Tag Archives: Balestier Khalsa

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #4

Game Week 4 saw Matchdays 5 and 6 unfold, and what a week indeed! It was goals galore in both matchdays with Tampines slotting 7 past Young Lions and Lion City Sailors racking up 8 goals against Geylang International. In this combined team of the week, we have a pretty diverse line-up from a range of teams.

We are including consistent performers in the team of the week but we also have special mentions for stellar performers in either of the Match Days.

As usual, your opinion may differ from ours, so let us know what you agree or disagree with and we’d happily engage in a friendly debate.

The Defence

Zaiful Nizam – GK

I think Zaiful deserves more praise than he is usually given. Yes, he may not have had kept clean sheets but he was pulling some really fantastic saves this week. His performances against Geylang helped the team to a 2-1 victory while he kept Balestier in the running against Hougang.

Yu Tokiwa

Another week and another fantastic display from the Japanese left-back. His assist against Tampines helped the White Swans even the score, and his defensive displays at the back frustrated the Tampines offense. An overall solid showing.

Shuya Yamashita

The Japanese centre-back scored twice against Lion City Sailors in the mid-week fixture to ensure the White Swans remain the only undefeated side in the SPL after 6 matches. Alongside Tokiwa and co, Yamashita also marhsalled out waves of Tampines attacks over the weekend.

Nur Adam

An Assist midweek and a sharp showing against Geylang side shows how mature he truly is as a footballer despite his tender age. At this current juncture, Nur Adam will probably become Singapore’s next long term left-back, much to the dismay of Harith Kanadi.

The Midfield

Diego Lopes

He came in with a hefty price tag. He’s showing why he’s the 3 million dollar man. It wasn’t just that he scored a hattrick or that he created 2 assists but rather, the Sailors looked a lot more expressive and confident when Diego plays for them.

Ryoya Taniguchi

Taniguchi has remained a dependable figure for Albirex Niigata this Game Week. Engineering attacking moves and notching in a goal in each fixture, Taniguchi has flourished in his new attacking midfield role this season (last season he was more of a centre-midfielder).

Gabriel Quak

Another week, another feature. Gabriel Quak is really cementing his place as the best winger in the SPL. While he was decent midweek, he was simply incredible against Geylang International. 2 goals and 2 assists against Geylang, he’s in the squad this week.

Reo Nisiguchi

The Japanese left winger seems to have finally settled in at Tanjong Pagar and scored brilliant goals in both fixtures. He is gelling well with the attacking half of the Jaguars and other teams need to watch out for him and Junior because they have finally found a steady rhythm together.

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

The Japanese forward already has 10 goals this season. It’s only been 6 games. Doi’s brace in the mid-week rescued a point for the Cheetahs and his 63rd minute strike against Balestier, secured another win to extend their unbeaten run to 5 games.

Luiz Júnior

I have always have been a fan of Luiz Júnior and it is delightful to see the 2020 Team Of The Year player finally find his scoring boots again. The Brazilian scored in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Hougang. While the Cheetahs may have denied him and Tanjong Pagar their first win in the mid-week, he bagged a brace against Young Lions over the weekend to help the Jaguars secure their first win in six years.

Stipe Plazibat

The Croatian Hit Man scored a brace against the 8-0 thrashing of Geylang International and scored a vital goal in the draw against the White Swans. Stipe may be 3 goals away from Doi, but as I have said time after time, never count him out.

Special Mentions Matchdats 5 and 6

All Photo Credits to Singapore Premier League

Other Posts You May Like!

