Tag Archives: S.League

One Last Hurrah!: Young Lions Shouldn’t Be Scrapped (Just Yet)

Where do I begin with the Young Lions? The club was formed in 2003 to provide some of the most talented Under-23 footballers with regular professional footballing experience. Besides having the chance to play together on a regular basis and maintaining team cohesion, the Young Lions project provided these players the opportunity to play against senior footballers and national team stalwarts. It was created with the primary goal of helping the national Under-23 team perform well in regional international tournaments like the SEA Games. However, the project has largely been a failure.

Jose Raymond recently wrote an article titled OPINION: Time to scrap the Young Lions, and truth be told, he makes excellent points. The Young Lions have not performed well in the SEA Games. That is in fact an understatement – their showings have been significantly poor. The national under-23 team “has not made the finals of the SEA Games final at all, and have been knocked out at the group stages in 2003, 2005, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

I agree mostly with Mr. Raymond, but his article also got me thinking about ways we can salvage the current Young Lions side. Let’s be honest, it seems like that the Young Lions project would most likely continue. The FAS has invested too much in the project to let it go to waste. Instead of scrapping it, how then do we save this sinking ship? How do we materialize the FAS’s vision of the Young Lions becoming a platform for developing elite footballers for Singapore?

We first need to find out what issues exist, and there are two glaring problems that have plagued the club for a long time now – finding the perfect head coach for the club and improving the overall quality of youth players in Singapore. I think improving the quality of youth players in Singapore merits a separate article altogether. The Young Lions have not really had a brilliant coach that specializes in youth development and who also is really familiar with Singaporean football. For some reason, I couldn’t find a complete list of coaches who helmed the project. So I did a bit of archival research work. These are some of the Young Lions coaches:

List of Some Young Lions Coaches
No.Coach Years
1P N Sivaji2003
2Kim Poulsen2004
3Fandi Ahmad2005-2006
4V. Sundramoorthy2007-2010
5Robin Chitrakar2011-2012
6Aide Iskandar 2013-15
7Jürgen Raab2015
8Richard Tardy2016 (caretaker)
9Patrick Hesse2016-2017
10V. Selvaraj2017
11Richard Tardy2017 (caretaker)
12Vincent Subramaniam2017
13Fandi Ahmad2018-2019
14Nazir Nasir2020 – present
If there is any inaccurate information – do let me know

That being said, out of the lot, Fandi Ahmad and Kim Poulsen are arguably the most successful. Under Poulsen and then Fandi, the club finished 3rd in the 2004 and 2006 seasons respectively. These 3rd-place finishes are their highest ever finish to date. Other managers have been less successful, and, more often than not, the Young Lions find themselves at the bottom of the league. So, who would be the right candidate?

Gavin Lee could be a good fit for the Young Lions given his ability to bring the best out of youth players at Tampines Rovers. His youth-centric policy has turned Tampines Rovers into the Singaporean Ajax of sorts. However, just like Ajax, Gavin’s Tampines side has done relatively well because he can successfully blood in exciting prospects around more senior heads. Yet, Gavin has to be given due credit because he believes in developing young players into first-team regulars.

Amirul Adli, Joel Chew, Shah Syahiran, Ryaan Sanizal, and Syahrul Sazali have become significantly better players under his charge. It would be interesting to see the impact he would have on Iman Hakim and Marc Ryan Tan, who are both real wonderkids, this upcoming season. Boris Kopitović and Taufik Suparno are the only senior strikers at Tampines, and Marc would indeed find opportunities aplenty. He featured nine times for Young Lions in the brief 2020 campaign but never played a full 90 minutes before. His two starts (where he was hauled off midway through the second half) and seven substitute appearances add up to 252 minutes of professional play. Likewise, Iman Hakim has been stellar for Albirex, and under Gavin’s tutelage, he is sure to become even better. In any case, while a move to Young Lions might prove to be an exciting project worth undertaking, it would be a step down for Gavin. The man is destined for bigger projects outside of Singapore, and it is only a matter of time before we see him manage in bigger leagues overseas.

One name pops to mind – Lee Lim Saeng. The former Home United head coach is a revered figure in the local footballing landscape. He won the Singapore Cup with the Protectors and guided them to two runner-up positions during his 4-year spell with the club. The Korean has gone on to achieve spectacular feats since leaving Singapore’s shores. After leaving Home United in 2014, Lee went on to the Chinese Super League where he held head or assistant coaching positions at Shenzhen FC, Yanbian Funde, and Tianjin Teda between 2013 and 2018. Between 2018 and 2019, Lee was appointed as the Korean FA (KFA) technical director for the national Under-20 team. Suwon Samsung Bluewings swooped in for Lee in 2019, and he won the Korean FA Cup with them. He departed Suwon in 2020 and is currently engaging in an ad-hoc consultant role with the Korean FA.

