Category Archives: Interviews

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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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.

F-17

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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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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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.

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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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Never Giving Up, The Fisherman Turned Footballer: An exclusive with Chennai City’s Jockson Dhas

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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Étoile FC has a special place in S.League history, mainly because of the many records and accolades they hold. Besides being the first club in Asia to be entirely comprised of European players, Étoile holds the distinction of being the first foreign club to win the S.League and the first club in Singapore to appoint an ambassador to represent the club (that ambassador was Sidney Govou). However, after 2 seasons in the S.League, the club pulled out of the competition in 2012 and instead focused on grassroots development. Rebranded as Etoile FC Academy, the club fell off the local footballing radar mainly because they had youth teams. However, Étoile did not stagnate and instead has grown from strength to strength over the last 8 years.

In November 2019, Étoile reached a new pinnacle moment in its history when the club sent 3 of its Singaporean players for a week-long training stint with 8-time Ligue 1 winners FC Nantes. The three players who Etoile selected for this once in a lifetime opportunity were Jonathan Prashanth, 15, Indera Iskandar bin Imberan, 16, and Muhammad Ashrul Bin Abdul Kader, 16 (ages reflected are those in 2019). Coincidentally, all three players also attended Ang Mo Kio Secondary School and knew each other well through their time at Étoile and in school. Even though the stint lasted a week, it was a thoroughly memorable experience for the players, and I had the pleasure of interviewing all of them.

Travelling to France for the First Time

Jonathan, Iskandar, and Ashrul felt excited about the trip not just because they were going to train with a top-flight European club, but also because it would mark the first time they travelled to France. In fact, for Iskandar, the trip marked the first time he flew.

“I was very nervous and excited. It was my first time travelling anywhere. I couldn’t sleep the whole trip cause I was really nervous, so I ended up watching movies the entire time,” reveals Iskandar.

Together with club director Ludovic Casset, the boys departed Singapore on November 8, 2019. The trip comprised a 12-hour flight to Paris, an hour layover, and then a 2-hour flight to Nantes. Ashrul reveals how his “legs and butt cramped up because of the long flight time”, and it didn’t help he sat in the middle seat, sandwiched between his teammates. Despite the long flight time, the boys were excited when they finally landed in Paris.

During the one hour layover, the players asked to walk around to experience the cold weather, something they have never experienced before. A 2-hour flight to Nantes later, the quartet reached the FC Nantes grounds pretty exhausted. The first day was rough for the boys because they felt really homesick. It was the first time that all of them had been so far away from their families, and they really missed home. However, that feeling of homesickness gradually disappeared, and instead, the longing to remain at FC Nantes took over.

Residing on the club grounds: Breathing football 24/7

Even though language was an issue at times, they managed to get by through simple gestures, and Ludovic also acted as a translator for the youth players when he was around. However, football is truly a universal language, and the love of the beautiful game helped the Singaporean teens form bonds with the FC Nantes youth players.

The experience of living in a football academy was a refreshing and unique experience for Singaporean youth players. They were in awe at the sheer size and magnitude of the club grounds, which included a few football pitches and accommodations for both youth and senior players.

“I learned a lot about French culture and respect when I was living there. I felt so grateful that they treated me like one of their own. If I could stay there longer, I really would,” mentions Iskandar.

“It was interesting to see players living on the club grounds and even attending school together nearby. We actually went for a tour around the school,” explains Jonathan.

The players marvelled at the extent to which the players were well taken care of. The Nantes players were fed nutritious food much like a professional athlete would eat. Iskandar was shocked at how clean their meals were. He recounts how one meal comprised nothing more than empty macaroni, with olives, and chicken breast. Surprisingly, the young striker found the meal to taste nice.

Overall, their stay at FC Nantes was a really enjoyable one, and the world-class facilities on display really made them happy.

Acclimatizing and Training with the Nantes Under-17

The next morning after landing, the Singaporean trio commenced their first training session with the Nantes Under-17 team. Even though the boys felt excited, they were also nervous. What significantly intimidated the boys initially was the large physical build of their Nantes U-17 contemporaries. Besides that, other factors caused all three players to struggle during their first training session.

