Tag Archives: Singapore

Circumventing The K-League ASEAN Quota Conundrum

In 2020, the K-League launched the ASEAN Quota, where K-League clubs were given an extra foreign player spot for players from Southeast Asia. This move was designed to help expand the K-League’s marketability in the ASEAN region, but in the past 2 years, only one club has utilized it. In 2021, K2 club Ansan Greeners FC signed Indonesian hot prospect Asnawi Mangkualam.

While the Indonesian wonderkid swiftly established himself at Indonesian titans PSM Makassar, naturally it has taken some time for him to feature with Ansan. Fortunately though, after making an impressive debut for the Green Wolves in the Korean FA Cup, he has since gone on to feature against Busan IPark in the league on April 3rd.

The question remains however: why aren’t more K-League teams signing Southeast Asian players?

The “Inferior” ASEAN player prejudice?

When it comes to the Asian football landscape, only a few teams regularly qualify for the World Cup. Japan, Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and (since they switched affiliations in 2006) Australia are known as the footballing titans in the AFC. While it is true that other teams pale in comparison to these Asian giants, the gap between the top dogs and the rest of the pack has diminished.

Southeast Asian players have graced the K-League before. Before Asnawi,

  • [Vietnam] Nguyễn Công Phượng (CAM, ST), Incheon United, 2019.
  • [Vietnam] Lương Xuân Trường (CM, DM), Incheon United (2016), Gangwon FC, 2017.
  • [Philippines] Álvaro Silva (CB), Daejeon Citizen, 2015.
  • [Thailand] Piyapong Pue-on (ST), Lucky-Goldstar Football Club (FC Seoul), 1984-86.
  • [Timor-Leste] Rodrigo Souza Silva (CAM), Daegu FC, 2017

Incheon’s signing of Nguyễn Công Phượng was met with much excitement initially and from a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant move. Incheon, and by extension the K-League, increased their presence in Vietnam with the move. However, Công Phượng’s contract was terminated early and across 14 games he only featured for a meagre 352 minutes in total.

Our partners Rookbook Sports have confirmed that the general Korean attitudes towards Southeast Asian players are that they are not good enough for the K-League. Clubs would rather use their funds to get another Korean player as opposed to a Southeast Asian player despite the allocation of a quota because of this overall sentiment.

Yet, while I do agree that the K-League is definitely a more challenging league than the bulk of Southeast Asian leagues, I disagree that there aren’t any Southeast Asian stalwarts good enough to play in the K-League. One has to look at neighbouring Japan, where players like Chanathip Songkrasin, Đặng Văn Lâm, and Theerathon Bunmathan are currently playing their trade. In previous seasons, players like Jefferson Tabinas, Tawan Khotrsupho, Kawin Thamsatchanan, and Teerasil Dangda have also featured for J.League teams.

Furthermore, a number of Southeast Asians are also heading to Europe. Safawi Rasid, Bagus Kahfi, and Luqman Hakim Shamsudin are example of Southeast Asians who have recently moved to European clubs as well. There is immense talent in Southeast Asia, and I do believe that Korean teams need to improve their scouting of the region.

The Way Forward?

Signing young hot prospects to develop into future stars seems the best bet. South Korean teams appear to be apprehensive when it comes to signing players that are relatively unproven on a bigger stage like the K-League. Developing promising players in their academies allows club to train them.

The question thus remains though: what’s in it for a South Korean club? Why should they sign an Indonesian or Singaporean or Burmese player?

The simple answer: increasing the K-League’s marketability in Southeast Asia.

In East Asia, the K-League certainly falls behind the J.League and the Chinese Super League with regards to star power. The CSL and J.League become easily watchable because of the relatively vast number of players who previously played in the English Premier League or La Liga.

Don’t get me wrong, the K-League standards of football are incredibly competitive. After all, the 2020 AFC Champions League winners were Ulsan Hyundai FC. Yet, the K-League somehow doesn’t have the ability to pull the European heavyweights that are quite frankly needed to have some sense of marketing presence. Their overseas and global viewership pales in comparison to the J.League for the past few years. That being said, last year, the K-League’s digital viewership definitely spiked, and it is time for clubs to ride this wave and expand.