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

My buddy Kim Ng co-wrote this one with me. Cheers Fam! The 2021 edition of the Singapore Premier League has finally kicked off, and what a thrilling first game week we’ve had. We want to start something new here at SoccerKakis, so we’re launching our very own Team Of The Week Series! Of course, your […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

Game Week 2 saw a ton of drama unfold, with Matchday 2 and Matchday 3 of the Singapore Premier League being played mid-week and over the weekends, respectively. To stress, we are featuring the players that have been consistent over the two matches. In that sense, don’t be that surprised about the sheer number of […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #3

We heaved a huge sigh of relief at end of the International break because we knew that the Singapore Premier League would finally resume again. And boy, it did not disappoint. This week, we have a more diverse team than the previous edition. While Hougang United have continued their incredible run, other players in other […]

UEFA’s Faustian Bargain

UEFA’s impending Champions League reforms are nothing more than a desperate money grab from teams ready to break away A story that has lingered under the surface during this season is now coming into prominence, as the UEFA Executive Committee is holding a meeting next week to vote on, and likely pass, a very serious […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #3

We heaved a huge sigh of relief at end of the International break because we knew that the Singapore Premier League would finally resume again. And boy, it did not disappoint. This week, we have a more diverse team than the previous edition. While Hougang United have continued their incredible run, other players in other teams have also shone this week.

As usual, your opinion may differ from ours, so let us know what you agree or disagree with and we’d happily engage in a friendly debate.

The Defence

Mukundan Maran – GK

Mukundan pulled some important saves against Tampines and helped his team retain their resounding lead. If he keeps this up, a national team call-up could be in the works soon.

Maksat Dzhakybaliev

The Kyrgyzstani defender put in another solid display at the back and his 67th-minute header was truly the icing on the cake. Maksat has truly established himself alongside Lionel Tan as Hougang’s primary central defensive pairing and his performances against the Stag demonstrate why.

Jorge Fellipe

In an impressive debut, Jorge proved to be a solid rock in the Sailors defense, making multiple crucial clearances and generally stifling the Young Lions’ offense. What’s more, the game provided a sneak peek into his aerial prowess, almost scoring on 3 separate occasions with thundering headers. Was unlucky not to net one, but one would think that his time will soon come.

Yu Tokiwa

The Albirex left-back put in a fine performance against Geylang United over the weekend. Making 73 passes with a 88% passing completion rate is certainly impressive and his contributions both in defence and attack helped Albirex to win.

The Midfield

Harhys Stewart

In a game where the Young Lions seemed to have the Sailors’ number (for the first 20 minutes), Harhys was a constant driving force in all 90 minutes of the game, and seemed to be ever-present in both halves of the field. Provided crucial challenges and solid link-up plays, and should have gotten at least one assist should his forwards been more clinical. 

Kaishu Yamazaki

The “engine room” of the Hougang midfield once again was a constant presence against the Stags. The box to box midfielder became a central figure in the attacking moves by the Cheetahs. The Kaishu-Fabian partnership seems to have clicked really well. Other clubs beware.

Gabriel Quak

If there was anyone who doubted Gabriel Quak’s form, the reigning Player Of The Year definitely showed that he was to be a Sailors mainstay with a powerful display last Saturday, as he was a key piece in the LCS’ offensive moves. Beaten to the chase for the year’s first hat-trick, but was very close on numerous occasions, and had to settle for a brace.

Shafiq Ghani

Shafiq Ghani was Hougang’s lightning to Doi’s thunder. Would have been a crime if he had not scored in the game, as he well deserved a goal, but was redeemed with a lovely curling free-kick effort to put the cherry on the cake for a strong Hougang showing.

Kristijan Krajček

Against a poor Tanjong Pagar, the Tigers were constantly on the attack and that was largely thanks to Krajček. The Croatian orchestrated most of the moves, and scored 2 goals. If his form continues, the Tigers could realistically claim an AFC spot this campaign.

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

Doi once again demonstrated why he is arguably the best striker in the league right now. Notching the first hattrick of the season, Hougang have certainly filled the void left by Stipe’s departure last season. Doi already has 7 in 4 games and he is surely going to add more.

Stipe Plazibat

1 goal and 1 assists this week, Statement Signing Stipe put in a decent showing this week to feature in our Team of the Week. Plazibat notched in his 4th goal of the season and I still believe the Golden Boot award is up for grabs despite Doi’s form. Never count Stipe out.