Ashrul mentions, “the first training session was challenging for me because the FC Nantes players were really tall and had big bodies. I was very small in comparison. They bodied me easily, and I struggled to keep possession. I also felt that I became tired more easily because of the cold weather.”

Jonathan also adds, “Before going there, I was intimidated because I know that we are smaller in physical stature. I remember one player was at least two heads taller than me and my height is 1.75m.”

“The weather was a very big issue for the three of us. It was very very cold weather. We complained a burning feeling in our chests when we were playing in the cold,” Iskandar explains.

However, after struggling in the first day of training, the players felt that they gradually performed better in the subsequent days. Jonathan and Iskandar both managed to snag in a few goals during the training matches and Ashrul also felt he adapted better defending.

The high level of professionalism and discipline that the Nantes U-17 players displayed impressed the players. Ashrul recounts how, during one of the days out with Ludo, he had bought some potato chips and brought the packet back to his room in the academy. When he offered his Nantes teammates some chips out of goodwill, they politely declined because they deemed it unhealthy for them. The episode emphasized how serious the French players took their footballing careers, and that amazed and inspired the trio.

“Our teammates never once criticized us but they always pushed me to do better. If I made a mistake they always encouraged me. I really learned about the importance of professionalism and how important the small things were,” explains Iskandar.

“They never joked around during training. They took things really seriously and it was so different to how we do things in Singapore. It was really heartening to see the French players so dedicated. They would come to training half an hour early and do their own preparation,” mentions Jonathan.

The extent of medical care available for youth team players also stood out for the players. After each training session, players that suffer injuries or discomfort are sent to the physio for assessment. Ashrul, who had been experiencing occasional pain in his legs due to a previous injury, explained how the therapists gave him advice and taught him specific exercises to help overcome the issue. On top of that, he got a relaxing massage that helped alleviate the pain.

Watching a Live Ligue 1 Fixture and a gift of a lifetime

After training, the players were also invited to watch a live Ligue 1 match between FC Nantes and Saint-Étienne. When the players reached the stadium, the players were in for a real treat. Club president, Polish millionaire Waldemar Kita, met and greeted the players, but that was not all. He also had a present for the trio: an official FC Nantes jersey that had their names and favourite numbers printed on the back of the shirts. It was a surreal moment for the players when President Kita presented the jerseys to each of them, and they all agree that they will cherish the jerseys.

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

“It was the first time I saw 35,000 in a stadium just supporting one team. In Singapore, not many people support Singaporean teams. Also, The FC Nantes supporters made so much noise. When the opposing team pushed their player, the fans made a lot of noise and scolded [the opposition players],” says Ashrul.

“I cannot believe my eyes. It was so crazy. There were tons of people outside. Also, sitting down and meeting the President was a real honour because they told me the president seldom meets people. When the President gave me the jersey, it was really unbelievable. I was beaming. The atmosphere was so crazy; the shouting, the cheering, all of it,” Iskandar describes.

Meeting ex-United player Fabio

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

Fabio da Silva now finds himself playing for Nantes, and the players had the opportunity to interview the left-back. As a life-long Manchester United fan, I won’t lie; I’m kind of jealous.

“It was a dream to meet such a player and I was really excited to meet an ex-Manchester United player. I asked him questions like ‘how was it playing with Ronaldo?’ He also talked about Rafael and how both players trained together as kids and had always intended to move to the same club so that they can play together,” reveals Ashrul, who instantly connected with Fabio because, like him, he played as a left-back as well.

“Luckily, he could speak English. I really looked up to him. He told us how he wasn’t as good as his brother but he always worked hard. He also shared his experience playing with [Robin] Van Persie,” mentions Iskandar.

The trio were over the moon when they each received personal autographs from the ex-Manchester United stalwart.

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

The players really wanted to meet Fabio again, and so they devised a plan. Early next morning they woke up and headed down to the first team training grounds.

Jonathan recounts, “We waited by the gates, hoping to catch hold of the Brazilian. After waiting for almost 45 minutes, he finally arrived. To our surprise, he actually remembered us and he was very friendly.”

This time, the trio came equipped with their FC Nantes scarves. Fabio happily signed their scarves, before heading for his training. Even though he only spent a little while with them, they really appreciated the gesture, and meeting Fabio was one of the highlights of the trip.

