Tag Archives: football

Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

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

Humble Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

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

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

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

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

The Current Visakha Project

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

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

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

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

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

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

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

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

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

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

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

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

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

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

The Loyal Eagle

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

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

Photo Credits: Geylang International FC

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

Representing Singapore: U-23 and National Team Adevntures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Aspirations and Thoughts on Fatherhood

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on…

Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need to look out for.

Actual, real, legitimate title races

After an incredibly boring 2019-20 season with only one of the “top five” leagues being remotely competitive, we go into 2021 with three of those leagues having new teams at the top, with Lyon topping Ligue 1, AC Milan topping Serie A, and Atlético Madrid topping La Liga. Every league also has a competitive points margin. Four points separate first place Liverpool and fourth place Everton in the Premier League. Six points separate first place Atlético Madrid and third place Real Sociedad in La Liga. Five points separate first place Lyon and fourth place Rennes in Ligue 1. Two points separate first place Bayern and third place Leipzig in the Bundesliga. A bit more lengthy seven points separate first place Milan and third place Roma in Serie A. But still, these leagues are close, and with several teams having games in hand over the teams around them, it looks like it can get even closer. There is seemingly no one dominant team in any of the top five leagues, so there is no real clear title favorite in any of them, and the teams that have dominated these leagues over the last few years look to have a serious fight on their hands against the teams around them.

We still have quite a bit of football left to play, and the slog of late league seasons and cup competitions could take their toll on some teams, especially if the COVID Pandemic requires league matches, or even whole seasons, to be delayed, but it is still looking good for us to have some serious competition in the major European leagues in the second half of this season.

Euro 2020, but in 2021

I will admit, international football is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I know I probably enjoy it a bit more than most fans around the world. International competitions still attract plenty of interest, however, and this European Championship looked to be the biggest spectacle the competition has seen in recent years, with the competition being spread out over the entirety of the continent. However, due to COVID, it does not look like that will happen, or at least happen with fans in attendance. While that is a real shame and does take away some of what could have made this Euros great, it still looks set to be a great competition because, just like the domestic leagues, there does not seem to be one clear favorite.

Sure, France are the reigning world champions and probably the most talented team in the competition, but with some of the performances they put up in qualifying and some of their friendly performances in 2020, I am not so sure they should be favorites. While they are still very talented on paper, some of the key players from the World Cup team, including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Samuel Umtiti, and Antoine Griezmann, are not in good form. France has plenty of talent, but football is not a sport where you can just throw talent on the pitch and they will win. It also seems unclear whether manager Didier Deschamps is willing to trust that young talent, or even if he knows what formation and system suits his team the best. Belgium is another interesting case, with most of their “Golden Generation” beginning to either hit their peak or start to age out. They still have one of the best players in the world in Kevin De Bruyne, and they will be boosted by a more in-form Romelu Lukaku, but they do seem to be questionable defensively. Roberto Martínez has also not necessarily shown he has the managerial nous to get Belgium over the hump and finally win a major tournament.

Meanwhile, some of the “other” teams look pretty dang good. Italy seem to have quietly built one of the most balanced teams on the continent, England still have plenty of attacking talent even with questions around manager Gareth Southgate, and Spain look to be ushering in a promising young generation spearheaded by Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres. Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have talent needed to at least make some noise at the tournament, if not win the whole thing. It is a very interesting tournament, and it is very possible that we have a champion that is not expected.

A real shame that there will not be fans, though. I would have enjoyed watching England play Scotland at Wembley. That would have been some spectacle.

A potential summer transfer upheaval

This upcoming summer transfer window looks to be a very interesting one. The obvious story is the future of Lionel Messi, but there are a few big pieces that will be at play this summer.

Firstly, Real Madrid did not save all of that money from last summer for no reason. Los Blancos look to be major players in this transfer window, especially if they do not end up winning the title this season, as they need to usher out the previous generation and bring in new talent. Kylian Mbappé has long been a name connected with Real Madrid, and there is genuine momentum around Real Madrid making a move for the French phenom this summer. But has recent events at the club changed his mind about wanting a move away? With Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in Paris, PSG have seemingly never had a better chance at winning the Champions League. Would Mbappé want to stay in the capital and see that opportunity out? Or does his dream of playing for Real Madrid still remain? Beyond Mbappé, are there other moves that Real Madrid will make? Who leaves the club? Club captain Sergio Ramos is a notable player whose contract expires at the end of the season, and it does not look like a renewal agreement will be reached at this moment. Can the club afford to lose such a valuable player? Where does Ramos go? Who does Real Madrid bring in to replace him if he does leave? Mbappé is the most interesting moving part connected with Los Blancos, but he certainly is not the only one. It will be a busy summer for Real Madrid.

Moving from Mbappé to France in general, the recent catastrophically failed Téléfoot TV deal means French clubs are going to be losing a whole lot of money this year. With many French clubs, including major powers Lille and Marseille, already facing financial difficulty, this could mean an exodus of talent from Ligue 1 to other leagues. With Lyon and Lille in particular having quite talented teams, it is very possible those teams get picked apart in the summer as the talent moves to leagues across Europe. Ligue 1 could prove to be a fertile farming ground especially for mid-level clubs lacking the pull and finances of the top echelon of clubs in Europe, with the league boasting plenty of talented young players, outside of just the big name players, that will be available for reasonable prices. It is not just the Houssem Aouar’s or Renato Sanches’ or Eduardo Camavinga’s of the world, but players like Sven Botman, Youcef Atal, Mohamed Simakan, and Denis Bouanga will be names you hear connected with moves across the continent and could be the most successful moves from Ligue 1.

This window is also very interesting because there seems to be more key teams involved. With the leagues having more balance and parity this season, there will be teams going into the market this summer to maintain their high level or push beyond that to become true contenders. This is especially the case in England, where Liverpool and Manchester City will look to the market to maintain their high level, while Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, and Leicester will go into the market to continue closing the ever-closing gap between them and the top of the league. Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will also likely be very active, as will basically the entire top six or seven teams in Serie A. It will be very busy for everyone, as we are seemingly now in a world where the gap between the top and the chasers is nearly nonexistent.

Lionel Messi’s Future

Yeah, we will inevitably get to a decision point. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona contract, as you may know, runs out at the end of this season. In the summer of 2021, Lionel Messi will be a free agent. Will he stay, or will he go? Messi is free to negotiate with new clubs starting now, but he has said he has no plans to negotiate with other clubs until the end of the season out of respect for Barcelona. So we will really be waiting until the very end to find out the answer.