Photo Credits: Hougang United, Lion City Sailors, Singapore Premier League

Other Posts You May like

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

My buddy Kim Ng co-wrote this one with me. Cheers Fam! The 2021 edition of the Singapore Premier League has finally kicked off, and what a thrilling first game week we’ve had. We want to start something new here at SoccerKakis, so we’re launching our very own Team Of The Week Series! Of course, your […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

Game Week 2 saw a ton of drama unfold, with Matchday 2 and Matchday 3 of the Singapore Premier League being played mid-week and over the weekends, respectively. To stress, we are featuring the players that have been consistent over the two matches. In that sense, don’t be that surprised about the sheer number of […]

Fergie’s Greatest Average Manchester United Teams

Sir Alex Ferguson is a legend of the game and is among the most successful managers in English football. He has churned out many successful teams during his reign and is famous for his man-management. However, not all his teams have been filled with superstars, but he somehow has managed to get the best out […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

Game Week 2 saw a ton of drama unfold, with Matchday 2 and Matchday 3 of the Singapore Premier League being played mid-week and over the weekends, respectively. To stress, we are featuring the players that have been consistent over the two matches. In that sense, don’t be that surprised about the sheer number of Hougang United players that feature in the squad. Let’s be honest. The Cheetahs were simply unstoppable this week.

Last week we had fans forum contributor, Kim Ng. This week we have Lions Of Asia creator, Sakda Chan. Follow Lions of Asia on Facebook and Instagram!

As usual, your opinion may differ from ours, so let us know what you agree or disagree with and we’d happily engage in a friendly debate.

The Defence

Mukundan Maran – GK

Even though Mukundan made two howlers (one in each game), the custodian really redeemed himself in both fixtures with some fine saves. He makes the cut this week because of his undeterred resilience to carry on.

Lionel Tan

Known for having the shortest shorts on the block, Lionel was stellar this week in both fixtures. Scoring a goal against the Sailors certainly was the icing on the cake for the centre-back.

Irfan Najeeb

Irfan has really done well since returning to the Stags and he has been pretty stellar at right-back. Turning only 22 this year, the future looks bright for young Irfan, and it will be exciting to see how this season pans out for him.

Baihaiki Khaizan

As usual, the Singapore icon was consistent this week and came close to scoring as well, with his header bouncing off the framework in one of the fixtures. Ever-reliable, it is bewildering to think that Bai is 37 years old.

The Midfield

Fabian Kwok

The man known as “The Truck” in the Hougang camp was superb in both fixtures this week, and his presence in the middle of the park certainly aided the Cheetahs in their resounding victories over Sailors and Geylang.

Kaishu Yamazaki

The “engine room” of the Hougang midfield, Kaishu, who usually featured as a central defender alongside Tajeli Salamat at Lion City Sailors last season, was a real constant presence throughout the Cheetahs’ midfield in both fixtures this week.

Idraki Adnan

In his first season with Hougang, the former Young Lions player has certainly impressed. An exciting player down the right flank, Idraki really contributes with his off the ball play, and his link up play with the Cheetahs’ attack this week was stunning to see.

Farhan Zulkifli

Like his fellow winger Idraki, Farhan put in another outstanding performance over the course of the week. Still only 17, it’ll be interesting to see how he grows this season. With 2 assists in 3 games, Farhan will surely add to this tally and notch a few goals this season. It’s only a matter of time.

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

What a talent. What an absolute joy to watch. Doi was in red hot form this week as he notched 4 goals and 2 assists over the two fixtures. It may be early days, but my money is on Doi clinching the Golden Boot at the end of the season.

Boris Kopitovic

1 goal and 2 assists this week, Big Bad Boris put in a decent showing in both fixtures to make it into our Team of the Week. Kopitovic should be scoring more, but it’s only a matter of time until the Montenegrin begins to be racking up the goals.

Gilberto Fortunato

The Brazilian may not have scored many goals, but his hold up play has been instrumental for Hougang’s attack. The Doi-Fortunato partnership has immediately set off, and the rest of the league need to be cautious of this seemingly lethal partnership. Hopefully the duo keep it up.