What’s Next for the Trio

Image by Etoile FC Academy (@efcacademysg)

Ashrul is currently studying at ITE Central and has plans to play football professionally one day. He wants to play for Balestier Khalsa if given a choice, but he knows that he needs to put in the extra work to be at the level required to play in the Singapore Premier League one day.

Jonathan, on the other hand, wants to be a veterinarian. While he is not giving up on football totally, it would appear that he will not be involved in local football for the foreseeable future. He is aiming to head to Australia to pursue his ambition and is open to the prospect of playing football in Australia part-time.

Iskandar, unlike his two peers, is on course to become a professional footballer. Despite being just 17 years old, he now turns out for Singapore Premier League side Tanjong Pagar United’s Under-21 team. While he is playing with boys way above his age, Iskandar is enjoying the challenge at hand and is keen to become even better.

Regardless of the pathway that each player chooses, they will never forget the experience that Étoile FC Academy had provided them. As an avid local fan, I think overseas training stints are a great way to expose young players to other footballing cultures, help them gain confidence, and show that they too can achieve a lot one day if they put in the hard work. Étoile is doing something right, and other local clubs can learn a thing or two from this episode.

Here’s a video of what the boys were up to in France!

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The Jonathan Toto Exclusive Part 1- From Rubbing Shoulders with Pijanic and Koulibaly to an Unrealized Scottish Dream

Featured Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

At one point in time, it appeared that Jonathan Toto was destined for footballing greatness. He played alongside Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly in the FC Metz Academy, but his career took on a different trajectory, partly due to the roles played by his agents. He was a journeyman forward whose brief professional career saw him playing in France, Cameroon, Italy, Scotland, Singapore, and Greece.

I remember Jonathan Toto well during his time in Singapore. Part of the same Étoile FC team as Sirina Camara in 2011, he moved to Courts Young Lions together with Camara in 2012. However, while Camara went on to spend an additional 6 years in Singapore, Toto left for Greece where he only played a single season for second division side, Doxa Dramas. After that, I assumed he decided to hang up his boots, not long after his 23rd birthday, because he vanished from the footballing world altogether. He was even untraceable on social media because he deleted his social media applications after quitting football.

If luck would have it, I managed to track down Toto after he reposted the Camara interview on his Instagram Story. One thing led to another, and I managed to interview the former S.League forward to unravel his footballing story—what a story it was.

Beginnings in France and Italy

Born in Paris to parents of Cameroonian descent, Toto went to Africa shortly after his first birthday. He would remain in Africa for the next 12 years and when he was around 13 years old, he returned to Paris. However, it was only when he was 14 years old did Toto pursue football seriously. Up to that point, Toto focused his time and efforts in track and field because he was a speedy runner. Football was a hobby, and he caught the fixtures of his boyhood club Paris Saint-Germain on the television. However, Toto’s father, who was immensely passionate about football, had aspirations that his son would become a professional footballer. After a failed trial with AJ Auxerre, Toto managed to impress in trials for FC Metz, and his footballing journey properly began. At FC Metz, Toto progressed through the various youth levels and played alongside current European stalwarts Miralem Pjanić and Kalidou Koulibaly, something he remembers fondly.

“When we were young we [Pjanić and I] were still speaking with each other after I left Metz, even after he [signed for] Lyon. I saw him playing with the likes of Juninho. After a while, we just drifted a part because he was concentrating on his career and I was concentrating on mine. But, he became a real superstar.”

After reaching the Under-16 level, the forward would leave for SM Caen, but he only played a single season there because he was causing too much trouble for the club. As a hyperactive kid, he was “always moving, playing, and joking around.” So he only lasted a year before moving to Italy.

“I had an agent who sent me to a Serie C club. I was in the Under-17 team of FC Castelnuovo and I spent two years there and then I left to join Legnano. After Legnano, I had some issue with my family and my [agent].”

This marked the start of agent troubles for the Frenchman, something that would prove to consistently plague his career.

“I tell this to the young players under my care today: It is not because you are good that you may succeed. Success doesn’t come because you are a good player. Success comes because you have good people around you. It comes because you are clever [about] your decisions.”

Returning to Africa and the Unrealized Scottish Dream

Toto felt like he needed a breath of fresh air and believed that a return to Africa for vacation would allow him to clear his head and consider his next move for his footballing career. He also reunited with his mother, who was in Cameroon then. Toto wanted to spend time with her because his parents had separated when he was young. After they had separated, he spent most of his time with his father in France.