The ASEAN quota helps them with increasing their marketing presence. Just take a look at Asnawi. The Indonesian youngster has over 200k followers in Instagram. Ansan Greeners? They just have slightly over 35k. Many Southeast Asians are passionate about seeing their national players develop and form an ardent fan base for these footballers. The K-League should definitely tap onto this.

The K-League is a great league, but it can become greater. Having a significant marketable presence is the necessary next step in the K-League’s evolution.

That being said, it is important to ensure that the players that sign with Korean clubs are not simply influencers but are footballers who possess a good level of ability.

Of course, there are also more senior players that K-League clubs can snap up. I mentioned a few in a previous article. Nevertheless, I think Tim Barnes makes a good point.

He mentions on Twitter that:

The K-League clubs need to utilize their ASEAN Quotas. The inability to do so reflects poorly on the scouting network of these clubs. If the J.League has successfully fielded ASEAN players in the past, there is really no excuse for Korean clubs. Hopefully, Asnawi impresses in the coming days and it convinces more K-League clubs to turn their attention to Southeast Asia.

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #3

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

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

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

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

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

The Defence

Mukundan Maran – GK

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

Lionel Tan

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

Irfan Najeeb

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

Baihaiki Khaizan

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

The Midfield

Fabian Kwok

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

Kaishu Yamazaki

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

Idraki Adnan

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

Farhan Zulkifli

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

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

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

Boris Kopitovic

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

Gilberto Fortunato

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

Special Mentions MD2 & MD3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

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

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

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Revisiting The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme

I grew up in an era when the Singapore National Team featured several naturalized players. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme was introduced in 1993 by the Table Tennis Association, and the Football Association of Singapore adopted it in 2000. Itimi Dickson, Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Qiu Li, Mirko Grabovac, Egmar Gonçalves, and Mustafić Fahrudin are some foreign-born players that gained citizenship through the scheme and went on to represent the Lions during the 2000s and early 2010s.

This period was also coincidentally when the Singapore National Team did exceptionally well, winning 3 AFF Suzuki Cups between 2004 and 2012. Many would argue that the foreign players did improve the overall calibre of the national team during this period, especially since Singapore had only won one international tournament – the Tiger Cup in 1998.

Yet, it wasn’t just the foreign-born players that were exceptional. Singapore boasted many exceptional local-born players during this period as well. Noh Alam Shah, Indra Sahdan, Aide Iskandar, S. Subramani, Noh Rahman, Sharil Ishak, Khairul Amri, and Baihakki Khaizan made important contributions during this period as well. In that sense, naturalized players complimented the existing crop of local footballers at the time, instead of simply carrying the entire team to glory.

However, the FAS stopped utilizing the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme a long time ago, and players like Aleksandar Đurić had to apply for citizenship in their private capacity. In recent years, there have been calls for the scheme to be reintroduced for certain players, but nothing has materialized. It raises an interesting question nonetheless – should it be reintroduced? Why? Or, why not?

In 2020, the FAS did respond to queries over the Foreign Talent Scheme. A spokesperson mentioned that:

“The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) believes that the development of a sustainable pipeline of quality local players is vital towards producing a successful National Team as well as the long term growth of Singapore football. This is evident in our investments in the ramped up efforts to scout for young talent, provide more playing opportunities as well as enhance the pathways and structure for the development of local youth players, as we assess and prepare those who are capable to represent Singapore in senior levels.

“We remain open to the possibility of integrating naturalised players into the National Teams to achieve the mid-to-long term goals of the FAS. Apart from the mandatory requirement for such players to have lived here continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18, they should also demonstrate their capability and capacity to complement our local players, raise the level of the competitive football environment and show they are fully committed to be citizens of Singapore, its culture and way of life.”

