Jockson play, Raegan knew that the midfielder had what it took to become a prominent fixture in Chennai. Raegan’s continuous advice spurred Jockson on and he still continues to motivate Jockson till this day.

“I really learned a lot from Raegan who represented India at the youth level . He always motivated me to pursue a professional career and I’ve learnt so much from him. He always saw potential in me and always gave me advice on how I could further my game. I’ll always be thankful towards Raegan because he was the one who helped me the most in securing my move to Chennai. Hearing him, a former professional player, tell me that I had what it took just made me work harder and harder. Even today, he still helps me out by looking out for me.”

AGS were managed by Vijaykumar, who signed Jockson after his incredible displays during the Santosh Trophy, and he gave assurances to Jockson that he’ll play if he signed with the team. However, Vijaykumar didn’t stand in the way when Jockson wanted to go for his trials with Chennai. Jockson managed to obtain permission from AGS to trial with Chennai City FC. Unsurprisingly, he got selected to play for Chennai

Another important reason why Jockson decided to go for the trials was because of former India international Sanjeev Maria. Jockson and Sanjeev played together when they represented the CAG Delhi team which comprised of the best players of the various state’s AGS teams. In fact, after seeing Jockson play, Sanjeev tried to help the midfielder get moves to other I-league clubs. He has done a lot for the midfielder but in return he only asks that he works hard and plays for India one day just like him.

Photo Credits: Shantanu Krishnan

“Everything is really different playing professionally. I didn’t realize that I had so much more to learn whether be it tactics or adapting to a more physical style of play. I felt like I only learnt 1% of what I need to know about football, and I still had 99% more to learn.”

Jockson also believes that he will probably benefit learning even more under the tutelage of Chennai City head coach Akbar Nawas. Akbar arrived in Chennai with a lot of promise, but no one expected him to guide the club to their first-ever I-league title in his first season in charge. Besides that accomplishment, Jockson is in awe of Akbar’s coaching style.

“I really believe the coach is integral to the team. For him [Coach Akbar] to come in and win the title in his first year, is really a special thing. To work with someone like him, it made me so happy, and I really learned a lot from him. Coach Akbar is really a friendly, down to earth, and approachable figure. He also goes out of the way to help us individually. To help us avoid repeating certain mistakes, he’d work with us individually and walk us through things.”

The 2019-2020 I-League season will forever be a season to remember for Jockson, as it marked the start of his professional career. And what a start he’s had. In his debut season, he appeared in 14 out of the 15 matches that Chennai City FC has played. He’s also racked up a commendable 3 assists in those 14 appearances. He could have added more assists and possibly notched in a goal. Unfortunately, the ongoing pandemic has forced the I-League to come to a premature conclusion, with Mohun Bagan declared as the I-League champions.

This year, Jockson also managed to make his debut for the AFC Champions League, and despite only playing the last 9 minutes or so, he relished the experience of playing in a premier continental competition. It was a total surprise for Jockson, who had been sidelined with an injury previously and was in the final stages of recovery. Despite the short cameo, it was a magical experience for the midfielder.

“I never expected to get a chance to play. It will forever be an unforgettable experience for me personally. To represent a team not just from Tamil Nadu but India and play in the AFC Champions League, was really such a privilege. It was a totally different experience from playing the I-League, which I would say is more physical. So adapting to an opponent who plays in a different style really taught me a lot.”

However, despite coming on the last 9 minutes, Jockson couldn’t make enough of a difference as Chennai City narrowly lost 1-0 in their AFC Champions League Preliminary Round encounter. That loss meant that Chennai was going to play in the 2020 AFC Cup instead. Jockson and Chennai started off well with a 2-2 draw with Maldivian titans Maziya, but the Coronavirus pandemic temporarily suspended the competition. The current edition of the AFC Cup is slated to resume sometime in October. Chennai City will play their remaining 5 matches in the Maldives after the AFC decided that the remaining games will take place in centralized venues in the 5 zones.

The Future

Picture Credits: Chennai City Football Club (@chennaivityfootballclub)

Hearing Jockson’s story, I can’t help but feel in awe. He had to overcome many obstacles to reach the point he is at right now. His journey as a footballer is inspiring because it reminds us how achieving what we want is never a smooth sailing journey. Jockson had some external help, and his family were unsupportive of his career at first, but despite the odds stacked against him, he continued to believe in himself. It’s this belief that still drives him today.

Today, however, he has the support of many people.

“Throughout my footballing journey so far, I had made a lot of friends who have supported me. Even today, when I play matches I have so many people, even from my hometown, who will catch the live fixtures. They’d message me to score a goal so that they all can celebrate it. I feel like I’ve come a long way with such their support since turning professional and I am thankful to everyone who has helped me get to where I am right now. I will continue to work hard and become an even better footballer.”

Still only 25, he has a long future ahead of him. For the immediate future, Jockson wants to help Chennai City get better. However, he also has long term aspirations of playing in the Indian Super League and one day playing for the Indian National Team. These goals are achievable if Jockson continues to put in the hard required of him. With the pandemic forcing India into periodic shutdowns, the next time we would see Jockson play would probably be during the AFC Cup in October. If you do happen to catch Chennai City, look out for Number 20. Jockson won’t disappoint.

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