“I was presented so many opportunities [to pursue a professional career]. During my time in Italy, some people were interested in me because of the way played football. I got trials and opportunities. One of them was a trial to Qatar. It was an amazing opportunity but I decided not to follow through with it because of the conditions of the contract.”

I didn’t sign the professional contract [offered to me by Qatar], and I separated from my manager. I also needed distance from my father because our relationship wasn’t that good at that point in time. I decided to go back to my house in Africa to gain back my strength.”

Hearts vs Blackburn 7th Aug 2010, Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts


It was after that trial in Qatar that the biggest opportunity of his professional career came knocking. Edinburgh giants Hearts offered Toto a trial, and he relished the opportunity to sign with the club and play in the Scottish Premier League.

“I really had the time of my life [at Edinburgh]. Scottish people, man, they’re amazing. I don’t think they’re living in the same world as us. I was 20 years old when I had my trial with Hearts FC. My uncle managed to get me the trial. He was a professional player in South Africa. He was playing in Johannesburg.”

While Toto impressed in the trials for Hearts, the Edinburgh club found the forward to be an expensive player, especially for someone who has yet to feature in top-flight professional football. Why was he expensive, you might wonder? Well, some agent (surprise, surprise) was maybe asking for a hefty agent fee for his services. After all, Toto was a young physical French forward who honed his craft from the famed Metz Academy and showed that he had what it took to become the next breakout star. Toto was confused as to why Hearts found him expensive. The only logical assumption was that his agent was demanding high fees from Hearts, which had dire consequences for the forward’s career.

Despite his agents constant pressing for higher agent fees, Hearts were unwilling to gamble on a relatively inexperienced Toto for such a large amount of money. On top of the enormous agent fees, Hearts would have had to pay mandatory fees to FC Metz, since that was where Toto began his footballing development. However, the Hearts management were blown away by Toto’s technical ability. He was already training with the first team at the age of 18 and earmarked to feature right away once he signed with the club.

Hearts finally decided on the matter. Instead of agreeing to the terms laid out by Toto’s agent, Hearts made a deal with Greenock Morton that would see the forward play for a year with Scottish Championship side. Hearts engineered the move so that the forward could demonstrate his ability on the field on a high level and for an extended period. In essence, it was for Toto to prove to the Hearts board that he was worth the fees demanded by his agent.

And so, he started his professional career with Greenock Morton, but the dream soon became a nightmare. Not long after signing, Toto suffered an injury. However, due to the arrangement between both clubs, he was made to play through his injury.

“I knew in my mind that there is this arrangement in place, but at the same time, I know I couldn’t play. I couldn’t really do anything on the field because it was a tough level. It was very physical in Scotland, and I didn’t do good in Greenock Morton. So when I went back to Hearts, my agent told me that he wanted me to go to another second division club and I said that I was done with it and I want to go back to France.

Hearts vs Blackburn 7th Aug 2010, Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

“I went back to France, and this was when my career started to have a harsh time, a very harsh time. In my head, I was down. I was alone with an agent who gave me false promises. But then, I had this opportunity coming from Singapore.”

In part 2, I will look at Toto’s footballing experience in Singapore, his time in Greece, and what he’s doing now.

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Working Hard to Reach His Potential: An Interview with Ignatius “Iggy” Ang

To many ardent Singaporean football fans, Ignatius “Iggy” Ang is a familiar name. The midfielder has played for several local clubs and even signed for Lions XII in 2014. While he was a youth player, his coaches regarded him as a star for the future. However, he hasn’t been able to reach that potential. Throughout his professional career, Iggy has been on the peripheries of the national team and is still without a cap. Well, that’s the case for now. I think in due time, Iggy is on course for his first senior cap with the national team.

I had the opportunity to chat with Iggy the past week, and it was fantastic to chat with the player, who currently plays with Tanjong Pagar United FC. I remember Iggy well. He turned out for Warriors FC, my beloved club, in 2016 and again from 2018 to 2019. He played an integral part of the Warriors team that miraculously reached the finals of the 2019 Singapore Cup despite the club’s dire financial situation, where several wages were unpaid for months on end. This is his footballing story thus far.

