Tag Archives: Geylang International

We Need VAR For The Singapore Premier League To Help The Referees

While Game Week 2 showed signs of improvement from a refereeing standpoint, I think the Singapore Premier League can benefit from the inclusion of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. Why? Well, our current referees need all the help they can get. Bad calls ruin a game.

Patrick Kinghorn has been pretty vocal opponent for the VAR system and regularly mentioned it in game week 1. It may have very well been a case of the commentator’s curse, but let’s face it, the officiating in TPU’s opening game was horrible, culminating in an egregious call on Delwinder Singh that lead to a penalty which turned the tide of the game. The referee that fixture had a really torrid first half.

But hey, as human beings, we tend to make mistakes. We are, after all, fallible creatures. So, I disagree with Mr. Kinghorn. VAR is needed because referees need an extra hand. Perhaps how we utilize the VAR system could be refined, but without it, the SPL is at risk of being laughed at because of seriously bad calls by referees.

Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that VAR will completely eliminate errors by the referee . It would, however, help referees re-examine their decisions. It is extremely difficult for referees to spot fouls in fast-paced play and make important calls if they only had a glimpse of things. Refereeing is an extremely difficult job, and there should be more acknowledgement for the job that they do. Mistakes do happen because of how hard it is to referee. Although, at the same time, this should not be an excuse for poor officiating.

VAR would help referees. Yet, is implementing VAR a feasible option for the Football Association of Singapore?

VAR is by no means cheap but if the government and the FAS feel that 2034 is a truly achievable goal, no cost should be spared to ensure. Of course, as an external bystander, it is easy for me to mention that the FAS has the capacity to throw some money around. Yet, if talks about the privatization of clubs actually materialize, then the FAS would definitely have the financial resources available to implement the VAR technology.

The real question is how much does VAR cost? Well, I don’t have any exact figures but based on the 2018 Brazilian top flight season, the cost of the use of VAR was approximately at US$6.2 million (~ZAR 87 million). While the Brazilian Football Confederation proposed a levy on each club to help fund the total cost, such an initiative would not fly in the SPL until all clubs are privatized.

Of course, some would argue that VAR is taking the fun out of football. Well to those people I say, we need to remain relevant. Besides helping referees, the implementation of VAR also helps Singaporean sides remain relevant in a world where teams are adapting their system and style of play to capitalize on the technology. Southampton manager has openly stated that “VAR has changed the way he sets up his team to play.” While others haven’t openly declared it yet, it shows through.

From what we can tell, instead of removing VAR altogether, they are looking at ways to refine it. It is likely here to stay whether we like it or not. Is it perfect? Of course not. However, it most definitely needs to be implemented here. If not, we can never fully adapt to it and we will certainly fall behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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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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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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It was my pleasure to catch up with Darren some weeks back during the season and discuss at length his footballing journey. An extremely humble and helpful young man, Darren truly is a role model to follow. This is his story.

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Footballing Beginnings

Unlike many professional players who started their footballing journeys at a very young age, Darren only first started playing football at 11 years old, relatively late for a professional footballer. It was during recess at Rivervale Primary School when Darren first started playing with his friends, but his performances on the field as a goalkeeper caught the eye of the teacher-in-charge of the school football team. As it turned out, the school team needed a goalkeeper and he asked Darren if he was keen on reprising the role as the school’s no. 1. This was a stark contrast for young Darren, who was previously mainly engaged with the Arts – specifically, music. A common occurrence in Singaporean households, Darren learned to play the piano and, in fact, holds a grade 7 certification (though he’s rusty right now because it’s been ages since he last played). Besides the piano, Darren also played the violin when he was younger. As such, he was venturing into uncharted territory when he decided to join the school football team.

However, Rivervale Primary was not well-known for their footballing level and it showed – they were thrashed almost every game by other school teams. That being said, Darren got his first taste, albeit a small one, of structured football with Rivervale Primary. It was also during this period where he moved away from custodian duties and began to be deployed further up the field as a midfielder when he was 12 years old.