Special Mentions MD2 & MD3

Here are some honorable mentions – standout performers in each day but could not crack into our combined team because of the consistency of the 11 players we selected.

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers,
Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers

Other Posts You May Like!

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

My buddy Kim Ng co-wrote this one with me. Cheers Fam! The 2021 edition of the Singapore Premier League has finally kicked off, and what a thrilling first game week we’ve had. We want to start something new here at SoccerKakis, so we’re launching our very own Team Of The Week Series! Of course, your […]

The Juventus-Ronaldo Project Has Failed

And it is time to acknowledge how far Juventus have fallen… So Juventus are out of the Champions League. In the Round of 16 stage. Again. Juve’s extra time away goals loss to FC Porto is the second time in as many years that the Bianconeri were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle in the […]

Everyone Calm Down, Barcelona Is Fine…Probably…

I think…maybe…let us talk about it… So, is Barcelona in crisis? Sort of. I previously wrote a few articles about the developing issues at Barcelona. Their collapse in the Champions League against Bayern Munich last season spelled the end of the disastrous presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu and really shone a light on just how […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

My buddy Kim Ng co-wrote this one with me. Cheers Fam!

The 2021 edition of the Singapore Premier League has finally kicked off, and what a thrilling first game week we’ve had. We want to start something new here at SoccerKakis, so we’re launching our very own Team Of The Week Series!

Of course, your opinion may differ from us, so let us know what you agree or disagree with and we’d happily engage in a friendly debate. 

The Defence

A total of 19 goals was conceded in the four games that transpired over the weekend, and with no team mustering a clean sheet, every coach would surely be concentrating on their defensive organization for the upcoming fixtures. As such, we have gone with a three-man defence, and the 3 players that have stood out for us are:

Takahiro Koga

This was a tough one because almost all of the keepers did not really have the best of days in their opening fixtures. Takahiro Koga and Zainol Gulam were exceptions, but Koga gets the nod from us after his heroic displays against the Cheetahs.

Darren Teh

The ever-reliable Darren Teh shut down many of the Jaguars attacks and remained a pesky offensive outlet on the right flank. His presence stretched out the Tanjong Pagar side and allowed for the advancement of his side into the final third.

Tajeli Salamat

The defensive dynamo played a big part in the Sailors’ opening goals and, while the Sailors’ defensive organization was questionable, Tajeli put in a fantastic individual display, notching an assist with a timely interception and sprint.

Madhu Mohana

Tampines were faltering behind and needed someone to ignite their comeback – that man had to be Madhu. Besides scoring the first goal in what was to be a 3-3 comeback, Madhu also was decent at the back.

The Midfield

We really wanted to maximize the midfield because there were so many spectacular performances by players in the attacking half. Hence, we went with a five-man midfield. Song Ui-Yong is our honourable mention here for scoring 2021’s first SPL goal amidst a dynamic display, but his early substitution and missed chances means he just misses the cut in our star-studded midfield.

Joel Chew

The former Tampines man may have not played the entire match, but he certainly impressed during his time on the pitch. Big things seemingly await Joel, and it’s a treat to witness his progress with the Young Lions this season.

Chiku Kosuke

The Japanese midfielder notched an assist and demonstrated his creative prowess from corner kicks. It’ll be interesting to see how the Albirex number eight progresses through the course of the season. If his performance against Hougang is anything to go by, he poses a real threat from the middle of the park.

Yasir Hanapi

Okay, we know that Yasir Hanapi played as a forward against the Sailors, but cut us some slack. We had to fit the Tampines skipper in somehow, and so we slotted him in an unconventional left wing spot. Madhu may have ignited the comeback, but Yasir sealed the deal. 

Gabriel Quak

The SPL 2020 Player of the Year demonstrated why, once again, he is arguably the best player to be playing in Singapore right now. 2 goals against the Stags is by no means an easy feat, and Gabriel was a constant presence on the pitch. His only mistake – not scoring more when he could have easily done so.