In theory, the FAS response suggests that the organization is open to the idea of naturalizing exceptional players. Yet, why have they failed to do so? The past decade has seen 2 notable and deserving players miss out on naturalization. Sirina Camara and Jordan Webb had fulfilled the mandatory 5-year residency rule implemented by FIFA, but Singaporean citizenship was not offered to either player. Webb spent 10 years in Singapore and in 2017, managed to get his Permanent Residency here. Unfortunately, Webb is no longer based in Singapore as he recently returned to Canada after the 2020 season concluded. On the other hand, Camara left for France in 2018 after 7 years here. Turning down better offers overseas, both players were keen on representing Singapore and made Singapore their home.

Like Webb, Song Ui-yong has received his Permanent Residency, and I sincerely hope that he gains his Singapore citizenship soon. The South Korean came to Home United in 2012 and has remained at the club even after they became privatized in 2020.

So why is it taking so long? Or why did past earmarked players not received citizenship? The short answer is – we don’t know. That being said, here are two possible reasons why.

Putting Singaporean Players First?

Naturalized players who came through the scheme undoubtedly improved the calibre of the team at least for a while. However, their inclusion meant limited spaces for local footballers who were trying hard to make their national team debut or add to their senior caps.

The inclusion of many naturalized players poses a few challenges. For one, it limits the opportunities for Singaporean players who need national team caps to move to other Southeast Asian clubs. Of course, it also means that Singaporean players need to work harder to break into the national team, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for most naturalized players and the same group of local players to be chosen by the national team manager during the 2000s and early 2010s. This means that the chance to play overseas, which is tied to national caps, was off the cards for the bulk of local footballers.

Playing overseas undoubtedly raises the standard of a player and thus, having more Singaporeans have stints abroad would only help improve the quality of the national pool.

National Service?

While younger naturalized footballers in the past did not have to serve national service, I’m not too sure if the government would allow such an exception for future naturalized players that are at an age still eligible for NS, especially after the Ben Davies National Service defaulting saga in 2019.

One can safely assume that simply naturalizing players, who are aged between 17 and 25, is out of the equation. As such, giving Singapore citizenship to talented foreign players would surely stir controversy after the fuss kicked up by the government following Ben Davies’ decision to default on NS.

Naturalizing players based on Heritage – Whatever happened to Perry Ng and Luke O’Nien?

This is an interesting one. Other countries in the region have spent a fair bit of their resources to scout for players in Europe that have heritage or ancestry. Malaysia has several players like La’Vere Corbin-Ong, Matthew Davies, and Darren Lok. Likewise, the Philippines have a host of players who were born overseas. The most famous one is arguably Neil Etheridge, currently on loan at Birmingham City from Cardiff City. Cambodia has French-born players like Thierry Bin and Boris Kok. Indonesia has many Dutch-born players with Indonesian heritage with Stefano Lilipaly being one such individual.

What about Singapore then? I think it is worth investing some time to scout for more players that have Singaporean heritage with a view to naturalize them. There were talks to naturalize Luke O’Nien, who is at Sunderland AFC, and Perry Ng, who recently moved to Cardiff City, but nothing materialized. Having O’Nien and Ng in the Singapore national football team would only improve the quality of the team and also offer Singaporean internationals the chance to play alongside regulars in the English Football League.

Singapore did dabble with this idea in the past with Danish footballer Benjamin Kristoffersen Lee, whose father was Singaporean, but later gave it up for Danish nationality. Lee played in the lower divisions in Denmark before playing with the Young Lions in the 2012 season. He was not naturalized, but it demonstrated that the FAS has encountered players with Singaporean heritage previously. Yet it still begs the question as to why it is not something that the FAS has given more serious consideration.

Final Thoughts for Now

I think the core focus of the FAS should be improving youth development internally. Producing world-class footballers from within should be the ultimate goal. Yet, at the same time, I think naturalization would complement efforts to improve the overall quality of the national team. The FAS should seriously consider scouting for players with Singaporean heritage and reintroducing the Foreign Talent Sports Scheme where they expedite the citizenship process of worthy candidates who have made Singapore their home. Of course, the question of granting citizenship is a touchy subject. Yet, there are obvious merits regarding the naturalization of some really talented players. The issue is how the FAS ensures that internal youth development doesn’t become secondary to blooding in more naturalized players. If that happens, Singapore will never move forward as a footballing nation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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

The Loyal Eagle

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

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

Photo Credits: Geylang International FC

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

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

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

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

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

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

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

Representing Singapore: U-23 and National Team Adevntures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Aspirations and Thoughts on Fatherhood

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate as Saito to give up football altogether. In this second part, I dive deep into Saito’s post-playing football journey and look at how he set up Global Football Academy (GFA) in Singapore, Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia, and his latest venture, Football For Everyone.