While Rivervale Primary was not the best team, Darren showed early brilliance, and his team coach and teacher-in-charge nominated Darren for the Singapore Sports School. Darren was interested about the prospect of playing alongside some of the supposedly brightest footballing talents of his age group. His parents, on the other hand, felt that his footballing development can continue while pursuing a more typical curriculum at a secondary school. It was a decision that Darren agrees with.

“It was not like my parents did not support me. They did support me but they felt it would be better if I go to a normal secondary school. To be honest, at that point in time, I myself was not even serious about [a career in football]. I did not think about it as a [viable] career. So, I ended up going to Guangyang Secondary School, the same school as Gabriel Quak. I never met him in school because of the age difference.”

While primary school may have given Darren a glimpse of what professional football might entail, it was during his time at Guangyang Secondary which opened the doors to the footballing education that he needed. At the core of this was one man – coach Nicholas Wong. Nicholas Wong had been coaching since he was 18 years old, and the experienced youth coach and is still someone that Darren looks up to a lot.

“Nicholas really groomed me into who I am and really, really coached me well. Even today, I would really give him a lot of credit. He’s still coaching, more so at schools. On and off the field, he’s a [really good] friend of mine. At the point of time, I was just 13 years old and he was also quite a young coach, like in his late 20s. There’s more of a [relatability]. Some coaches are like in their 50s and 60s and they’re just there to do their job whereas Nicholas was really like a friend of [the players]. After training, we would always go to the coffee shop and have drinks and stuff [to hang].”

While Nicholas moulded Darren and polished his game, it was not until secondary 2 when Darren could display his talents. Unfortunately, there were insufficient lower secondary players to fill a complete squad and thus, Guangyang could not compete in the C Division. Still, there was a silver lining. Darren and his fellow lower secondary players had the chance of playing with the upper secondary players, and this exposure benefitted Darren immensely. Thankfully, things took a positive turn in secondary 2, when there were enough players to form a team.

“I remember asking my friends to join the school team and told them that we could be going for trainings together. Secondary 2 was when I would regard, I had my first proper competitive experience. [However,] it was secondary three when the turning point happened in my life and I decided that football will be my career.”

Transitioning to Fullback and playing for SAFSA during National Service

A year later, at 15, Darren took the first step to materialize his footballing dream when he went for trials with Tanjong Pagar United for their U-15 COE side. The Jaguars returned to the league that year in 2011. Darren went for the trials alone –not many knew that he went for the trials to begin with, and he knew no one that went for the trials. Back then, tiny Darren knew that his small size limited his chances playing in his preferred centre-midfield role – that being said, being one of the better players in Guangyang, he practically played in every position. He eventually decided to try out as a fullback to play to his strengths in natural fitness. A year later, Darren sought new pastures elsewhere, and a move to Hougang’s U-16 team materialized soon after. Darren wasn’t the only one linking with Hougang, with his Tanjong Pagar coach, Winston Yap, and a few other U-16 Jagaurs joining him as well. At Hougang, Darren played more of an attracting role down the wings – something he is grateful to have experienced given the importance of attacking fullbacks in the modern game. His stint with the Cheetahs would only last a year for Darren for the National Football Academy.

Picture Taken From Darren Teh’s Instagram (@tehsanity)

In his last year at Guangyang Secondary, Nicholas left and instead was replaced by Dilwant Singh, who ended up becoming the NFA U-18 Assistant coach and earmarked Nicholas to link up with the squad. Saswadimata Dasuki, better known as Saswa or Coach Saswa, was the head coach of the NFA squad at that time. Darren impressed during his trials and played for the NFA for 2 years. Although, while he was playing at the highest level, it was indeed a bitter-sweet experience for young Darren.

“At 17 years old, it was really an eye-opener for me. I remember that we travelled quite a bit. We went to France and Dubai for training camps and stuff like that. It was pretty sad though because I did not have any international exposure aside from that. [International} tournaments that the NFA teams take part in usually occur every 2 years. So, I was in the batch that was in that in between phase where a tournament had just ended [and I would be too old by the time we take part in the next one]. Only the very good players had been called up to play with the older boys.”

After graduating from Guangyang, Darren took up a private diploma with International Sports Academy (ISA) Singapore. Part of his requirements for his private diploma included working 200 hours shadowing and under the tutelage of his former coach and lifelong friend Nicholas Wong. I had the pleasure of meeting Nicholas sometime after this interview in really coincidental circumstances, and he mentioned how Darren had a real knack for coaching should he ever consider to take it up in the future.