Does he stay? After all, he is Mr. Barcelona. He is their greatest ever player. He is so connected to that football club that it is hard to imagine one without the other. He is also their most important player right now, and while they are even struggling with Messi on the pitch this season, it is not impossible that things will only get worse should he leave Catalonia in the summer. With Barcelona presidential elections coming up in a few months, it is very possible that a new club president comes in and reverses much of the poor decision making and leadership that characterized Josep Bartomeu’s reign. Will Messi see the manager he wants? Potentially Xavi returning to the Camp Nou as manager? Can Barcelona get their finances right to be able to make the moves in the transfer window they need to make? Messi still has a few years left in him, enough time for one more run at the Champions League, time to exorcise the ghosts of Rome and Liverpool. He can still cap off his career as a winner with the club he has spent almost his whole adult life at.

Or does he go? Realistically, are Barcelona going to get themselves out of this mess in a few years? Will anything change in leadership at the top? Is keeping Messi even still in their best interests? The legend is getting older, it is possible it may be in all parties best interest to part ways, allowing Barcelona to build for the future around Ansu Fati and Pedri. Ronald Koeman’s tenure as manager has not gone well, but with Guardiola and Pochettino off the market, is there really a good alternative? Would Xavi even be a good choice? And there are plenty of options for Messi, plenty of clubs where he can make a run at the Champions League one last time. Manchester City and PSG are likely the two favorites to sign him should he leave, and both clubs would be Champions League contenders, or even favorites, instantly with the addition of Messi. He could also leave European football behind, returning to Newell’s Old Boys with the goal of helping them win the Copa Libertadores. He could go to MLS, or Japan, or somewhere else, somewhere less stressful and less burdensome and less of a wreck than Barcelona at the moment.

Where is Messi going to end up? I truly have no idea, but we do not have to wait long to find out.

There you have it. These are the major stories in the football world in 2021. These will be the ones that dominate the headlines over the next 12 months. And this concludes our 2021 preview. Thank you for your readership, and look out for more articles and content coming from us this year!

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Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance…

AC Milan

Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto?

I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may not be the most stylistically pleasing to watch in Italy, they can still score some goals, and their team spirit makes them an easy team to root for. Plus, they are full of talent. Zlatan is the obvious one, but they really have talent in every position. Ante Rebić, Alessio Romagnoli, Gigio Dommarumma, Ismaël Bennacer, Sandro Tonali, Franck Kessié, Jens Petter Hauge, the list goes on. They are definitely talented enough to win the Scudetto, especially in midfield, and Stefano Pioli deserves more attention and praise for the job he is doing. Plus, Milan look to be fairly active in the January window, with Strasbourg youngster Mohamed Simakan at the top of their list. An already talented team could be adding more young, promising talent, forming a team that could be contenders in Serie A for years to come. Milan are on their way back.

Manchester United

In a similar theme to Milan, are Manchester United back? Are they going to win the Premier League title this season?

Again, I have no idea, but I am interested to see what happens. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been under pressure as a manager, but he has now seemingly figured out how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. United are clearly very talented, revolving around the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in midfield. Their other stars have had good seasons, with Marcus Rashford in particular impressing on and off the pitch. They have also gotten good performances out of role players, including the likes of Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly. Right now, their entire team is seemingly playing with confidence and are in good form, helping them start 2021 joint-top of the table. My one caveat with this team is their great run of form has come against mid-to-lower-mid table teams, not truly being tested in the league outside of forgettable draws against Man City and Chelsea. Their European form was also questionable, losing to PSG and RB Leipzig to get knocked out of the Champions League. Things can change quickly in football, though, and the match at Anfield in two weeks will be a great barometer to see where this United team are at. With Liverpool’s current slip ups, that match at Anfield becomes the biggest of the season so far, with United being fully in the thick of the title race alongside Liverpool and Manchester City should they leave Merseyside with all three points.

Even if they do not win the league this season, I do feel this United team are a right winger, defensive midfielder, and center back away from being serious contenders on the domestic and European stage. They will likely be busy this summer, and they will be a team to keep tabs on for the 2021-2022 season. Like I said before with Milan, Manchester United are on the right track.

Everton

We have just finished year one of the Carlo Ancelotti project at Everton, and despite some inconsistencies in form, as well as a rather dismal loss to West Ham on New Year’s Day, the Toffees still find themselves within reach of the top four after an incredibly hectic festive fixtures run and being without several major players. Ancelotti has done incredible work in just one year on Merseyside, but they are still not a team that will shatter the world this season. It is entirely possible that Everton finish in the top four this season, but I do not believe it will happen. Top six is likely, but that is not the reason why they should have your attention.

Especially if they get European football for next season, they will likely be active in the summer transfer window. Given how successful they were in the last window, attracting talents such as James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Allan Marques to the club, it is going to be interesting to see who else Ancelotti and Marcel Brands, the club’s sporting director, are able to bring in. I imagine they will be one of the teams that are able to take advantage of the potential talent exodus from Ligue 1, mentioned previously in this series when discussing players such as Sven Botman and Renato Sanches. Brands is known for being able to make smart, financially sound moves for hidden gem talents, so this window could be the perfect opportunity to put that reputation to the test. It is apparent that Everton have the man at the helm needed to lead their project, and as he gets more time and more windows to build his team, it is possible that Everton could improve and truly become the team that gatecrashes into the “Big Six”. It is very possible that the Toffees could look a bit different, and a whole lot better, just 365 days from now.

Southampton

Here is your feel good story for this year.

Fresh off of their 1-0 win at Anfield yesterday, I think it is safe to say that Saints have earned themselves some admirers this season. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s redemption arc at Southampton, and in his managerial career in general, is something quite remarkable. His reaction at the full time whistle against Liverpool says quite a bit. Unable to hold back the tears, he likely remembered his early struggles with Unterhaching and VfR Aalen, the rocky and rather cutthroat end to his time in Leipzig, the fears of losing his job on the South Coast after the infamous 9-0 game against Leicester, all of the struggles he overcame to reach the point where he can stand on the Anfield turf, having been victorious over a man he was often compared to. And he can look at his players, a group that bought into his philosophy and coaching despite the struggles and fears of relegation or his firing. Truly a heartwarming moment.

Hasenhüttl has demonstrated that he is one of the most, if not the most, underrated managers in the Premier League. The job he has done at Southampton is nothing short of remarkable. And the team he has assembled is not half bad either. It is a group of veteran players, many who were often overlooked or discarded at bigger sides but managed to find form and confidence under the management of the Austrian. Alex McCarthy, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Danny Ings, Oriol Romeu, and Theo Walcott are just among the names that have found a second life at Southampton. There is even a solid set of younger, promising players in this team as well, including the likes of Che Adams, Kyle Walker-Peters, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Diallo, and Jan Bednarek. Saints are still flying high, technically only four points off the top but, in more realistic aims, well within reach of a European place. On paper, you do not fancy this team’s chances of finishing in the top six places.

But they could. They really could. And if they did, that would be one of the best stories of the year.