Šime Žužul

The unselfish Balestier target man channelled his inner Harry Kane as he set up Shuhei Hoshino on two instances, with one being the wonder strike. Some have said that Hoshino and Žužul cannot play together, but their outing against Young Lions really proved otherwise. Other teams beware.

The Forward Line

Ah, we really had our pick for this one – we couldn’t include Stipe, Moreseche and Ilhan Fandi. But we went for a dual samurai combination up top. Jumbo and Tsuboi definitely looked menacing upfront. It will be interesting to see how they fare for the rest of the season after truly making a statement on the opening day of the campaign.

Shuhei Hoshino

‘Jumbo’ was definitely on form this Gameweek, with an absolute peach of a volley to score Balestier’s third in what was arguably the Goal of the Gameweek. His first goal was also a lovely outside-of-the-box curling effort that gave the keeper no chance.

Kiyoshiro Tsuboi

It seems that Albirex manages to unearth a new offensive gem every year, and this year’s marquee Japanese forward proved no exception. His brace consisted of a powerful strike (which, to be fair, should have been handled by veteran Ridhuan Barudin), and an acrobatic diving header that thumped into the back of the net.

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers, Albirex Niigata, Young Lions

Other Posts You May Like

Hearing From The Interviewees – Thoughts On the New Season

The 2021 Singapore Premier League Season is going to kick off in less than 24 hours, and while it’s a real shame that fans are unable to attend the matches in person, there is a lot of hype for this campaign. Several clubs have made high profile signings, and it’ll be interesting to see how […]

The Juventus-Ronaldo Project Has Failed

And it is time to acknowledge how far Juventus have fallen… So Juventus are out of the Champions League. In the Round of 16 stage. Again. Juve’s extra time away goals loss to FC Porto is the second time in as many years that the Bianconeri were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle in the […]

The Luke Shaw That Was Promised

After all these years, it looks like United have the left back they have been wanting… United have had a very good season, no one is going to doubt that. Their most recent win over Manchester City is another testament to the fact that United have made serious tangible steps forward this season. While they […]

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

An Inspiration to Aspiring Footballers: Varghese Jayan, The Self-made Man Part 1

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

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

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

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

The Story Begins in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore – Early Beginnings

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

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

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

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

Varghese and Steven Tan. Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

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

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

A True Self-Made Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refining his Tactical Skills with Balestier Khalsa

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

Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

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

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

Varghese with Sufianto Salleh. Image provided by Varghese Jayan.

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

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

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

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

Featured Image provided by Varghese Jayan

Other posts you may like!

The Curious Case of William Saliba

Why the Frenchman is nowhere to be seen, and how internal politics at the football club may cause Arsenal to miss out on a bright young star… In July of 2019, Arsenal completed a massive transfer coup in signing Saint-Étienne’s wunderkind teenage center back William Saliba for a reasonable-but-not-insignificant fee of £27 million. The Gunners […]

2020 In Review

A look back at the highlights from a difficult year as a reminder of why we love football… 2020 has been a very difficult year for all of us. It has also been a difficult year for football as an industry, leaving lasting financial effects that will be felt for years to come. The COVID […]

The Ludovic Casset Story Part 1: Making History in Vietnam

Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his […]

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.

Related Articles!

The ‘Lion’ that got away: An exclusive with Sirina Camara Part 2

If you haven’t already done so, check out Part 1 of the article! The Unrealized Dream of Representing Singapore Camara wanted to give back to Singaporean football because the S.League and Home United not only gave him the chance to pursue a professional career, which was something he probably wouldn’t have in France, but also […]

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s […]

Arsenal’s Guendouzi Situation

On the crossroads facing Arsenal and their young French midfielder, and why the right choice may not be the obvious one… Mattéo Guendouzi arrived in North London as an unknown, rose to be a promising and exciting young prospect in an Arsenal team with several exciting young talents, but just as quickly as that all […]