Unlike most Singaporean sons, who pursue their post-secondary education before their National Service enlistment, Darren decided to head straight into national service after he turned 18. He decided to enlist early partly because he didn’t too well in his studies – something he regrets and would advise younger players to concentrate on – but also because he wanted to focus on getting National Service out of the way to focus on his footballing career.

Picture Taken From Darren Teh’s Instagram (@tehsanity)

While many complain about their NS days, Darren fondly remember his time as a Canine handler. At the same time, he also remembers playing football on a regular basis. During his National Service, he also spent two years with the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) Football team. While limited opportunities came by during his first year with SAFSA, things took a positive turn in his second year, when Kevin Wee became the new head coach of the SAFSA team. Kevin wasn’t the only new addition to SAFSA, as the club was bolstered by a slew of talented players– Ikhsan Fandi, Ammirul Emmran, Taufik Suparno, and Suria Prakash.

Under Kevin’s management, SAFSA was ran like a professional outfit, and the team played in the Island-Wide League. During this period, Darren was appointed as captain and led the team to a treble, winning the IWL, the Cup and the Bogaars Cup (the annual fixture between the Army and Police football teams).

These triumphs during National Service emboldened a young Darren who had limited international experience with the NFA. His experience with SAFSA motivated him to reach his next goal – playing for a S.League club.

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

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

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

Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

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

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

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

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

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Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s very own Izwan Mahbud had a trial with Matsumoto. The club was interested in Izwan after his heroic displays for the national team in their 0-0 away draw with Japan, where he made a remarkable 18 saves. However, unlike Anders, the J2 outfit did not offer a contract to the national team custodian. Anders’s loan move piqued my interest in the defender, and never did I imagine that I would get the opportunity to interview him. Here is his story of taking roads less travelled.

A Slightly Different Route to become a Professional Footballer

Anders started his football career like most other professional footballers and gradually went up through the system.

“As soon as I can run and walk, I was kicking a ball with my dad. Then, it got a bit serious in primary school, with the school team and then sports school after that,” he reveals.

However, he started to fall out of the system after graduating from the Singapore Sports School. While many of his peers went to pursue a diploma or a NITEC certification, Anders decided to take the A-Levels route and entered Victoria Junior College. It wasn’t always smooth sailing and Anders would be the first to tell you that it was difficult juggling football and the A-level curriculum.

“The academic demands of A-levels is a little rough. I stuck it through but the grades suffered a bit. When NS came calling, that was it. Basically, my unit didn’t release me to play.”

National Service is a duty that all Singaporean sons are required to serve by law. While many aspiring footballers get drafted into units that allow them to attend training sessions of the National Football Academy or their various football clubs, Anders didn’t have that opportunity. Posted into the Commandos, his schedule was packed with countless mandatory training drills and exercises that it was impossible for him to gain time off to train with the NFA team. That marked the end of his association with the NFA and also put a stop to his ambitions of becoming a professional footballer. Despite this, it didn’t deter Anders from leaving football altogether.

“I took a break. Well, not really a full break. I still played social Sunday Football for a few years. Then, I got scouted back into the NFL (National Football League).”

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

It was during his time playing in the NFL that he managed to impress earn a move to S.League side, Geylang International FC in 2016. However, he was yet again faced with a similar challenge of having to juggle his academics and football – although it was considerably tougher than his A-level days.

“I played a NFL Match against Yishun Sentek Mariners FC and they were coached by Noor Ali back then. At the end of the season [Noor made the move to Geylang as assistant coach], he called me down for a trial with Geylang. I was just entering my final year in [Nanyang Technological University]. The last time I juggled heavy academics and football, one of it suffered. Then again, I told myself that I might as well give it a shot – one last chance that is never going to come again – and so I did.”

One would expect to struggle making the jump from amateur to professional football but Anders was unfazed by the supposed disparity. In fact, he claims that it was a great feeling to be doing what he loves every day. Anders also says one reason why he quickly adapted to the level required at the S.League was because it suited his aggressive and physical style of play. Surprisingly, he also mentions that there isn’t as big a gulf between the NFL and S.League as one would think.