Paris Saint-Germain

The Mauricio Pochettino era is about to begin in Paris. Having just been announced and made official, the ex-Tottenham manager looks to be returning to the club he once captained to become their next manager. This instantly becomes possibly the most interesting project in European football. He inherits an obviously talented team, one including two of the best players in the world, but one that has had a rocky season and currently is in the midst of a serious title race, something the club has not been accustomed to over the last few years.

In the short term, Pochettino’s project will be repairing the obvious deficiencies in this team in order to get them back on track and retaining their league title. They might do so by making some moves in January, with the club being linked with two of Poch’s former players in Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. The club has also made it clear that new contracts for Kylian Mbappé and Neymar are also major priorities. Obviously, though, he was brought in with the long-term aim of winning the Champions League. They made the final last season, coming within touching distance of the trophy they have long desired, but there is still work to be done to make PSG a true consistent European contender. Managerial expertise and ability to handle big situations has been something PSG has lacked on the European stage, with last season’s Final disappointment joining a long list of PSG failures in Europe under Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery, and Laurent Blanc. Pochettino is a manager who, while he has very little in the way of silverware to his name, has managed in the big moments before, famously guiding Tottenham to the Champions League Final two years ago. It is this expertise and reputation that brought him to Paris.

In the meantime, he has some interesting decisions to make. How do they fix this midfield? Will he buck previous trends and trust their youth team? Do they make Moise Kean’s loan deal permanent? What happens with Neymar? With Mbappé? With Di María? With Icardi? Can they actually bring Lionel Messi to the club? Plenty of interesting possibilities are on the table, and it will be interesting to see what Poch is able to do with this team.

Italy

You have heard it here first: Italy have quietly assembled one of the most balanced national teams in Europe. They should be considered a dark horse contender for the Euros this summer, and I would not be surprised if they go far in the tournament.

People seem to have forgotten all about the Azzurri, though to be fair, failing to qualify for a World Cup does have that effect. After the disaster in 2018, the national team began their rebuilding process under new manager Roberto Mancini. While not the most famed and alluring coaching candidate, and with many wanting the return of Antonio Conte, Mancini has done a great job instilling a sense of discipline and team spirit back into the team, two things that was vacated under the fairly negative and somewhat toxic management of Gian Pieo Ventura. He also got the team attacking and scoring goals again, something that was also lacking under Ventura. Mancini’s time in charge also coincided with the rise of a new generation of Italian stars, one that makes up a substantial part of this team. And man, some of these players are quite exciting.

This is what brings this team balance. Not only do they have a great blend of youth and experience, but it is spread throughout the team and not just concentrated in a few positions. Leonardo Bonucci, Francesco Acerbi, and Alessandro Florenzi are veteran players in the heart of defense joined by the younger and potentially-future Italy captain Alessio Romagnoli. The delayed Euros could allow prodigal winger Nicolò Zaniolo to return fit in time for the competition, joining what could be a terrifying attacking front three with Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Should he not be fit for the competition, then no problem. Domenico Berardi, Federico Chiesa, and Vincenzo Grifo can fill in. Their midfield is probably the most remarkable part of their entire team. Marco Verratti has been a fixture in the Azzurri midfield for years now, and Jorginho has joined recently and has stuck. Verratti is having a fine season, but Jorginho is struggling for form. Who could they bring in to join Verratti if Jorginho cannot go? Well, they could use Inter’s Nicolò Barella, or Roma’s Lorenzo Pelligrini, or Milan’s Sandro Tonali, or Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli, or Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, or Udinese’s Rolando Mandragora. The options in depth is remarkable, especially in an area of the pitch that is so crucial in winning the slower, more methodical style of match played on the international stage. And they go into the Euros with the added bonus that most of their crucial players are in good form. Immobile is scoring goals for fun, Insigne is back at his dynamic best. Romagnoli and Donnarumma have been solid. There are a number of very good midfielders they can use who are in great form. Even players once on the fringe of the national team, including Moise Kean, Davide Calabria, Mattia Zaccagni, and Leonardo Spinazzola, are in fine form, offering even more options for Mancini.

I am telling you, Italy are dangerous. I would not be shocked at all if they went far in the Euros, and even if they do not succeed this summer, keep them in mind for the World Cup next year.

Bayer Leverkusen

Home to Florian Wirtz, the main future star talent we highlighted a few days ago, Bayer Leverkusen have assembled a high-octane attacking team that, when they are at their best, are a joy to watch.

Leverkusen are seemingly the “other” team that has found themselves in the middle of Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig’s title fight. Sitting currently in third and only five points off first, they are most definitely in the hunt. While they are not the favorite, they are a dangerous team that could have their say in who brings home the title this season. They are the joint-second highest scorers in the Bundesliga through 14 matches, and they have the young talent needed to possibly not be weighed down by pressure and expectation when it comes to chasing down Bayern. They also find themselves in the Round of 32 in the Europa League, and with the talent in this team, I would not be surprised to see them go deeper into the competition.

And what about that talent? Well, there is a lot of it, a nice mix of youth and experience. Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is not short of experience in working with younger players, coming from his time at Ajax and Dortmund, and this team is no different. We talked about Wirtz earlier in this series, but the rest of their attack includes the 21-year-old Moussa Diaby, 23 year old Jamaican forward Leon Bailey, and 24 year old Czech striker Patrik Schick. They are young talents to watch elsewhere in the team, including 22 year old midfielder Exequiel Palacios and 21 year old center back Edmond Tapsoba. Combining this with the experience from the likes of Lukáš Hrádecky, Charles Aránguiz, and Lucas Alario, and you find a very balanced and exciting team, with the youthful dynamism to be dangerous and the experience to be composed in big situations. Definitely fun to watch for the style of play and goals, but worth sticking around to see if they make some noise near the end of the season.

Real Sociedad

And finally, another team to watch purely because they are fun. Like Leverkusen, Real Sociedad are one to watch for those who want to see goals.

La Real started the year off in scintillating form, climbing to the top of the La Liga table while being the league’s top scoring team. Their form has tailed off recently, but they still go into 2021 in third place and only eight points off the top of the table. It is possible they can still contend for the title this season, but I do not believe they will. This does not mean they are not a team to watch, however, as they are, like Leverkusen, an incredibly entertaining side with plenty of young talent to keep an eye on. Imanol Alguacil has a team with a good blend of experience and youth, but they are a team that is fully committed to attacking and scoring goals. Despite losing Martin Ødegaard after last season, David Silva has arrived from Manchester City and showed that there is still magic in his left foot, taking up the role vacated by the Norwegian and performing very well. Mikel Oyarzabal is continuing to show why he is one of the top rising stars in La Liga, on pace to put together arguably his best year as a professional and captaining his boyhood club. In midfield, Mikel Merino and Igor Zubeldia form a strong partnership, with Merino in particular being one of the more impressive midfielders in the league over the last year. Alexander Isak has put his struggles at Dortmund behind him and is showing why he is such a special talent, and the emergence of young winger Ander Barrenetxea has given Sociedad another young, dynamic danger man to call on.