Beginnings in Football

Like many of us, the midfielder started playing football when he was very young. Usually playing around his neighbourhood, he recounts tales of his friends accidentally smashing window panes and also making too much of a ruckus, which often led to neighbours lodging complaints. However, his footballing journey truly begun at Bendemeer Secondary School.

“I met my then coach, Patrick Mancha, who was a Nigerian player in the NFL. He told me one thing – that I’d play for the national team one day. Even after he left the school, he used to give me calls to check on me. He was really the first one who showed me the way of football.

“He always told me to score at least 1 to 2 goals each game and whatever he advised me to do, he was already doing in the NFL.”

Unfortunately, Iggy lost contact with Mancha and he wants to reconnect with his former coach to update on what has transpired so far.

Besides starting football properly in Bendemeer, Iggy also began to develop a keen interest in the S.League during this period. Staying opposite Toa Payoh stadium, he was an ardent Balestrier fan growing up. In addition to heading down to watch the matches live, he was also a ball boy. He even was part of the Balestier supporters group and played a significant role in creating an excellent matchday atmosphere for Balestier by playing the big drums.

As a 15-year-old, he signed up with the club he had supported years before and linked up with Balestier Khalsa’s youth team in 2007. Current Balestier head coach Marko Kraljević managed the midfielder back then, and under the German-Croat, Iggy flourished. In his first Under-16 game, despite his rawness and lack of football maturity, he scored 2 goals. He enjoyed a relatively good season at Balestier before Kraljević told Iggy to attend the NFA Under-16 trials at the end of the season. However, while not one to shy from a challenge, Iggy was apprehensive about such an opportunity.

“When coach Marko told me to go for the trials, I didn’t want to go at first because I felt I wasn’t good enough and may not be on part with them because at only 15 years old then, they had beaten the Malaysia Under-16 team.”

Kraljević recommended Iggy for the trials, and thankfully, he duly impressed then NFA under-16 coach Abdullah Noor. He went on to sign up with the NFA Under-16 side, and it was thanks to Kraljević’s insistence and recommendation that his football career took on this trajectory. Iggy would then rise through the levels and feature at the NFA under-18 level before getting promoted to the Young Lions squad in 2011. However, his tenure with the club would be a short-lived one, and after 6 months of finding a lack of opportunities, Iggy headed to Italy.

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

Sembawang Soccer Academy Fiasco and H-TWO-O Dream Team

I remember the Sembawang Soccer Academy Fiasco really well. Long story short, the Sembawang Soccer Academy launched an ambitious local initiative where it would send a squad of 24 players to Italy under the charge of Singapore icon Fandi Ahmad. The players would train at Genova International School of Soccer (GISS) with the opportunity of becoming professional footballers. However, financial issues plagued the club and they were unable to pay GISS the agreed-upon amount. GISS, unable to pay for the accommodation of the Singaporean players, then booted out the players, who were residing in a hotel in Pisa.

“I went to Italy with coach Fandi. I honestly don’t know how I went to Italy and got back [home]. We were kicked out of our hotel but we weren’t really stranded. We kept on moving from place to place for two whole months.

“It was a really ambitious project. They gave us a $1,500 allowance and we were meant to tour Italy for longer than 2 months by right. Given National Service requirements, however, we couldn’t stay out of the country for more than 2 months at a time. So, the plan was two go to Italy for two months, come back to Singapore for a week, and then we were supposed to go to Germany.”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

After coming back from their Italian adventure, some players went to pursue their interests. On the other hand, others from Sembawang Soccer Academy would then form the H-TWO-O Dream Team, who Fandi Ahmad managed. The team played friendly matches throughout the year, and the finale of that year was when the Dream Team faced up against Iggy’s old outfit, Young Lions.

“It was 2-2, but then we lost on penalties. I did score the first goal, and it was kind of special because I was playing against most of my teammates.”

The Sembawang Soccer Academy may have seemed like a disaster initially, but it is a blessing in disguise. After all, it allowed Iggy to learn from a national icon like Fandi Ahmad and also kick start his professional career.