The obvious question would then be why would someone like Lee be interested in the Young Lions project. That is an excellent question to ask. Given his current role as KFA consultant, it would appear that Lee is interested in the prospect of national team management. The Young Lions job would traditionally entail managing the national under-23 side for international fixtures and competitions. It would be interesting if Lee took up the Young Lions job and the national under-23 team position. Many local players that have had a chance to work under Lee know the impact he has on a team and how he can transform a player.

Some fans might be doubtful as to whether a new coach might help or not. Instead, they might argue that scrapping the Young Lions is the way forward in ensuring that each club is incentivised to train its youth players. Here’s the thing though, do each club truly have the facilities for youth development? I don’t believe so. Furthermore, there isn’t any club that is ready to join or return to the Singapore Premier League. While there are rumours that Warriors FC might rejoin this campaign, nothing has materialised thus far. There have been even talks that Albirex Niigata might have to sit out because of their inability to fill up their squad with players. If no team rejoins and Albirex pulls out, there will be only eight teams remaining in the league (7 if Brunei chooses to pull out). In such a scenario, perhaps it is impractical to scrap the Young Lions.

Nevertheless, the FAS should bring Lee into their set up – preferably as the Young Lions and National U-23 Head coach. The FAS needs to consistently update and improve their plans to develop Singapore football. With Lee’s current role in the KFA, his experience coaching in top-flight football across East Asia, and his familiarity with Singapore, he would become an important asset. I say give someone like Lee 3 years at Young Lions. Time is a crucial factor because it allows Lee to implement the changes he wishes to make. At the end of the three years, if nothing significant changes, then I guess the Young Lions should be permanently ended. Let’s give the project one last opportunity to yield some results.

Featured Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Other Posts You May Like

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 […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season… Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then. On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight […]

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

Other Articles you May like

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 […]

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved? The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

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 […]

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

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

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

Becoming the Longest Serving Frenchman at Tanjong Pagar

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

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

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

The Cambodian Experience & the showdown with Camara that never happened

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life After Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Sirina Camara

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

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

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Articles you might like!

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 […]

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

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

Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo… Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain. It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, […]

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.

Other Articles you may like!

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

For Singapore footballing standards in Singapore to grow, we need to ensure that there are enough opportunities for youth players to develop. This is why football academies are essential. Given the limited number of professional Singapore Premier League clubs, and by extension, the limited number of Centre of Excellences (COEs), football academies play an instrumental […]

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

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

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Statement Signing Stipe Plazibat Shines as Sailors overcome ten-man Eagles

Lion City Sailors have been making waves in the local footballing scene since tech firm Sea’s takeover of Home United. Besides becoming a fully privatized club, the Sailors have recently launched their football academy, and they made the news recently by becoming the first academy in Singapore to receive AFC’s one-star rating. Geylang International were looking to resume where they last left off in the campaign. The Eagles lost their opening tie to Albirex but subsequently scored impressive victories against Young Lions and Hougang United. 

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

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

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

Sensational Stipe: The missing piece for the Sailors?

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

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

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

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

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

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

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

English Football’s Hostage Crisis

How “Project Big Picture” hides its nefarious intentions behind a veil of perceived benevolence… Yes, this is a very strongly worded title. It is intentionally done so, and you will see why soon enough. This past weekend, the Daily Telegraph leaked a proposed plan for financial restructuring and debt relief within English professional football. This […]

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

Featured Image by Davy Allan, London Hearts

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

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

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

Beginnings in France and Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to Africa and the Unrealized Scottish Dream

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles!

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

Early Years in the Professional Career

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

Warriors, National Service, & Financial Saga.

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Start and New Role at Tanjong Pagar

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Articles!

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

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

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

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

Arsenal’s Guendouzi Situation

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

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

If you haven’t already done so, check out Part 1 of the article!

The Unrealized Dream of Representing Singapore

Camara wanted to give back to Singaporean football because the S.League and Home United not only gave him the chance to pursue a professional career, which was something he probably wouldn’t have in France, but also so many other opportunities. One such opportunity came in 2014, when Camara was selected to represent a Singapore XI against big name teams like Atlético Madrid and Arsenal. To rub shoulders with these players was a dream come true for the defender. Camara explains that even though his family weren’t too keen on him acquiring Singaporean citizenship, he was ready to grasp it if it was presented to him.

“How can I say no to Singapore? If it wasn’t for the FAS and Singapore, I would have never had the chance to play against Juventus and Arsenal [as part of the Singapore XI]. I was so thankful for that opportunity.