They may not win the league, and while they will likely win the Copa Del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao (which was supposed to be last season but will likely be played sometime in 2021), they may not win anything else of note this season. However, still watch them. They are just such a fun team. Everyone needs to keep a tab of a few teams to watch just to see goals and attacking football. In the past, it has been Pep’s Barcelona or Klopp’s Dortmund and Liverpool or Sarri’s Napoli. Now, I am telling you, it is Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen this season. Keep an eye on them this year.

Those are just a few teams to keep an eye on this year among the major domestic leagues and the Euros this summer. In the final part of this series, we will talk about some of the biggest stories and sagas that will develop over the year that you should keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe it will be something that seriously impacts the team you support?

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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

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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 Pandemic, among other things, has irreversibly changed the lives of millions of people and left its mark on the football world.

Today, as I write this, is New Year’s Eve. A fine time to say goodbye to the bad from 2020 and welcome in 2021, hoping for better and brighter in the coming year. It is also a good time to look back on the year and pick out the positives, and there definitely were positive moments in the football world this year. In this post, I will highlight my “Best of” moments for the year in football, with several categories talking about the highlights of the year and some things to look forward to in 2021.

Let us start with some of the easy ones first…

Player of the Year

Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich/Poland

Had to be him, right? The man that came remarkably close to breaking Gerd Müller’s Bundesliga single season goal record, the man who guided Bayern Munich to a historic treble, the man that epitomizes the cliché “he scores when he wants”. Robert Lewandowski was the best player in the world in 2020 and demonstrated to the world that he is one of the best strikers of his generation. Combining an incredible attacking intelligence, knack of knowing exactly where to be, an underrated passing ability, and an absolutely lethal finishing ability, Lewandowski is exactly what every team looks for in a striker. With 17 league goals in only 12 appearances this season, on top of three goals in four Champions League games, the Pole is well on his way to maintaining the ridiculous goalscoring level he set last season, when he scored 55 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions. He notably won the Player of the Year award at FIFA’s The Best awards, and, had the Ballon d’Or been awarded this year, he likely would have won that as well. Long considered one of the most underrated players in the world, Lewandowski is now getting the recognition he has deserved for years.

Manager of the Year

Hansi Flick, Bayern Munich

Again, had to be him, right? Hansi Flick was a long-time assistant for the German National Team under Joachim Löw, but joined Bayern in 2019 as assistant to Niko Kovač after a few years in a sporting director role for the national team. When Kovač resigned as Bayern manager in early November 2019, Flick took over as the interim manager. Bayern never intended for Flick to be the new permanent manager; he was simply a stopgap until they could find a new permanent manager, with many saying they were going to make an offer to ex-Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Bayern lost twice early under Flick, to Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, and then they did not lose for the rest of the season. They ran away with the league, won the DFB Pokal fairly comfortably, and stormed through the Champions League, capping off a historic treble year with a fairly routine win over PSG in the Champions League Final. Bayern went unbeaten for nearly nine months under Flick, amassing a 23-match winning streak that ran from a 4-1 win over Köln in mid-February to their 4-1 loss to Hoffenheim in late September, a loss that remains their only loss in 2020 and only the third loss Flick has on his record in management. The stats are absolutely crazy, but that is not all. Flick has Bayern playing like a well-oiled machine, shattering goalscoring records last season and looking to break those same records again this season. The same Bayern team that looked lost and clueless at times under Kovač were turned into a terrifying force of nature under Flick. The likes of Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng enjoyed a renaissance in form, while Serge Gnabry and Joshua Kimmich enjoyed their first steps into superstardom. Hansi Flick has done a remarkable job in his short time in management, and he is without a doubt the best manager of the year.

Best Team of the Year

Bayern Munich

Again, easy choice. They won five trophies and lost one game this whole year. Since hiring Hansi Flick, Bayern have basically become the footballing equivalent of the Death Star from Star Wars. They are a terrifying attacking team with an incredibly balanced midfield and strong defense and, if the rumors about the impending arrival of Dayot Upamecano next summer are true, they will only be getting better. Even when you do everything right against them, they can still find ways to win (as Leverkusen learned earlier this month). They are just an incredible team, the best team in the world at the moment, and one that could make history next year by winning back-to-back league and European trebles.

Ok, that is enough Bayern Munich love.

Young Player of the Year

Erling Håland, Borussia Dortmund/Norway

The lanky, awkward-looking Norwegian that burst onto the scene scoring goals for fun for RB Salzburg continued doing so in the Bundesliga. His strong physical presence combined with deceptive speed and long strides made him an absolute nightmare to defend against, seemingly being equally able to function as a target man and get in behind defenses. His positional sense is also phenomenal, and his ability to unleash thunderbolt shots with his left foot is just the cherry on top. Despite only 18 total appearances for Dortmund last season, all conveniently coming in 2020, he scored 15 goals in all competitions, a startling return for a player in his first half season playing in a “Top Five” league. He has continued that red-hot form into this season, scoring 17 goals in only 14 appearances in all competitions.

He just turned 20 this year. This is all patently absurd.

Yes, Dortmund have had their struggles this year, leading to the dismissal of manager Lucien Favre. With rising star Marco Rose looking to replace him, it looks like things will be looking up for die Schwarzgelbe soon, and Håland could lead this talented team to silverware before his time in Westphalia is up. Or, if the papers are to be believed, he might be moving back to England to his dad’s former club in the summer. Who knows…

Biggest Surprise Team

AC Milan

Yeah, I did not expect this either.

In the final game of 2019, Milan lost 5-0 to Atalanta. They were dreadful, having lost nearly half of their opening 17 games and sitting firmly mid-table with one of the worst goal differences in the league. And that was two months after they had sacked manager Marco Giampaolo and hired Stefano Pioli. It looked as though Pioli was on his way out as well, with the club having begun secret negotiations to bring in Ralf Ragnick as the new manager. Things began to turn around in January, with the free transfer signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović giving the club a talismanic striker and leader to rally around. They were not great, but they were good. They had improved, Zlatan continued to win his battle against aging, and you could see some of the talent in the team.

Then, the COVID Pandemic hit and halted the league. Serie A would eventually restart in June, and Milan began the restart with a 4-1 win over Lecce. They did not lose for the rest of the season. And then the new season started, and Milan still did not lose. 26 total matches unbeaten, a run dating back to last season, has turned Milan into the most in-form side in Italy and has them sitting top of the Serie A table at the end of the year. They are also the only unbeaten team remaining in Europe’s “Top Five” leagues in the 2020-21 season, an honor that not even Bayern Munich or Liverpool can boast. It is not just all on Zlatan either, as playing without the Swede this season has demonstrated just how talented this team is and how well-managed it is. The likes of Hakan Çalhanoglu and Alessio Romagnoli are enjoying their best runs of form as professional players, while Ismaël Bennacer, Franck Kessié, and Theo Hernández are growing into future stars. The job Stefano Pioli has done is nothing short of remarkable, as he has built a talented team with a true fighting spirit. Even if they do not win the Scudetto this year, it is a sign that Milan, a truly legendary club in European football, are on their way back to prominence.