Early Years in the Professional Career

The following year in 2012, Iggy signed up with S.League side Hougang United, where he played in both the S.League and Prime League. Iggy would look back at his time at Hougang with fondness because this was the club where he scored his first professional goal in the S.League. After a single season with Hougang, he returned to Young Lions in 2013 but opportunities were limited yet again and he needed a move elsewhere.

Then, in 2014, the biggest move of Iggy’s career happened. Lions XII, the Singapore XI that participated in the Malaysia Super League aiming to capture the footballing glory days of the 20th century, came calling, and Iggy answered that call without a moment’s hesitation. However, instead of pushing Iggy’s career into the stratosphere, the move did the exact opposite.

Yet again, he linked up with Fandi Ahmad, but this time, he never once featured for the Lions XII side throughout the season. Iggy’s confidence took a big hit.

“Maybe I was raw, or maybe I did not show coach Fandi enough? After all, Fandi knew me from my time with the Dream Team. He told me how I was a different player [from the time he was with the Dream Team] and that I needed to prove to him that I can do it. Throughout the whole season, I just kept on training, but I didn’t feature once for the team.”

In hindsight, rejoining the Young Lions was a wrong career move. At Hougang, even though he was signed as a Prime League player, Iggy was featuring consistently for the S.League team under Nenad Baćina. When Baćina moved to manage Tampines at the end of the season, the Croatian was keen on bringing Iggy with him.

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

“I remember meeting coach Baćina at Clementi Mall and he wanted to bring me to Tampines but I felt that since most of the national team players were there, there was too much competition in the squad [for my liking]. I thought I wouldn’t have the chance to play. I thought by moving to Young Lions, I would have much more chances of playing.”

In 2015, after his uneventful stint with Lions XII, Iggy linked up with Marko Kraljević yet again. Marko offered Iggy a lifeline to rejuvenate his career and gain some much-needed confidence. On top of that, he guided Iggy throughout the season. He would call Iggy into his office and go through what areas the midfielder should work on – be it whipping in more crosses or making more passes. These sessions with Marko went on to have a major impact on the player’s career.

“I think he still saw the potential in me as he once did when I was 15 years old. That season, he gave me a lot of opportunities and shouted at me a lot. I mean that year, I was nominated for the Young Player of the Year Award. To me that was a big achievement, imagine not kicking a ball in 2014, to being nominated a year later.”

Warriors, National Service, & Financial Saga.

After a stellar season with Balestier, Ignatius moved to Warriors for the 2016 S.League campaign but only would feature for half a season because National Service came calling that June. Iggy had delayed his national service call-up because he wanted to obtain his polytechnic diploma. The midfielder finished his NITEC, Higher NITEC, and then proceeded to complete his diploma in 6 years. This extended educational track explains why he was pretty old when he enlisted. Focusing on his education also gave Iggy the time to focus on his football because he still had free time on his hands.

However, enlisting put a temporary stop to his footballing career because he didn’t get released to play and train with Warriors FC, whom he was still under contract. Juggling National Service commitments and their sporting careers is a common problem that many male athletes face in Singapore. Singaporeans are called up anytime between 18 to 25, which are critical years for footballing development. A total break away from the sport can seriously hinder the efforts of footballers who aim to reach their potential. Thankfully, his footballing development was not completely stunted because he managed to play for the SAFSA (Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association) team that played in the National Football Division. Furthermore, Iggy also enjoyed his National Service because he enjoyed his vocation.

“I was in 48 SAR, and I was a tankie. I really enjoyed my NS because I drove a tank for close to 2 years. People can say that they drive a car or a bike, but not many people can say that they drive a tank. It was just unfortunate that I couldn’t get released [to play for Warriors] throughout the whole time.”

Towards the end of his National Service, he did manage to train with Warriors periodically. Still, it wasn’t until he completed his National Service in May 2018 that he transited back to football full-time. However, it wasn’t a fairy tale return to the club, because he suffered an injury shortly after returning to football full-time.