“At a team level, yes. There is a definite gulf in standard. But, when it comes to the technical skills and fitness of individual players, they are not very far off. They just need a bit more coaching and to do it more often.”

Anders finally returned to the football system after dropping out while serving his National Service. He had always kept tabs on the S.League because his NFA batch mates were featuring for their respective clubs. Now, it was different. He finally shared the same pitch as them, once again.

Juggling his Final Year in University and Playing Professionally

Photo by Lum3n from Pexels

In many ways, Anders is the ideal role model for Singaporeans who are passionate about pursuing a professional football career as well as earning a degree from a local university. Often, many Singaporean parents dissuade their children from becoming a professional footballer because they believe that it is an impractical career. Instead, most parents preach to their children that they should focus their time on earning a degree from a local university or a prestigious overseas one. Anders managed to do both, but it wasn’t easy playing professionally and studying at the same time.

“The hard part was travelling and time management because you know, NTU is in Jurong and Geylang is in Bedok. I stayed on campus when I was there and sometimes training was twice a day so I had to go for training in the morning, then rush back to class, and then go back to Bedok for training again.”

Many Singaporeans would agree that travelling from the West to the East in Singapore is a tiring affair and it was no different for Anders. It took a lot of discipline from him to ensure that he found a balance between football and his academics. To aspiring footballers, Anders urges them to pursue their academics as far as they can while finding a balance with their academics.

Representing the nation and Becoming the First Singaporean Player to play for Japan

Before long, Anders cemented his place as the starting centre-back in the Geylang squad. His performances caught the eye of then-national team manager V. Sundramoorthy, and he was called up to the Singapore squad in 2017. When he first informed that he had been called up to the national team, Anders didn’t buy it.

“I got a call from Leonard [Koh] who was back in Geylang. I thought he was bullshitting me. I was back in school and I told him ‘don’t [mess around], I’m damn tired, I’m trying to study.’ Then, the next day in training, he showed me the letter so it was a pleasant surprise.”

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

2018 was also the year the Anders made history by securing a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. In doing so, he became the first Singaporean player to play in Japan. It was an experience that Anders was grateful for because he learned a lot from his stint with the Japanese club. It was a very steep learning curve for Anders when he first arrived at Matsumoto.

“There was a gulf in class and standard between the SPL players. When you look at the Japanese players, I’d say they are one of the best in Asia. Alongside the Middle Easterns and the Koreans, they are really up there in Asia.

Besides gaining a lot of footballing experience from his stint with Matsumoto, Anders has also gained first hand experienced of the Japanese footballing system, something he regards as a model Singapore should follow.

“[Japanese footballers] start young and the whole set-up is ideal for their development from a very young age.That is something we don’t have here.

“We would do well if we were to look up to them and try and emulate what they were doing over there. Everything was very professionally run but that also translates to the players themselves. The players over there were really really very disciplined during training and even after training.”

The AFC Cup and New Goals with Hougang

After 4 seasons with Geylang, Anders decided that it was time for a new challenge and he felt that challenge was to play in the AFC. Age is catching up with the defender, and when the opportunity came from Hougang he couldn’t refuse.

Even though he arrived at Hougang as a new player, he was greeted by many familiar faces. Hougang United head coach had previously coached Anders when he was 18 years old, and some of his peers from the Singapore Sports School were also in the squad. Joining him from Geylang was Shawal Anuar, a good friend of Anders whom he roomed together when on national duty. Shawal is also a player who followed a similar career path. Like Anders, Shawal was snapped up by Geylang in 2014 while he was playing in the NFL.

This season was the first time Hougang United and Anders played in the AFC Cup. Even though the coronavirus has temporarily suspended the continental competition, Anders has relished his time so far and is raring to go when the season resumes.

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

“It’s different from playing in the SPL. We go on a bus ride with a police escort. We’ve heard of stories where the bus gets battered and fans stop you from leaving the stadium. I mean we didn’t get any of that but it’s for precaution. [The experience] is quite fun.

“The football has been quite fun too. We played teams like Lao Toyota, Yangon United and Ho Chi Minh City – you know, good sides in Southeast Asia. The league is still our primary focus but seeing that it is our first venture into the AFC Cup, it is a good test for us.”