The Resilient Utility Player, A Rarity In The Modern Game: An Interview with Tajeli Salamat

I had the opportunity to talk to Tajeli the other day, and it felt good talking with the current Lion City Sailors FC centre-back. I knew Tajeli from his time at Warriors FC, my favourite Singaporean team that was unfortunately forced to sit out of the 2020 season due to financial issues. If Tajeli is an unfamiliar name to you now, just wait for him to feature for the national team. He is a tenacious footballer who will do anything to improve his game and become the best footballer he can be. This is the story of Tajeli who took charge of his career, engineered his own moves to keep the footballing dream alive, and worked hard to overcome the challenges he was faced with.

Beginnings: From Street Soccer to Professional Football

Coming from a family where no one really plays sports, it may seem like a surprise that Tajeli pursued a professional career in football. But those close to the player would know that there were signs early on that he would become a footballer. Growing up, he just loved playing the sport, and no matter whether be it a street soccer game with friends or a match with the Zhenghua Primary School Football team, he always played his heart out. He usually came home late, which led to his mother scolding him frequently.

“During my childhood days, I always get scoldings from my mother. I’ll be there [at the street soccer court] 24/7 and once I get back, she’d scold me saying ‘you don’t know how to get back is it? You just want to play soccer until when?’ So like that was the question thrown at me back then.”

While his mother may have scolded him for spending too much time on football, it was these formative days playing street soccer that shaped his footballing career. Even though he didn’t come from a footballing family, his father wasn’t going to stand in the way of Tajeli’s footballing ambitions. His father enrolled him Jurong F.C.’s youth set-up, and the player progressed through the U-League squads. During his time with the Jurong F.C. youth team, he was in the same side as Tampines custodian Syazwan Buhairi and former Lions XI player Pravin Guanasagaran. Yet, it was not until the trials for the Singapore Sports School when Tajeli played in defence. Up to that point he was deployed as a forward in both Jurong F.C. and his primary school football team.

“When I was in Primary School, I wasn’t a centre-back. I was either a striker or a winger. During the trials for [admittance into] the Sports School, we were categorized into our positions. When they were [assembling] teams to face off each other, it was a case of 11 V 10 and they needed one additional player, but that player had to play as a defender. So they asked me and I said, why not give it a try? From there, they saw that I could play in another position.

While nowadays he operates as a centre-back at Lions City Sailors F.C, it would be more apt to label him as a utility-player. Besides playing in the heart of defence, Tajeli has also played as a centre-midfielder and operated down both flanks as a fullback and a wide-midfielder. In many ways, Tajeli is like what John O’Shea was to Manchester United during the 2000s – a reliable player who can operate in multiple positions, a true rarity in the modern game.

After his time at Sports School, Tajeli didn’t want to pursue his further studies and was determined to enlist in National Service early so that he can continue his football development while he was a teenager. He was given the chance to enter the “Through train” programme, where Sports School students have a direct transition to Polytechnic education, but he declined it. Just as he was about to serve the nation, he received a call-up to play for a regional youth tournament in 2011.

“I decided to go to ITE instead so I would have an opportunity to feature in this tournament. However, I think that was the mistake because after that, they changed the age group from those born 1994 and before to 1995 and before. That was my only regret and I should have done my NS first because I think at that moment, I was blooming.

“I was in the NFA U-18 team playing in the Prime League but they promoted me to the Young Lions First team, so I represented Young Lions when I was 17, while still in ITE.”

After a season with Young Lions, Tajeli then signed for Balestier Khalsa for the 2013 season, and the Tigers went on to win the League Cup that season. He was playing brilliantly for the Tigers, who went on to win the RHB Singapore Cup in the 2013 season. However, Tajeli wasn’t able to feature in the later stages of the competition because National Service (NS) came calling that August, and it signalled an end to his footballing development. He did continue to play Sunday League football, but he never continued his development with a Prime League or S.League team.