Singapore became his new home, and he felt eternally grateful for the opportunities presented to him by FAS, Home United, Young Lions, and the fans. Till this day, I do not know why he wasn’t given Singaporean citizenship but I am unsurprised. The Foreign Talent Scheme hasn’t been in force for a while now, and it is hard for foreign players to gain Singaporean citizenship through personal attempts. Just ask Singapore icon Aleksandar Đurić, who only gained citizenship after his third time applying. Camara understands that it was probably difficult for the relevant authorities to grant him citizenship but the thought of being unable to represent Singapore pains him.

Fan Favourite with Home United and Leaving on a Sour Note (but still Loving Singapore)

Photo credits: KO PO HUI. Follow him on Insta!

At the end of the 2012 season, Home United head coach approached Camara to secure his services for The Protectors. Camara was blown away when he realized that Lee represented South Korea during the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France and he felt that he could benefit a lot under Lee’s guidance. If truth be told, Lee is arguably Camara’s biggest influence of his footballing career because he helped the Frenchman’s best position at centre-back.

“I was a Left back in France. When i first came to Singapore, I played as a left winger. [Lee] told me that based on my vision and speed, I would become his centre back and then you can cover everybody [in defence].

“At first, when he told me that he wanted me to play as a centre-back, I was questioning if I made the right choice. I initially wanted to further my progress as a player under his guidance. For me, the first month [adapting as a centre-back] was very hard but it was really the local players who helped through that transition. A lot of the senior players like Noh Rahman, Jordan Webb, Hafiz Osman, and Sharil Jantan treated me like their younger brother.”

It would be a fair assessment to say that Camara excelled in his new position with his new club. In his first season with The Protectors, the club were runners-up in the league and won the RHB Singapore Cup. Camara didn’t too badly that year on a personal level as well. His outstanding performances at center-back merited him the 2013 S.League Young Player of the Year accolade. The defender is extremely thankful for Lee and considers 2013 his best year in Singapore. From a statistical stand point, he isn’t wrong either. Besides the team achievements, he scored the most number of goals that season – 6 goals while playing as a center-back no less.

Home United featured regularly in the AFC Cup after the 2013 season, and it was real honour for Camara to not only represent Home United but also Singaporean football in the continental competition. He fondly remembers how after a match against Persija Jakarta in the ASEAN zonal semi-final round, other fans of other S.League clubs were congratulating Home United.

Wiining the RHB Singapore Cup, picture provided by Sirina Camara

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Camara’s departure took me by complete surprise, partly because I only realized he had completely left the club the following season. Sirina concedes that he is unsurprised that many people didn’t know about his departure because he refused to give an interview to many media outlets detailing the exit of his club – that is, until now.

The end of his time in Singapore was a bitter experience, and it still pains him till his day. He even shared that sometimes he dreams that he’s still in the Southeast Asian state, only to wake up to reality and realize he’s back in Paris.

In October 2018, after months out with an injury and amidst his rehabilitation, Camara was asked to leave his apartment and move back to France. To understand why it had come to this, we need to take a look at the start of the 2018 campaign.

At the end of 2017, things looked good for the Frenchman. Then-head coach Aidil Sharin offered Camara the opportunity to become club captain, but the defender declined. He believed that he already was a leader in the dressing room and felt strongly that a local player should be handed the arm band. While one might think that was a sign of promising things in store for the player, that was far from the case.

Instead of featuring in the starting eleven, Camara found himself regularly on the substitutes bench. This setback didn’t deter him from giving it his all and he consistently either scored or assisted from the bench. However, Camara noted how there was tension between him and Sharin.

“I knew Sharin since 2013 when I first signed for Home United. I just wanted him to talk to me. I don’t know why I was treated the way I was. I was in the first team and everything was going well. Then suddenly, I don’t know, the coach who you know for 5 years already doesn’t talk to you and just puts you on the bench. But you’re expected to show him results when you come in as a sub. Even when you show him, you don’t understand why you don’t start. Till today, that’s something I don’t understand.

“I was very very lucky that my local teammates were there for me. I can’t just thank them enough. I felt like in my last year the coach and Home United were my enemy.”

Then tragedy struck when Camara suffered a long-term injury that sidelined him until 2019. Home United signed former Australia U-23 player Isaka Cernak as cover for the Frenchman, but as a fan I believed that Camara would be back in the squad the following campaign. Yet, that injury essentially marked the end of his time with Home United.

The biggest issue for Camara was the manner in which he was let go. While still in the middle of his rehabilitation, he was informed that he was released by the club via text messages. It infuriated Camara that the club didn’t inform him about his release face to face. He felt like he was treated as an outsider, “like a foreigner.” Home United were rushing him to go back to France and Camara didn’t want to kick up a fuss, so he packed his bags and flew back to Paris.