Even though Hougang have only won 1 of their 3 games in the group stages thus far, they can hold their heads high. After all, they beat Lao Toyota 3-1 away from home and only narrowly lost to Yangon and Ho Chi Minh. They’re still in the running for qualification. That being said, Hougang need to give it their all and win all three remaining games for any chance of qualification. That’s easier said than done, given the higher level of competition.

“There is no room for error there. When we played Ho Chi Minh, those guys were fast. We really had to be on the ball. It’s not something we get every day in the SPL.”

The coronavirus pandemic may have temporarily suspended football in the region but Anders is raring to go when everything eventually resumes. Meanwhile, he is training with his team weekly via zoom.

Anders is an underrated player but his backstory and the path he took to football makes him an exemplar for any aspiring footballer. Even though he joined the professional league late, he has reached several milestones through sheer hard work and determination. In an era where we have a small national pool, more players playing in the NFL would certainly benefit local professional clubs as well as the national team. When the league eventually resumes, look out for Anders when he plays for Hougang and while you witness his aggressive and physical playing style first-hand, just remember how he got there.

What a Small World We Live in

I could have chosen to left this part out but I felt it would be a shame to do that. Personally, I think it was kind of amusing.

As we were coming to the end of our zoom call, Anders was following me back on Instagram when out of the blue, he asks me, “How do you know Christer?”

Puzzled by the question, I hesitantly replied, “We were in NUS Stage together for a bit and we did a production together.”

Then it was my turn to inquire, “Why? How do you know Christer?”

“Christer is my brother,” Anders responds and nonchalantly adds, “I’ll tell him you said hi.”

I’m not going to lie. That little revelation at the end made me smile. What a small world we live in, indeed.

Bouncing Back: A Chat With Tampines Rovers No.1 Syazwan Buhari

In the past decade, two goalkeepers have dominated the national spotlight and have been used interchangeably. Don’t get me wrong, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are great keepers. In fact, they are arguably Singapore’s greatest ever custodians in the past two decades. They have put in consistent performances for club and country over the years and have become household names. However, because both Izwan and Hassan have cemented their positions, other keepers have limited opportunities to demonstrate their potential on the national stage. There are other talented shot-stoppers in the league that many Singaporeans are unaware of – Zaiful Nizam and Khairulhin Khalid are some names that come to mind. Among the many Singaporean goalkeepers, however, there are none more underrated than current Tampines Rovers no. 1, Syazwan Buhari. I had the privilege of interviewing him, and it’s a pleasure to be telling his story.

Beginnings as a Keeper and emulating Casillas

Syazwan reveals that he first decided that football is going to be his career when he turned out for the Under-10 youth team of Jurong FC. While he had played for football for his primary school team, it was the experience for playing for a youth team of a professional club that motivated him to become a professional footballer.

“I played in the school soccer team, and I came from a family that loved to play football, but it was the experience of playing for the [Jurong FC] youth team that I made my mind up. Jurong, for me, was the turning point.”

Syazwan wasn’t always a goalkeeper and instead started out an outfield player, but it wasn’t long before he realized his best position was between the sticks.

“After trying every outfield position, I thought I would make a better goalkeeper,” he joked. Syazwan first decided that goalkeeping suited him best when he was in Primary 6 (12 years old). That year, he attended a trial to represent an Under-12 Combined Schools Singapore team for a competition in Japan.

“I went in [the trials as a Goalkeeper], and it was all the way after that, there was no looking back.”

To realize his goalkeeping ambitions, Syazwan joined the Singapore Sports School, where he turned out for the National Football Academy as well. As a national representative, he qualified for the “through-train” programme which enabled Syazwan to skip his GCE ‘O’ Levels and gain entry into Republic Polytechnic.

Growing up, every one of us had footballing idols and Syazwan was no different. He looked up to former Real Madrid and F.C. Porto keeper Iker Casillas a lot because he was a very relatable figure. Both Syazwan and Casillas are relatively short keepers.

“I looked up to Casillas because he’s the closest person I could emulate. He is left-footed. I don’t think he’s the tallest in Europe so he’s the closest I could base my own game on.”