“I was playing maybe 5 games. I scored two goals and assisted one in those 5 games. Then, I got injured just before Albirex. It was so disappointing. I was supposed to start against Albirex and [the way I got injured] was so stupid. We were doing some possession [drills], and I jumped for the ball, but I landed awkwardly and twisted my ankle in the process.”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

National Service had prevented him from playing the first half of the season, and his injury meant he missed a good chunk of the second half as well. After he returned from injury, Ignatius told himself that 2019 was going to be his year. Up till the moment he enlisted, Iggy had always been a student-athlete. For once, he started a season without any additional academic responsibility bearing down his shoulder. However, after starting brilliantly for the club, Iggy came down with the flu and took Medical Leave. He was told to sit out for their upcoming trip to Brunei to recuperate. This marked the end to Iggy’s starting position in the Warriors squad. He was rarely selected after that. Competition for places in Warriors that 2019 season was incredibly tough, and no one was guaranteed a starting spot.

When it emerged that Warriors FC would have to sit out the 2020 SPL season due to their financial troubles, it rocked the Singaporean footballing community. While other clubs have pulled out of the league due to financial difficulties before, both players and fans were astonished when a massive club like Warriors suffered a similar fate.

“To be honest, no one saw this coming. You know, it’s Warriors! None of us expected this, and it showed us [players] that football is insecure [when it comes to job security]. People come and go. We can’t take it for granted.”

Iggy was one such player affected by the unpaid wages issue but thankfully is getting paid back now through an instalment plan.

“The last 6 months of 2019 was a bit tough for most of us but don’t ask how we went to the finals of the Singapore Cup. When we’re on the field, we just try to win and we try to forget the financial troubles off the field. We were helping ourselves and tried to push each other. In the end, I don’t know how we managed to go on 5 months without a salary.”

Fresh Start and New Role at Tanjong Pagar

After running down his contract with the Warriors, Iggy made a trip to Phuket for a much-needed vacation from football to take his mind off things. He usually travels with 3 of his close friends and flew from Phuket to Bangkok to meet up with them. Shortly after landing, Ignatius and his friends went to a shopping centre, having some Japanese food when his phone suddenly rings.

“It was Noh Alam Shah. I didn’t know why he was calling me, and I didn’t know whether to answer. After my friend asked me what I was waiting for, I picked up the phone. I knew Noh Alam Shah on and off previously. He called and asked what my plans were for the future. I told him I didn’t know and he told me that there might be that a club might be coming [to sign him].”

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

After that call, Iggy didn’t want to waste any more time. As a habit, he brings his running shoes whenever he travels and he hit the treadmill in the hotel gym the very next day. Over the next month, Noh Alam Shah was in constant contact with Iggy but he didn’t confirm Tanjong Pagar’s impending return. Thankfully, the club returned to the league and Iggy jumped at the opportunity to sign up with the Jaguars. The only regret he has is that some of his Warriors teammates had to leave professional football.

Iggy now finds himself in a unique position as a mentor to younger players in the club. When Tanjong Pagar rejoined the SPL, they were comprised almost entirely of Under-23 players, with Iggy being one of the few senior players in the squad. Usually known as a happy go lucky and playful individual, he tries his best to advise and set a good example for the younger players in Tanjong Pagar. Despite the youthful and rather inexperienced squad, Tanjong Pagar have done well for themselves. Drawing both matches against high-profile opposition, Iggy believes that the club’s future is bright.

Besides football, Iggy currently is looking to pursue a degree in Physical Education and currently holds an AFC ‘C’ license. He helps out with ActiveSG from time to time on his off days. He wants to either be a coach or an educator down the road but for now he has other immediate goals in mind.

What’s next in the immediate future for Iggy you might ask? Well, it’s simple – living up to Patrick Mancha’s assessment that he’ll play in the national team one day.

“Everyone wants to play in the national team. I’m already 28 and time is catching up. I really need to push myself now and try to earn a cap. If I don’t play for the national team, there is really nothing to talk about me. Some of my teammates in Young Lions have all gone on to establish themselves as national team players and there’s me, who’s yet to receive a call-up.”

From my interaction with Iggy, it is clear that he is going to do whatever he can to work harder and improve his game so that he can earn a senior cap for Singapore. That being said, he’s focused on helping his team first and foremost. Thankfully though, new coach Tatsuma Yoshida has breathed new life into the national team set up. While his predecessors have always chosen the same select few, the Japanese coach isn’t shy to experiment and provide call-ups to fresh faces. If Iggy continues his hard work and never give up attitude, I am sure that he’ll represent Singapore in due time.

When that happens, I’ll be sure to interview him again about that experience.

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