Starting A New Life After Retiring As A Player

After putting an end to his footballing career despite offers from second division sides in Bolivia, Saito returned to Singapore in 2009 to engage in another IT Sales job, (interestingly, Saito did his degree in Sports Science) but also to start his own football business – Global Football Academy. In the beginning, the core business was to start a football academy to cater to the then approximately 20,000 strong Japanese community in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Back then, there weren’t many academies that targeted the Japanese community. So, my partner and I started our own. We started small and then we had 200, and then 300 [kids] and then we got bigger and bigger and bigger. On top of that, we also saw a sports marketing opportunity and we started approaching Japanese companies to see if they wanted to collaborate.”

Yet, GFA began to expand at an unprecedented rate and Saito knew that it would be impossible for him to juggle both his job and football business. He had to give up one and it was a no brainer for Saito – football was always his first love and he was happy to make it a viable lifelong career.

However, it wasn’t just in Singapore that Saito established a sports business presence. In other parts of Southeast Asia, like Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, Saito began to engage in other initiatives. It was in Cambodia in particular where Saito decided to establish himself more. In 2012, together with another partner, Saito set up the Soriya Football Academy in Cambodia.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

“Cambodia is interesting. We [started] a football academy but the volume of sports marketing is also much. much bigger than in Singapore. When it comes to the economy of a country, Singapore is much bigger. However, but in Cambodia, there is a lot of possibilities and many things we can do [for sports marketing]. Initially, many Japanese companies struggled to make a break through in Cambodia because the ordinary means of marketing like TV or radio commercials do not work well over there.”

Saito capitalized on this issue and proposed to Japanese firms that football can become an excellent platform for their marketing. Saito is a strong advocate that “football can draw the people and get their attention.” It was his steadfast belief and his experience with GFA in Singapore that convinced mega corporations like Toyota and Yamaha to work together with Saito.

“Our first project was with Toyota. To do business with Toyota is very very difficult. You cannot even open the door [to collaborate with them]. They have high expectations and they want results but also quality. Because of this, they only work with entities that they can trust. So, we were one of the lucky ones.”

His first day in Cambodia is something that Saito remembers very fondly.

“I remember my first day in Cambodia. I was supposed to meet our sponsors office after touching down. It was my first time in Cambodia and I don’t know much about the country. So, I was supposed to meet my partner in Cambodia but it happened such that i was to meet with our potential sponsors, Toyota Cambodia, first before meeting him . So, I met them and while I was new to Cambodia, I had a lot of experience with sport marketing in Singapore. I pitched them my idea and I expected a big company like theirs to take a few weeks to respond. But, right away, they were sold and asked me how much. I met my partner and told him that we have a sponsor [for our profit and non-profit initiatives].”

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

Focusing more on Cambodia for Future Endeavours

In 2019, Saito left his role at GFA and sold off most of his shares. He started a new company in Singapore, Football For Everyone. However, Saito aims to focus more on Cambodia and has recently left Singapore to return to Cambodia. For him, there is a lot of untapped potential in the Cambodian economy as well as in Cambodian football, and he has seen first hand how the country has progressed over the years.

“When I first arrived at Cambodia, it was pitch black at night. Now, there are lighted streets. There are big shopping malls now and five-star hotels. They are dramatically changing every year. Regarding football, ten years ago, not many people watched it. But there were signs that football would boom. When the national team plays, there are 60,000 fans watching the match. It’s amazing because their [stadium] capacity is 50,000. So the national team turnout is good. If the domestic league improves, then there can be a lot of opportunities.

“So I started watching Cambodian football closely. Of course there is poverty in Cambodia. However, if we help the poor through football, we can help people. So my company goes to orphanages and similar places every month to conduct football clinics. So Japanese companies, as part of their CSR efforts, contribute to the community.”