2020’s Breakout Star

Theo Hernández, AC Milan/France

A talent that may not have fully “broken out” for mainstream fans, Theo Hernández has still been phenomenal for Milan this year, arguably being one of their most important players and becoming, at least in my opinion, the third best left back in the world at the moment. A player who is able to combine rapid pace, strength, great technical ability, and an eye for picking out a pass and finding a goal, Theo has become the prototypical attacking fullback. Having notched six goals and three assists for Milan last season, the Frenchman is seemingly raising the levels of his performances, having already gotten four goals and three assists through half of this season, including the winning goal in stoppage time against Lazio in the Rossoneri‘s final match of the year. He turned 23 in October, so he is still technically a “young” player, even though I did not put him for the breakout young star category. He has a bright future ahead of him, and this fantastic year may have been enough to put him on the radar when it comes to top talents in Europe, as well as potentially put him on the plane for the Euros this summer. If Milan qualify for the Champions League next season, or even if they find a way to bring home the Scudetto, Theo will be a major reason for their success.

2020’s Breakout Young Star

Eduardo Camavinga, Stade Rennais/France

One that is a bit out of left field, and a player who technically “broke out” in 2019, but it still counts. And trust me, you will be hearing this name a whole lot more very soon.

Eduardo Camavinga, Rennes’ teenage sensation who made his professional debut only a year ago, has become the brightest young star in France, a country that has never really lacked bright young rising stars. He followed up a great 2019, where he became Ligue 1’s youngest ever Player of the Month winner, with an even stronger 2020, cementing himself as one of the best midfielders in Ligue 1 and attracting attention from across Europe. He even earned his first cap for the French National Team, becoming the youngest player to make his debut for Les Bleus since Réne Gérard in 1932. He even added a brilliant individual goal for Rennes against Montpellier and a goal in his first start for France against Ukraine to an ever-expanding highlight reel.

A daring and confident midfielder who is silky-smooth on the ball and has an eye for a pass, Camavinga looks to be a constant fixture in the France midfield for years to come. He performed admirably for Rennes in the Champions League, and he looks to have les Rennais in position to potentially make it back to the Champions League next season. With the impending financial trouble in Ligue 1, however, it would not be a surprise to see Camavinga leave the Brittany club sooner rather than later. Either in January or the summer, I would expect the youngster to leave Ligue 1 behind, with Real Madrid and Manchester United being among the clubs interested. You will be hearing this name even more soon enough.

Best Transfer of 2020

Bruno Fernandes, Sporting Club to Manchester United, January 2020

I know this dead horse has been beaten relentlessly over the last few months, but I am going to do so again. Let us face it, Bruno Fernandes is a world-class player, and he has seemingly transformed the fortunes of Manchester United, as well as possibly saving Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s job, almost immediately. A dynamic, creative playmaking midfielder, Fernandes is seemingly at the center of quite literally everything Man United do going forward. Having amassed 12 goals and eight assists in all competitions in just 22 appearances for United last season, he firmly cemented himself as the team’s best and most important player, a large reason why they were able to make it back into the Champions League this season. He would follow that up with 14 goals and nine assists in all competitions so far this season, as well as being at or near the top of the list of chances created among all Premier League players. This is a remarkable immediate return for a player that just entered the Premier League less than a year ago, a league that can often take quite a while for newly arriving players to adapt to. He has fit into this United team perfectly, and his visible vocal leadership has also helped to instill a more decisive and ruthless mentality into the team.

Manchester United find themselves just three points off the top of the league at the end of 2020, a massive step forward from where they were when Fernandes joined the club, and the Portuguese maestro is a large part of the Red Devils’ success this season. It is hard to say that Fernandes has not been among the four or five best performing players in the Premier League in 2020, and he will go into 2021 as one of the contenders to win PFA Player of the Year, potentially being the reason United win the league when it is all said and done.

Best Match of 2020

Liverpool 2-3 Atlético Madrid, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg, 11 March 2020

The final major European match before the COVID Pandemic halted the European season was a dramatic battle under the lights at Anfield. Atlético Madrid, holding a 1-0 aggregate lead, had to hold out against a siege from the Liverpool attack. Strong performances from Jan Oblak and Thomas Partey in particular held the defense for as long as they could, but a rather fortunate rebound falling to the foot of Roberto Firmino allowed Liverpool to take a 2-1 aggregate lead in extra time. It looked almost certain that Liverpool would be going through.

And then, the legend of Marcos Llorente was born.

A mishit pass from Adrián fell to the feet of João Félix, who managed to find Llorente in a bit of space. The Spaniard got the ball on his stronger right foot but was closed down, having just enough time and space to let off a prayer of a shot. It somehow found its way in past a stumbling Adrián. 2-2 on aggregate, with Atléti going through on away goals as things stood. Seven minutes later, Atléti got another chance, with Álvaro Morata starting a counter and finding Llorente in space. With the Liverpool defenders backing off of him, Llorente had time to get the ball onto his right foot and fire another shot at the Liverpool goal, which also went in. 3-2 on aggregate, a prayer from the heavens, los Colchoneros looked like they could really escape Anfield with the win. Liverpool needed two goals, but for all their might, they could not get past Oblak. In the final minute of the match, Llorente played through Morata, who finished calmly past Adrián. 4-2 on aggregate, Atléti were through. The entire team piled on top of Morata, Diego Simeone ran arms extended and screaming toward the traveling Atléti fans. 120 minutes of madness at Anfield had ended, and the reigning European champions were out of the competition.

It is hard to think of another match with the same level of sheer madness as this one. The electric atmosphere at Anfield, the dramatic twists and turns, the brilliant performances, and a cult hero being born all added up into the best match I saw this year. Had we known it would be the last big match we all saw in a full stadium, we might have appreciated it much more at the time.

Best Goal of 2020

Jordan Flores, Dundalk vs. Shamrock Rovers, 28 February 2020

I mean, just look at it.

Click the hyperlink above. Watch the goal.

Did you watch it yet? Good.

How in the world was this not a finalist for the Puskás award? Flores got his foot basically above his head to strike a cross from a corner first time into the top corner. Amazing. I do not think a ball has been struck that well the entire year, and Flores may never strike a ball that sweetly for the rest of his career. Just an absolutely baffling combination of athletic and technical ability, a fantastic goal that should have gotten more love than it did.

Best Moment of 2020

Olympique Lyonnais eliminate Manchester City from the Champions League, 15 August 2020

Sorry, Leeds fans. I know the best moment should probably be your team getting promoted back to the Premier League for the first time in nearly two decades. But, I am a Lyon fan and the one writing this blog, so there was no way I was not going to include this moment.