Syazwan’s not wrong. Casillas stands at 1.82m (6ft) which is relatively short for a keeper in Europe. Most players usually tower over the Spaniard and Syazwan finds himself in a similar situation. Standing at 1.73m (5ft 8in), Syazwan is relatively short for a custodian in the Singapore Premier League. However, just like Casillas, Syazwan doesn’t let his physical limitations be a hindrance to how he plays his game. Instead, Syazwan works around his height and has sharpened other elements of his game. His positioning and athleticism (reflexes and diving) are simply exceptional, and, despite his height, he has pulled off some fantastic saves in his professional career.

SEA Games Failure and Making the move from Young Lions to Geylang International

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

Like most NFA graduates, Syazwan began his professional career at Young Lions. After the formation of Lions XII in 2011, many players had left Young Lions but Syazwan’s decision to remain meant that he was promoted to the starting keeper position. Syazwan flourished for the Young Lions and he put in some spectacular performances across the seasons. His performances were so stellar that he was made the starting keeper for the U-23 team during the 2015 SEA Games.

In a tournament where he was tipped for success, tragedy struck instead. It was the second game of the group stages and Singapore needed a win against Myanmmar to progress to the knock out stages.

“The expectation was high because [Singapore] was hosting it. I think the pressure got to me and I made a mistake that led to a goal which resulted in the team getting essentially knocked out.”

Syazwan’s mistake proved costly because Myanmar went on to win the match 2-1. The final group stage game saw Singapore crashing out of the competition with a narrow 1-0 loss to Indonesia.

After the match, Syazwan revealed that he reached the lowest point of his career and seriously contemplated giving up on football altogether. After all, he felt like he didn’t just let his team down, but the nation as well. On the verge of leaving the game for good, he decided instead to continue his career. It was the immense amount of time and effort his family and him had invested in his career that convinced him to forge on.

“I didn’t come from a very well-to-do family growing up and my parents had to sacrifice a lot to put me through my education in the sports school. If I had given up then, all my efforts and those of my parents would have been wasted. So I decided to continue my career and I managed to overcome this setback and I used this episode to push me to do even better.”

Then, he got an offer from Geylang International, which was a totally different experience for him, but it rejuvenated his career. At Young Lions, Syazwan revealed he could afford to make certain mistakes during his early days because the purpose of that club was developing youth players. Furthermore, when he left Young Lions, he left the club as a leader. Now he wasn’t the designated leader in the club and had many experienced heads ahead of him.

“When I joined Geylang, I had mixed feelings. In Young Lions, I was the captain and I had the authority to give commands and lead the squad. However, when I went to Geylang infront of me, I had Daniel Bennet, Yuki, and Faritz Hameed. I had to change my style. I couldn’t scold my teammates the way I did at Young Lions.”

Nevertheless, Syazwan was thankful for his time in Geylang because the club helped him hone his craft. Senior players would often nag at him and this ensured that he was always on his toes.

Life at Tampines: Replacing Izwan, AFC Cup adventures, and Singapore Cup Miracle

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

At the end of a successful 2017 season, where Syazwan amassed second most number of clean sheets, the Stags reached out to recruit Syazwan, and it wasn’t even a question for the custodian. He signed up with the Stags in a heartbeat. Tampines are arguably Singapore’s biggest club, especially with the decline of Warriors FC in recent years.

“When Tampines came calling, it was a great feeling. As a footballer. You’re always looking to jump to a higher level and improve your game. I’m not saying that Geylang was not at a high level, but Tampines were consistently playing in the AFC Cup [Asia’s equivalent to Europa League] and I saw that as a jump I needed to further my game. The call came in at the right timing for me.”

Even though Syazwan was excited to represent Tampines, he knew he had “some big shoes to fill.” The end of the 2017 campaign saw an exodus of Singaporean players to Malaysia and Thailand, and one stalwart to jump on this bandwagon was none other than Tampines Rovers keeper Izwan Mahbud. Izwan had been the darling of the national team following his heroic displays in a 0-0 draw against Japan in 2015, where he made 18 saves.

However, I daresay that Syazwan has settled in well at Tampines and is relishing new challenges, such as regularly contending for the title and progressing far in the AFC Cup.