Besides community outreach efforts to help the needy, Saito also does his part to help with the development of budding footballers. Saito is also a Mizuno marketing partner in Cambodia (and Myanmar). Instead of selling Mizuno products, Saito promotes the Mizuno brand by scouting for young talented Cambodian footballers and having them sign as supporters of Mizuno. These players become ambassadors of the Mizuno brand and wear their apparel. Saito hasn’t done too bad in this department as well. Roughly 25 to 30 percent of Cambodian players in the top flight right now wear Mizuno boots. This might be a small fraction to some, but mind you, 10 years ago, practically no one was wearing Mizuno boots in the country.

Cambodia is a footballing nation that is clearly on the rise, and it is only a matter of time before more start to take notice of the C-League and the wealth of young talent in the country.

The Man that Played Football with 40,000 Kids

“You know, until age 32, I played football all the way and football gave me a lot. It taught me a lot and I wanted to give back to society. When I came to Cambodia, I came across so many kids that wanted to play but they had no opportunity to do so. They had no environment, proper training, nor proper pitch to play.

“I don’t plan them to become a professional. No, that is not what I want to do. I want them to give them the opportunity to play and be happy; to share the positive energy that’s in football. I want to continue this. In fact, over the course of the past 9 years, I counted the number of kids I worked with. I have played football with 40,000 Cambodian kids.”

40,000 is certainly an impressive number, and, as mentioned earlier, Saito notes how this was only possible because of the endless support of his Japanese sponsors who provide him with the means to conduct numerous clinics, and with an extraordinary level of dedication from his staff. It is truly remarkable how Saito has made such a positive impact on the lives of literally tens of thousands of less fortunate Cambodian children.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

More importantly, Saito highlights how the level of Cambodian football among children has significantly increased since he first started conducting such clinics over a decade ago. He cites two reasons for this increase in footballing standards. For one, there have been more grassroots initiatives across the country for football. Also, Cambodian clubs have gradually been focusing more on youth development, with most clubs having established U-14 to U-18 teams.

Despite the increasing football standards, there is still a gap that Cambodian football needs to close with other teams in Southeast Asia.

“Last year, Tampines Rovers played in the AFC Cup against Nagaworld and won by 3 goals, so there still is a gap, but the gap is reducing. Things are changing.”

Besides providing a platform for children to express themselves through football and helping current hot prospects with sponsorship opportunities, Saito also recently saw one of his academy players gain entry into Phnom Penh Crown’s U-15 side, something which he is incredibly proud of.

Photo Credits: Tai Saito

What’s next for Saito? Besides concentrating more on Soriya and his football clinics in Cambodia, Saito intends to boost his initiatives in Myanmar. As a result (and also due to the ongoing pandemic), however, Saito would be spending significantly less time in Singapore. Whatever the endeavor, and wherever it may take him, I am sure that Saito will leave a positive impact, as he always does.

Featured Image provided by Saito. Photo Credits: Tai Saito

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Darren Teh is no ordinary 24-year-old. Geylang International regular, National Team player, Financial Manager, Musician, Filial Son, Doting Husband, and Young Father are some of the many hats worn by the promising right back. At his age, Darren is an accomplished player who also, as the list above suggests, is riddled with commitments. Yet, despite his various responsibilities, Darren manages to put in excellent performances for the Eagles every week.

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Footballing Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitioning to Fullback and playing for SAFSA during National Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured Image Taken From Darren Teh’s Instagram (@tehsanity)

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

Becoming the Longest Serving Frenchman at Tanjong Pagar

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

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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

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

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

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

The Cambodian Experience & the showdown with Camara that never happened

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Maureen Fateh Daryani

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life After Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits: Sirina Camara

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

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

Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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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 role in developing our youth. These academies become institutions of formal learning for both sets of players, those who want to pursue a professional career or recreational players who want to get better.