The Pandemic condensing the football schedule meant that, after leagues restarted, UEFA was forced to condense the Champions League, moving to one game rounds for the quarterfinals and semifinals instead of the two legs that was used before. Many thought this would increase the chance of an underdog story in the knockout stages of the competition. However, the underdogs began tumbling out of the competition, with Atalanta and Atlético Madrid losing at the first hurdle. All that was left was Lyon, who finished their worst league season in two decades and, due to Ligue 1 canceling their entire remaining season, did not play a competitive match for several months prior to narrowly escaping against Juventus a week prior. Surely this would be simple for Man City. This would be the best chance for Pep Guardiola to get his Champions League title with City, arguably being one of the best teams remaining in the competition. Lyon were talented, for sure, but there was no way they could stand a chance against City. This would be routine.

24 minutes in, Maxwel Cornet scored. 1-0 Lyon. That was not in the script.

City seemed flustered, this was not part of the plan. They did fight back, Kevin De Bruyne eventually leveling the match with 20 minutes remaining, but Lyon, attacking through their star midfielder Houssem Aouar, took the lead again, with Moussa Dembélé beating Ederson in a one-on-one after Aouar played him through on goal. City fought back again, and Raheem Sterling had the opportunity to level the match. All he had to do was pass it into an open goal after receiving a brilliant cut back pass. And he skied it. As if determined by fate. Lyon scored their third moments later, with Dembélé scoring from a shot spilled by Ederson. It was over, City were out. Lyon pulled off the historic upset, one of the biggest wins in their club’s history, and knocked out arguably the presumptive favorite to win the competition. In a dismal year that featured three Champions League semifinalists that were far from romantic, Lyon reminded us that the Cinderella story is still alive.

My Best XI in 2020

Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi

Kevin De Bruyne, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Müller

Alphonso Davies, Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold

Manuel Neuer

This is the end, but I just wanted to take a moment to thank you all for your readership in 2020. It means so much to us that you all take time out of your days to read our content. It was a successful starting year for us, and we are excited to continue bringing you content for the upcoming year! I will be publishing a follow-up to this talking about things to look out for in 2021.

I wish you all peace, health, and happiness in the upcoming year.

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The Longest Serving French Jaguar: A chat with Anthony Aymard Part 1

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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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 […]

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

I’m going to watch the Bundesliga and here’s why you should too

Can you sense it? European football is coming back to our TV screens, with Germany leading the way. I daresay that all of us have missed the spectacular goals, incredible link-up play, and on-field drama. Like me, you’re probably eagerly awaiting the start of the German topflight.

Wait, you’re not?

Well, I’m honestly not surprised. Most football fans around the world usually support a domestic team and a club from either the Premier League or La Liga. While fans are familiar with big clubs like Juventus and FC Bayern Munich, the leagues these European giants play in are unfamiliar to them. If you were to ask a casual Premier League fan to name a starting line up comprised of players from other leagues in Europe, chances are they’d fill that squad entirely of players from the big teams. A sense of familiarity is key to supporting a club fully. Many football fans are not casual fans. Instead, they are die-hard ones. They will pick a club and give it their unwavering support.

Yet, there is something quite exciting about supporting a new club. It’s like you undergo a rebirth as a football fan. The process of finding out about the club and then forming a sense of belonging to it is truly a refreshing experience. Even though I’m a Manchester United fan, I started supporting Napoli way back in 2012. I discovered Napoli through FIFA 13 but I have seen Lorenzo Insigne blossom from a youthful prospect to an exceptional winger. Not only that I’ve seen the meteoric rise of Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens. Last season, Napoli were absolutely incredible and their second-place finish was a testament of their fine performances.

The Bundesliga shouldn’t be a total walk in the dark though. Many former premier league players now ply their trade there. Former Arsenal man, Serge Gnabry, and ex-Liverpool stalwart, Philippe Coutingho turn out for Bayern Munich. Another former Liverpool player, Emre Can, plays for Dortmund. Former Chelsea striker and Peruvian icon, Claudio Pizzaro, represents Werder Bremen despite the fact that he is 41 years old.

Jack is publishing a weekend preview (his specialty) for the upcoming Bundesliga matches and I urge you to read it because it provides you an entry-point to pick your teams. For me, I’ve decided to support Bayer Leverkusen for the remainder of the Bundesliga campaign. I barely know the club but I know most of their players: Leon Baily, The Bender brothers, Jonathan Tah, Kevin Volland and of course, the very talented Kai Havertz.

Image by jorono from Pixabay

I’ll also be keeping an eye out for Dortmund cause they possess a squad filled with extremely sensational young players. There is a possibility that Sancho may be wearing a United jersey come the next transfer window so it’ll be nice to see how he performs. Achraf Hakimi, on loan from Real Madrid, has also been a joy to watch. Their main attraction, however, has to be their recent acquisition, Erling Braut Håland. The Norwegian has set the Bundesliga alight since arriving at Dortmund and it’ll be interesting to see him play weekly.

The Bundesliga’s resumption provides me (and you) an opportunity to find a team to support. Sure, we might not religiously tune in and watch the teams that we choose now once the other leagues resume. However, they will forever have a special place in our hearts. Supporting a relatively unfamiliar team and watching them play well and win matches is a thrilling and wholesome encounter. I urge you to pick a team and stick with it. Who knows, you might just become a convert.

Unearthing an Unsung Hero: An Exclusive Interview with Delwinder “Del” Singh

The Singapore Premier League (SPL), and its predecessor the S.league, has seen many great defenders grace the competition. Aide Iskandar, Baihakki Khaizan, Daniel Bennett, S. Subramani are just some of the hallmark names that come to mind. Yet, there are many unsung heroes that have played in the league as well. Often, these underrated players go under the radar. When I think of underrated Singaporean defenders, there are none more prominent than Delwinder Singh. The lanky defender has played for many local clubs and now finds himself back at Tanjong Pagar United FC (TPUFC), the club where he began his professional career.

I reached out to Delwinder recently to interview him, and to my surprise, he was more than happy to accommodate my wishes. I had the privilege of conducting a virtual face-to-face interview with him the past weekend, and I have to say that not only is he an underrated footballer but also possibly one of the nicest lads you will ever meet. This is his footballing story or rather, some parts of it.

Photo of Delwinder Singh by Tanjong Pagar United FC

Beginnings into Football

Delwinder Singh’s football journey really took off during his time playing for the Sengkang Secondary School’s football team. His fine performances for his school team earned him a spot at the North Zone’s Center of Excellence, where he was captain of the team. When he was 14 years old, he attended a trial set up by the Singapore Sports School to pick out players for the annual AFC Carnival, a continental Asian club. The Singapore Sports School had 14 players but a squad of 18 was required for registration. So 4 players were taken from mainstream secondary schools, one from each position – a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfielder, and a forward.