Picture provided by Sirina Camara

“I had a lot of opportunities presented to me but the way they ended things with me, I was very very angry. So I said, okay if you want to do these kind of things with me, see you, bye bye, au revoir.”

Talking to Camara, I can sense how his final season in Singapore was a bitter experience. It stings even more because time after time he rejected better offers that came to him, he was loyal to The Protectors and stayed with the club. When he first arrived at the club, management told him that compared to every other club in Singapore, Home United is a family. Up until that season, the defender truly believed that notion, and it was this family spirit that convinced him to reject advances by other clubs. He was even close with Sharin, so I guess it is rather baffling to hear how things panned out towards the end.

This is of course a one-sided narrative of the events that transpired, and I do agree that it is important to find out from Sharin and the then-Home United management what happened from their perspective. However, Camara’s story sheds light on how Singaporean Football is, at end of the day, a business.

2018 also marked the last year of Camara’s footballing career. He never fully recovered from his injury. Even today, he still says that he hasn’t completely rehabilitated so he isn’t 100%. The injury was supposed to sideline him for 3 months, and Camara thought he could rehabilitate in France after his release from Home United. However, in France, he hasn’t been able to receive proper rehabilitation because he lost some of his identity papers. It has been more than a year, and the defender still complains that the injury causes issues for him. During trials with clubs in France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, his injury acted up and it prevented him from continuing his professional career in France.

Life after Football and Hero Status in his Community

After concluding that the curtain had come down on his professional career, he took up a job as an animateur socio culturel or social-pedagogical worker in Mairie Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. Recently, he has also taken up a second job as a Under-6 and Under-7 coach at Red Star FC 93, the club where his footballing journey first started. Besides working in Paris, he also engages in a ton of community outreach programmes.

Camara has also become a hero in his own community, with many people wearing his Home United jersey. Often asked by his family to bring back jerseys for their neighbors and friends in the area, Camara claims he has brought back at least 100 of his jerseys yearly back to France. He still sees people around his area wearing his jersey, and that is a testament of how far he’s made it as a professional football player – from giving up on football entirely to forging a successful career that spanned 8 years in Singapore.

He looks forward to coming back to Singapore and seeing all his friends and eating his favourite Maggi Goreng again. Among his friends, he can’t wait to see Anumanthan Kumar, who know plays for Hougang United, and Song Ui-young, who remained with Home United (which has now become privatized and turned into Lion City Sailors FC). I look forward to the day Camara returns back home to Singapore and I am sure his former teammates and fans would like to catch up with him as well.

Besides his best friends, Anu and Song, he says he is grateful to a lot of people during his time in Singapore. He said he never got the time to thank all the fans, FAS, Home United FC, Young Lions before he left Singapore. He also wanted to thank his compatriots Khalid Bouhrim, Antony Aymard, Kamel Chaaouane, Selim Kaabi, Jean-Charles Blanpîn, Hadama Bathily, Franklin Anzinte, and Frédéric Mendy for making his time in Singapore all the more special. He also feels grateful to have his mother, his sister, Moussoukaye Goroye, and his brothers, Bilali and Youba, for supporting him throughout his entire footballing journey.

After my interview with Camara, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that he isn’t in Singapore anymore. France may have been the country where he was born, but it is clear as day that he wanted to call Singapore his new home. He is nothing but thankful for the opportunities presented to him, and his only regrets were that he couldn’t stay here longer and that he couldn’t represent Singapore and give back to the country. There are reasons as to why Camara did not got naturalized as well as why Home axed him the way they did. They may be good reasons and I am mindful of that. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what if. What if Camara was naturalized and he had gone on to play for the country? What if another club signed Camara instead? It is undeniable that he was a passionate footballer who clearly added quality to local sides. After all, Home United kept him for 6 seasons. The injury undoubtedly played a significant part in ending his stint in Singapore and it’s unfortunate that it did. I daresay that it wasn’t just Home United which lost an exceptional talent, but Singaporean football as a whole.

Check out our other content

Jesse Lingard and the Story of Second Chances

How Jesse Lingard’s rise from the ashes is the feel-good story of the season in the Premier League… We all undoubtedly know who Jesse Lingard is at this point. The English attacking midfielder has seemingly been in the world’s eye for years now, and not necessarily for the right reasons. The kid from Warrington, a […]

The Rory Winters Story Part 1: The Beginnings

To many in Singapore, Rory Winters is a an unfamiliar name, but his footballing story may be relatable. Rory was part of the English footballing system since he was 7 years old and he played professionally until he was 23 years old. He played semi-professionally since then, and then retired from the game 3 years […]