In 2011, the F-17 football academy was launched to provide training programs tailored for male and female players across the various age groups. As one would expect from a school established by the Son of Singapore Football, the current coaching line-up is filled with a wealth of experienced personnel. Within their ranks, they have former S.league veterans, Syed Azmir, Fadhil Salim, Sevki Sha’ban and Abdul Rahman Hassan. Among them is a rising star in his own right, Habil Hakim bin Roslan. Habil is the current acting technical director with F-17. However, don’t get it wrong. Habil wasn’t handed the role on a silver platter – his story is one that exemplifies sheer hard work and determination.

I managed to speak to Habil a couple of months back (yes, I know, this is long overdue) and understanding the local football academy scene was a real eye-opener for me. 

Beginnings in Football

Habil Hakim played as a goalkeeper growing up. As a young boy, he played for Tampines Rovers Under-10s and rose through their youth levels till the under-17 level. At Tampines, Habil was coached by the late David Sivalingam, who had a massive influence on Habil. He was someone that Habil regularly saw during trainings and matches, and his guidance benefited Habil a lot.

Sivalingam was an excellent coach and it is hardly surprising that Habil looked up to him. The late coach did well with the NFA U-18 team that Harris Harun featured in and guided them to winning the Prime League in 2008. What’s remarkable is that the team were unbeaten that title-winning season. Sivalingam was managing the Youth Olympics Games team before suddenly and unfortunately passed away. Sivalingam may no longer be around, but he still influences Habil in many ways.

Besides growing up playing as a goalkeeper, Habil also grew up playing the game that most football fanatics love, Football Manager. Playing the game hours on end, he fell in love with the idea of management as an alternate pathway for his footballing career. Habil was an N-Level student who completed his NITEC and was doing his Higher NITEC in mechanical engineering when he decided to drop out. As soon as he turned 18, he embarked on this new journey of football coaching and management.

“I went to take my preliminary coaching license when I was 18 and everyone there (at the course) was telling me how young I was. I mean, I did it all for the game. (At the beginning), I got attached as an assistant coach with CDC programmes at ITE Balestier and I slowly gained confidence. Then, after that, I went to National Service.

“During my National Service, I was a high elements instructor and I was already dealing with NPCC kids. So even back then, I had some certifications working with youth and safety.”

After National Service, the job hunt began for Habil who was searching widely for a full-time coaching job. Soon, he found one at a place which he still treasures up to this day. It was here that he learned a lot of valuable skills and honed his coaching ability.

Image provided by Habil Hakim

Venturing into Academy Management

For the next 5 years, a Japanese Academy here in Singapore became home for Habil. This is where his journey into academy management and coaching truly started. However, the start was far from a bed of roses. Habil’s salary back then was a mere $1,000 before CPF and while most Singaporeans would be put off by such low pay, Habil seized the opportunity.

“The promise was you learn a lot for that (pay). I told myself, you know what, I’m just going to grab it. I’m fresh in this line of work and I really needed to learn a lot of things. When I spoke with my boss then, he told me that he would teach me things that other people would not and also about the academy business.”

The learning curve was steep. Habil was given a lot of tough love and he was always expected to give his best. After all, he was the only Singaporean then and was surrounded by other expat coaches from Japan as well as former Hougang United player, Robert Chinedu Eziakor (who’s currently a coach with the Cheetahs).  No local coaches have ever lasted that long with the academy, but it was through Habil’s perseverance that he not only managed to survive but also become a significantly better coach.

“It was tough. I remember my first meeting. As a rookie, I did not know what to expect or do. So, I went there without any materials or without dressing properly and my mentor would look at me and tell me to go back (home). He’d tell me to think (about why I was sent home). So the next meeting, I would come with some materials, like pens and some paper for note-taking, but I would not be well dressed. So my mentor would tell me it’s not good enough and told me to go back (home) again. Then, when I was finally prepared and dressed appropriately, he let me into the meeting.

“It was like a progression and this is the same for a lot of things with the academy. We have training plans that need to be vetted and if it weren’t up to the mark, my boss would either use a pen and cross out the entire training plan or crumple the paper and throw it away.”

When Habil’s training plans got routinely rejected by his mentor, he came up with three plans instead of one. In the event where his mentor rejected the first one, I had two more at the ready for vetting. That impressed his mentor a lot and Habil learned that his mentor was trying to instil a sense of professionalism in him. His boss was no bully. He just expected a lot and set high standards so that his coaches improve.