Instead, he spent most of his time staying in camp. But it wasn’t all to bad for Tajeli. The player relished his NS experience and he even clinched the Best Recruit award for his company. Since he was part of a mono-intake with 2SIR, only the Best Recruits could be selected for the SISPEC course to become a 3rd Sergeant. With his footballing career seemingly over, he seriously considered signing on with the Army but decided to wait until after his NS to decide whether he was going to or not.

Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

Back into Football After NS & Almost Calling it Quits…

After he completed his NS in June in 2016, he was offered a chance to represent Singapore once again in another youth tournament, and he joined up with Young Lions yet again. He joined the club mid-way through the season, and at the end of the season he managed to seal a move back to Balestier Khalsa. What’s interesting is that Tajeli engineered this move all on his own.

“Back then it was coach Marko [Kraljević who was managing the club]. I think I also knew him during our time at Jurong FC and I probably refreshed his memory when I asked if he remembers. He told me that he remembers me. I just made the first step to ask if they’d be keen to have me in the team. What also helped was that I played for Balestier in 2013.”

However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the 2017 season, Tajeli was not immediately offered a contract extension by Balestier Khalsa FC, with management telling him that they would only provide him a contract pending Head Coach Marko Kraljević’s return to Singapore for the following season. That November, Tajeli worked part-time handling deliveries for RedMart while he was waiting for his contract to be renewed, something he was almost certain would happen. Then January came and SPL clubs were filling in their squads for next season. He remained hopeful of a contract from Balestier. Yet, that contract never came, and while the season went underway, Tajeli was left without a club. He tried approaching Tampines Rovers and Geylang International but since they could only offer him part-time contracts, he rejected them. It was that moment when Tajeli felt like it was time to call an end to his professional career.

Following the end of the season, for the next five months, he worked part-time with RedMart. While the job came with certain perks such as the provision of a van, which allowed him to travel around, his pay paled in comparison to what he was earning as a football player. He started applying for full-time positions, but he was unsuccessful. He even applied to sign on with the Army and the SCDF. However, during that difficult period, his then-girlfriend (now wife) was there to help him financially and it is something that he will always be grateful to her for.

“My wife supported me financially and emotionally. I don’t want to use her money, you know? So I decided to work at RedMart. She was there for me and she was just a student at ITE Ang Mo Kio working part-time. I am truly thankful to her for standing by my side.”

During this period, Tajeli, who still loved football passionately, wasn’t about to give up on his dreams totally. He went for trials with NFL teams such as Yishun Sentek Mariners for trials before being selected to play for Tiong Bahru FC. However, something didn’t sit well with the utility player. The NFL season hadn’t commenced yet, but deep down, he felt that he belonged in the SPL.

…Before a Warriors Lifeline

Tajeli decided to have one last crack at playing SPL football and ringed up Paul Poh, who was the General Manager of Warriors FC at that point in time. In 2016, Paul personally called Tajeli and offered him a contract and the player asked if there was any opportunity to play with his club.

“I asked him if he could offer me the same contract that he offered me last time. He told me to come down for a trial the next day so that the coaches can assess me and see whether I can make it to the team.”

Luck seemed to have been on the player’s side, because he put in a noteworthy performance during his trial that caught the eye of Mirko Grabovac, the then-Warriors Head Coach. Not long after, Tajeli went for a medical check-up and he went into the squad.

Tajeli enjoyed his time with Warriors partly because of his close friendship with Sahil Suhaimi. Besides being his roommate whenever the club headed to Brunei to face DPMM FC, Tajeli enjoyed playing with the Warriors no. 7 because they shared chemistry both on and off the pitch. Deployed mostly as a Right Back, Tajeli had a telepathic connection with the right-winger and they produced some brilliant linkup play. Tajeli also looks back with fondness at his playing time with Warriors and is thankful that the club provided him with a lifeline to return to the game loves.

Leaving Warriors and Starting a New Chapter with Lion City Sailors F.C

While Warriors provided a lifeline to Tajeli’s career, it wasn’t a smooth sailing journey towards the end due to the club’s financial issues.