Del was invited for the trial by Abdullah Noor, the Sports School coach, after Del impressed him while playing for North Zone in a match against the Sports School. However, Del didn’t make the cut and it was this rejection that spurred him on to further improve his ability as a player.

“It was my first-ever call-up to the national youth set up and I was really nervous, so I didn’t make it. I was really upset about it, but I told myself that I will continue working hard. [Noor] had already seen me once and it’s possible that they would see me again.”

Sure enough, after some time, during a friendly between North Zone and Sports School, Del caught the eye of Noor once again. This time, according to Del, Noor was blown away by the defender’s performances.

He came up to the young defender and said, “I really don’t know what’s with you, but you came for trials you were different, and now you play [differently]. This is the Del I wanted. Come and train with us again.”

Delwinder managed to impress during his trial the second time around and eventually did go on to represent Singapore in the AFC Carnival. This was Del’s first time representing Singapore on a youth level, but it sure wasn’t going to be his last. He went on to represent Singapore at the Under-15 through the Under-18 levels.

Two times lucky with the Jaguars

Photo of Delwinder Singh by Tanjong Pagar United FC

What many people do not realize is how the defender came close to quitting football altogether on both instances before signing up with the Jaguars. In 2010, Delwinder was sidelined for 9 months after breaking his metatarsal while playing handball during a PE lesson at Sengkang Secondary School. The lengthy time out in many ways was “a blessing in disguise” for it allowed the player some much needed time to focus on studying for his GCE ‘O” Levels. 2010 was Del’s 6th year in secondary school. After not scoring as well as he expected results for his ‘O’ Levels the previous year, his father and his secondary school teacher advised him to resit the examinations. Even though he scored much better in his second attempt, Del was out of the NFA-18 set up entirely. While his former teammates were signing up with the Young Lions and other Centers of Excellence, Del thought he was out of the radar of clubs and decided that he should focus on excelling in his Sports Science diploma at Republic Polytechnic.

Out of nowhere, as luck would have it, Del was approached by Terry Pathmanathan, the newly appointed Jaguars head coach in early 2011. Tanjong Pagar United had rejoined the league for the 2011 season and they were in need of players to fill out their squad. They had conducted trials to recruit players, but Del was still recuperating from his metatarsal injury. Despite being unable to attend the trials, Pathmanathan, or “Coach Terry” as Delwinder endearingly refers to him, rang him up and told him that the club was interested in signing him. On the brink of ending his footballing ambitions, Terry handed Del what many local aspiring footballers would call a golden opportunity – the chance to play professionally. Pathmanathan had worked with the NFA set up and knew what Del was capable of. Despite the fact that Del was only recently cleared from his injuries, he vouched for Del’s ability based and signed him up.

While many of his peers were playing for Prime League and the under-23 and under-21 national team, his stellar performances during the 2011 season earned him his first national team call-up later that year. Del would be the first to declare how grateful he is to both Coach Terry and the Jaguars for providing him with his big break, especially when he was about to call quits on a footballing career.

Photo of Delwinder Singh from his Instagram account

Before the start of the 2020 Singapore Premier League season, drama unfolded when Warriors FC, the most successful club in league’s history, were forced to sit out of the upcoming campaign. The club had been plagued by financial issues since 2018 where it began to default the payment of wages to players. The issue only intensified in 2019, and the club found itself debt-ridden.

“Everybody has said their piece but for me, end of the day, it was a lesson. I never ever thought such a situation would happen in Singapore, a country with stringent measures in place to ensure that unpaid wages would never be an issue. It dragged on for a couple of months, for which it differed for each player. Some were owed two [month’s salary]. Some were owed three [month’s salary]. And the most was six [month’s salary].

“A lot of players had issues coming out [and talking about the issue] not because they didn’t want to. People kept on asking why I continued to play despite being unpaid. I don’t think people understood it was not easy to come out and discuss these things because it could get you implicated. By coming out, would it makes things worse?”

Still, even though wages were given late, Del did mention that the Warriors did eventually pay their players. They came up with a plan for players who were still owed salaries and adhered to the plan where players were payed promptly.

Despite letting go many of their personnel at the end of last season, the 9-time league champions were determined to carry out the current campaign. A bare-boned squad of 16 players was assembled and continued training in January despite the uncertainty of whether the club was going to continue or not. Then, the seemingly inevitable happened. The Football Association of Singapore pulled the plug on the Warriors’s participation and requested they sit out the current campaign. By that point, many other teams had almost finalized their squads. Del would be the first to tell you that it was a complete shock that something like this happened to such a decorated club, like Warriors, in Singapore.

The incident with Warriors left limited options for the defender and Delwinder believed once again that perhaps it was time to hang up his boots for good. Had he done so, it would be a shame but also unsurprising. Many other promising Singaporean players (including internationals) have retired early in the game. Their decision is certainly influenced by the lack of opportunity to play. Even though the SPL is the only professional sports league in Singapore, the number of local clubs has fallen from 12 in 2002 to 6 in 2020. The issue of opportunity is exacerbated by the greater emphasis on youth in recent years. For some time now, at least 6 spots in the squad must be assigned to players under the age of 23. Competition for places in teams is rife and with each squad typically having 3 goalkeepers, 9 slots out of 25 are already occupied in most team sheets. Graduating this August with a degree in Business Management from RMIT, Del was set on focusing his time and energy on his education.

However, in what seems like a page out of fairy tale, out of nowhere he was handed a lifeline to continue playing from none other than the club where it all began. For the second time, Delwinder became a TPUFC player. It was an emotional return for him as well. When he left the team in 2012, he promised himself that he would return back to the club before retiring, but that ambition was crushed when the Jaguars decided to pull out of the league after the end of 2014 season. Their return couldn’t be timelier because Del gets to fulfil this earlier promise and more importantly, extend his footballing career.

Coping with the Coronavirus

Delwinder Singh reveal by Tanjong Pagar United FC

The 2020 SPL season barely commenced before the intensification of the coronavirus in Singapore which led to the suspension of the league. Delwinder had started all three games and despite finding themselves 7th in the league, the Jaguars have done reasonably well (especially given the short amount of time they had to assemble their squad together). The defender is thrilled that his footballing dream is kept alive and he puts in his best to give back to the Jaguars. He mentioned how he is grateful to the TUPFC management, chairman, and coaching staff for their faith in him and their desire to have him on board.

Besides attending his RMIT classes online and submitting his assignments, Del spends his days by keeping fit. Like many SPL clubs, the Jaguars requires their players to maintain their fitness.

“As of now, the club sends us a weekly workout which we do about three to four times a week and plus you have to send in your running timings where you have to clock in 8 to 10 Km per week,” reveals Del when quizzed about what the Jaguars have outlined for him. “They’re not so anal about what apps we use so long as we screenshot it and send it to them.”