“The AFC Cup was really an eye opener for me. I remember our first match [in the group stages in 2018] was against this Vietnamese team, Sông Lam. They weren’t a big city team in the sense of the stadium and atmosphere – it wasn’t what you’d expect, it wasn’t like a big city. But, when they played, it was really on another level. The AFC Cup is really something that pushes you and all local players should strive to play in.”

Syazwan has made it clear that he plans to stay at Tampines. His miraculous displays in the 2019 Singapore Cup Final are a testament to the commitment to his club. During the warm-up drills for the tie, Syazwan unfortunately dislocated his finger. After the team doctor had pushed his finger back into place, he advised Syazwan that he could potentially aggravate the injury if he played the match. However, Syazwan couldn’t afford to pull out of the game for several reasons.

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

“I took painkillers to deal with the pain but during the game, with the added adrenaline, I didn’t really think about it. That was probably because I really wanted to play. I had the desire and passion to play in my first ever Singapore Cup final.”

Furthermore, Tampines had already submitted the team sheet, and if the keeper pulled out, it would have counted as a substitution. The Tampines team had a congested fixture list before the cup final, and the team was really battered. Given the team’s fatigue, every substitution was more valuable. Feeling that he could cope with the discomfort, he soldiered on.

If results were anything to go by, he made the right decision. Tampines pipped Warriors 4-3 to clinch the Singapore Cup, with Syazwan saving a crucial penalty against Sahil Suhaimi in the process. However, his injury did worsen as a result of playing the full 90 minutes. On top of aggravating the dislocation, he suffered a slight fracture and a partial tear. Thankfully though, it was the last game of the season, and he had the luxury of time to recover. To Syazwan, he wouldn’t let his injury prevent him from winning his first major honour as a professional footballer.

Future and Goals?

Playing for the national team remains a goal for Syazwan, but he is realistic about his chances. Unlike other positions on the field, there is only room for one goalkeeper on the field at all times, and only three keepers are selected for the national squad.

“I’ve represented Singapore in friendly games but never had the opportunity to do so in FIFA ‘A’ games which count towards the national cap. I’m being realistic. It’s not easy to gain playing time if they [Izwan and Hassan] are there. However, for me, even if I don’t get to start but I’m no. 3 and I get to train with them, that’s a good experience for me.”

Even though I believed that his performances with Singapore’s biggest club, Tampines Rovers, may merit him a place in the national team, he begs to differ.

“I won’t say I have a better chance cause I mean, the club doesn’t determine whether you go into the national team or not. At the end of the day, it’s your individual performances. It’s how much I want it.”

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

Just like many local footballers, Syazwan wants to play abroad and develop his game further. Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny became fan favourites at the Thai clubs they played for, and these keepers have paved a path for other local goalkeepers. However, despite his ambitions of playing overseas, Syazwan is also realistic of the prospect of him securing a move in another country.

“For me, it isn’t easy. As a goalkeeper, you have to play for your national team. If not foreign clubs would just take a local player instead because of limited foreign player slots.”

The Tampines custodian also joked that his height isn’t doing him any favours, and foreign clubs tend to prefer taller goalkeepers. However, Syazwan mentioned that he isn’t ruling anything out and if the opportunity comes knocking, he will take it in a heartbeat. He added that for now, his current goal is to remain at Tampines as long as possible and that means consistently performing at the highest level.

While still young, I couldn’t resist asking him about life after football. Surprisingly, it’s something that he continually contemplates. Currently pursuing a degree in physical education, Syazwan hopes to become a sports trainer or coach to give back to the game when he eventually hangs up his boots. Ideally, he’d love to become a goalkeeping coach, but he understands that such opportunities are far and few.

Regardless of what path he takes, Syazwan certainly has a bright future ahead and more is to come from the goalkeeper. Turning only 28 this year, his best years are yet to come, and that’s saying something, since he’s been stellar thus far. Personally, I believe it’s time to give other players, like Syazwan, a chance in the national team. Thankfully, under new coach Tatsuma Yoshida, more players are getting the nod and having a chance to represent the nation. If Yoshida continues to do offer opportunities to players in the league, I am sure we will see Syazwan between the sticks for Singapore once again.