“In Singapore, end of the day, it’s all about the money. Players need to be paid but Army also taught me well – to go with the flow. It wasn’t a case where the issue surfaced before the start or after the end of the season, when you had the time to make a decision on your career. It was during the season, so what else can you do?

“At the back of my mind, I know that money is important but I also want to be better [as a player]. I knew I can’t just focus on the now but also think of my future. I might be doing well and not paid now but I might be getting better pay in the future.”

Tajeli was with the club until they shut down, but when a better opportunity came elsewhere, he had to make the move. In fact, two clubs, Geylang International and Lions City Sailors FC, wanted to secure his services. However, Tajeli understandably went with the latter because the Sailors offered him a better contract. He needed to settle certain costs and payments that were incurred as a result of the unpaid wages fiasco at Warriors FC. As such, his time at Warriors also influenced him choosing his next destination.

While the club is still new and the team still hasn’t really had much time together given the Covid-19 Pandemic, Tajeli has been impressed by how the Sailors are making their club really professional. He cites a small example to show the club’s professionalism.

“When we go for games, we report to Bishan Stadium [the Lion City Sailors Home ground] and we’ll have our teamtalk and everything. Then we will board the bus together as a unit and move on to the stadium. So, it’s new to me. For the past clubs I’ve been, it’s always been report to the away stadium directly.”

Lion City Sailors have definitely added something fresh in a stale Singaporean landscape. The whole rebranding of Home United has been pretty impressive, and their recent launch of their youth academy has shown that they are determined to improve the quality of Singapore football. Most importantly, they have a highly rated head coach in Aurelio Vidmar. While there hasn’t been much training sessions, the Australian icon certainly embodies the professionalism of the club – an assessment that Tajeli wholeheartedly agrees with.

“I think he is a good coach, he emphasizes more on the basics. Even though we may be competent with our basics, he [Vidmar] wants us to polish it. Even small passes like short passes, it has to be firm, it has to be on the ground so that it is easy for the receiver to think ahead and turn, you know?”

The sailors are one club I will look at closely the next few seasons and hopefully, more clubs can follow in their suit.

National Team Ambitions and Future Aspirations

Tajeli also hopes to play abroad one day. One of his regrets was turning down an opportunity to play for an Australian National Premier League team. The NFA Under-18s headed over to Australia for a series of exhibition matches, where scouts from NPL and A-League clubs were present. Out of the 24 players from Singapore, Tajeli was the only one approached with an offer. While a move abroad to Australia sounded promising, he had to turn down the offer due to National Service and the fact that they required him to give a somewhat immediate answer.

Representing Singapore for the 2019 SEA Game., Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

“They wanted me to give an answer immediately. Like after I landed back in Singapore, I needed to speak to my parents and all, and then if I accepted their offer, I needed to fly back in 3 days. I remember them telling me that my visa would be done and my accommodation all taken care of.”

However, Tajeli understands that he would stand a better chance to earn a move abroad if he got called up to the national team – something he isn’t far off from. Tajeli got his first call-up to the national team in 2019 but is yet to earn a senior cap. He was called up this March for National Team training and could possibly feature for the Lions this year if Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and football was to continue.

For those that have been watching football, some of you may recognize Tajeli as one of six players publicly named by the FAS who broke curfew rules during the 2019 SEA Games following a loss to Thailand in the group stage. Personally, I think the way that the actions of the FAS were deplorable, to say the least. That however, will be for an article another day. It was the first time that Tajeli represented Singapore as a professional player and he has bounced back from the SEA Games fiasco as a stronger player, raring to earn his senior cap.

Tajeli is a fine footballer but what makes him stand out is his resilience and work ethic when he’s on the field. He has faced many challenges in his career but is unfazed by them. Instead, he works hard to overcome these challenges and become a better footballer. I firmly believe that featuring for the national team will be the gateway for Tajeli’s career to really take off. Who knows, perhaps a move to Australia might come calling again.