But running miles is not the same as building match fitness and Del revealed how it would take some time for players to be up to speed when the league eventually resumes (hopefully).

“For me, [when it comes to] this kind of running, it’s totally different to [playing the full 90 minutes]. You can be running 5 Kilometres below 20 minutes, but when you go to a game, you cannot last. It’s two different ball games.”

The Korean League opener between Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors characterized the lack of match fitness, and Del mentions how when football resumes, opening fixtures “won’t be of the same intensity and it gradually takes you 2 to 3 games for you to get into the rhythm again.”

Del was personally vested in the match because former Home United manager, Lee Lim-saeng, now took charge of the Bluewings. While Del was playing at Warriors, Lee was supposed to be appointed as head coach and actually trained with the club for a week.

“Within that week or two, you could see what he wanted from his players but [knowing] what he wanted from his players and based on yesterday’s game, I think it’s totally different. So I think, yeah, it will take a bit of time before players get into the rhythm again.”

The Future: National Team, Moving Abroad, and Retirement Plans

Delwinder has represented the national team a total of 5 times thus far and is determined to add more to that tally before he eventually retires. While playing for the national team consistently is his eventual goal, his main priority is to play well for his club and ensure that his team achieves their goals. He doesn’t go into matches with the mindset that he needs to look good so that he can earn a national team call up. That being said, he is raring to get another call-up, his last one coming in 2013.

More Singaporean footballers are trying their luck abroad with Malaysia and Thailand becoming popular destinations and if an opportunity overseas beckons, Del is not going to let it slip. Prior to this, a move abroad was off the cards given his educational and national service commitments. Between 2011 and 2014, Del was juggling between playing and studying at Republic Poly. He then enlisted for National Service and decided to pursue a degree in 2018 at RMIT. Since he doesn’t have any intention of pursuing further studies, he is finally free to pursue a move abroad once he graduates this August.

A move to Malaysia or Thailand would seem likely but who knows, we might find him in other leagues. The K-league recently added an extra foreign player slot for ASEAN players. A move to the I-League is also another plausibility, and Del could be following the footsteps of former teammate and close friend Jozef Kapláň, who signed for Chennai City FC in 2017. Del believes a move abroad would push his game to the next level because as an import player, he would be expected to be better than local players. Del mentioned how Stipe Plazibat, another close friend, is a model example of how a foreign player should be – someone with immense quality who value adds the rest of the team. He also cites players like Safuwan Baharudin and Harris Harun as prime examples of players who have raised their game even further after a move abroad.

I’ve always held the belief that more Singaporean footballers should actively seek moves abroad to help improve their game, which therefore increases the quality of Singaporean players. It is heartening to know that players like Del are open to such a possibility – even if it means participating in trials for a few weeks. At the same time, given the current pandemic, it would be sometime before a move abroad may actually be a possibility (let alone materialize).

Photo of Delwinder Singh from Instagram account

Despite being a ten year veteran in the league, Del is still relatively young at 28 years old. If he remains fit and avoids any long-term injuries, he still has many years of playing ahead. Yet, I couldn’t resist asking about his plans after he eventually hangs up his boots. Surprisingly, while he would not be opposed to coaching youth teams part-time, he doesn’t see himself being involved in full-time coaching (at least for the time being). Instead, he wishes to go into any sort of management. While I was initially taken aback, I guess it makes sense. Del has worn the armband for his club on a number of occasions and possesses leadership traits that would translate naturally into a management role in the corporate or public sector.

Whatever the future may hold, Del can hold his head up high for his performances thus far in his career. Approaching the prime years of a defender, I daresay that his best form is yet to come. The future looks bright for the defender, and if he puts in consistent performances once the league resumes, it is only a matter of time before we see him don the national team jersey once again.

What the K-league opener has taught other leagues

I missed football, and many elements of the K-league opener has reminded me why: Artificial fan sounds, a somewhat sluggish affair, and a wild moment when a 41-year old legend scores. The K-League opener has reminded football fans what we’ve been missing out on – the beautiful game. I don’t even watch the K-League but the chance of catching any new football was too good to miss out on. Thankfully, the opener was streamed for free on YouTube and certain things stood out for me, which I feel the rest of the footballing world could learn and benefit from.

The artificial fan noises broadcasted around the stadium do help create the atmosphere for the viewer that there are fans around the stadium. I couldn’t catch the match from the start, so when I did drop into the stream, I was under the impression that a designated section was allocated for a group of fans. It was only much later did I realize that the noises were artificial. It did significantly alter the game experience for me as a casual fan and this is something that European teams should look to incorporate if or when their seasons resume. I remember viewing highlights of the clash between Manchester United and LASK and the lack of ambient noise made it come off as a training session instead of an actual football match.

Seeing 41-year-old Lee Dong-gook grab the winner for Jeonbuk in the 84th minute was something special to see. I remember watching Lee play for Middlesbrough in the Premier League more than a decade ago. The veteran striker failed to score a single PL goal during his time at Boro but managed to pull off a near-post header from Son Jun-ho’s corner. It was a heart-warming moment to see an absolute legend who could still muster a fine performance despite his age. By contrast, Bluewings forward Adam Taggart was quiet that night. His display paled comparison to his exploits in the 2019 campaign. The former Fulham and Perth Glory forward was sensational upfront for the Bluewings last season, banging in 20 goals in 33 league appearances.

At the same time, the match between Jeonbuk Motors and Suwon Bluewings also demonstrated how match fitness would be an issue for some time to come. Two months is a long time out of the game and even though players can maintain their overall fitness, they need playing time to build up their match fitness. The opener was a sluggish affair which is a far cry from the high standards that these teams have consistently put in over the years. Perhaps Taggart was experiencing a lack of match fitness and in due course, we could see more goals from the Australian international.

While the global pandemic has forced the K-league to postpone the start of the season, many other leagues, that were in the midst of their seasons, had to undergo an indefinite suspension. The momentum that players, like Man United left-back Luke Shaw, had been riding on has been disrupted. Therefore, it is a tough ask for players to immediately continue the fine form they exhibited before the leagues’ suspension. Fans need to understand this and not overly pressure their club’s players. Instead, we should cherish the fact that football is back.

With the Bundesliga’s official resumption around the corner (May 16, 2020), the K-league’s commencement of their season has brought hope for me that football may soon return to many parts of the globe. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating for football matches to take in countries where the coronavirus is rampant. Safety should be everybody’s concern and people should co-operate with their respective governments so that the disease gets controlled and hence, stringent measures can be lifted. Korea has done a remarkable job in controlling the disease after it rampantly spread across the country. The return of football to Korea represents the light at the end of a long tunnel. Containment and quarantine policies around the world have robbed us of sporting events and many other activities. Even with the resumption of football, it might not be entirely the same with the absence of fans and the inclusion of more substitutions each match.