One other big takeaway for Habil was learning the fundamentals about the business side of running academies. His mentor taught Habil everything he needed to know on how to run youth tournaments. His mentor then challenged him to find sponsors for an upcoming tournament as a means for Habil to learn, something that he learned a lot from.

F-17

After 5 years, Habil moved on to greener pastures for a new challenge. F-17 came to him with a proposal and an offer. To Habil, it was the best feeling in the world because it was a testament to how far it had grown. Instead of applying for a job, his ability and efforts had merited him an offer that was too good to turn down.

Habil was blown away by the structure of the organization and the facilities at their disposal. However, he only accepted their offer on the condition that he was able to do things his way (or instead, the Japanese way he learned at his previous academy) because he felt that the kids at F-17 could be pushed more.

According to Habil, the training plan is the most crucial element for coaching to be successful. Previously, he has encountered many coaches who do not have any training plan and go into training with whatever is in their head. When he explained it to me, it made sense why a training plan is so important for the development of youth footballers.

“If you have a training plan, you start asking yourself questions like, ‘why is this training needed?’ It allows you to (determine) how much time you would want to spend on a certain drill and what coaching points you would want to give.”

From a coach’s point of view, this is something that had been lacking in the local scene. At F-17, coaches are expected to maintain a professional image, prepare training plans, teach values, and have open communications within the coaching team.

In 2017, Habil was promoted as the General Manager of F-17. In this role, he oversees the recruitment of coaches and acts as an intermediary between the directors and coaching team. Habil has always looked up to Johor Darul Ta’zim owner, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, as a role model in how he manages. The Crown Prince of Johor has revolutionized the Johor club and have made them into a real Asian powerhouse. Similarly, Habil wants F-17 to be a platform to revolutionize football in Singapore and improve the overall footballing standards.

Credits: Funroots International

Since becoming GM, F-17 has secured multiple partnerships with academies overseas. In 2018, F-17 managed to secure a partnership with David Villa’s DV7 Academy in Japan. F-17 players are sent over to Japan for training stints to improve their game but also coaches learn a lot from the different training methods ran by DV7. Besides the Japan link, links had been formed in academies in Spain and Thailand. Currently, F17 has also partnered up with Wolverhampton Wanderers where the coaches in Singapore learn from their counterparts in England through webinars.

Credits: Funroots International

Giving a Voice to Youth Football

One thing that impressed me was how Habil runs a video podcast series called Youth Football Talk, which runs on IGTV. In this series, he gives youth footballers a chance to tell their stories and share their experiences. As someone who tries to tell footballing stories myself, I do appreciate Habil’s commitment in this initiative. These are just a few of his episodes.

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Future Aspirations?

I had to ask Habil this question though: What about progressing his career into managing and coaching first-team squads? He responded with the following analogy.

“There are doctors who can treat everything, and there are specialists as well. Like the specialist doctors, I want to be a youth specialist. I want to stay in this youth category. Some have been asking me why I don’t manage the Under-23s or the adults, and I mean I could do that for leisure, but it really isn’t my main interest.”

One thing is for sure, though. There are bigger things in store for Habil’s future. Recently, Habil was approached by a football academy in Japan who were interested in signing him. The academy paid for his flight and hotel and flew him to Japan for a 3-day trip to discuss a potential move. However, Covid-19 might have put a hold on Habil’s aspirations, but his future is a bright one.

I think Habil Hakim’s story shows that hard work and resilience pays off. Yes, opportunities are important but Hakim, in all honesty, is a self-made man. He started with literally nothing, and he really made the best of the opportunities that he received. This interview also gave me hope for the future of Singaporean football. Some may ridicule Project 2034, Edwin Tong’s ambitious plan for Singapore to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals, but if there were more coaches like Habil Hakim out there, it is not an impossible target. We need to work on the current generation of youth footballers to improve our footballing future.

I also am a big fan of Singaporean players and coaches venturing overseas to further their game. Players and coaches can’t expect to get better if they stay in Singapore. Moving overseas to hone their craft is necessary for development. On that note, I do sincerely hope that Habil does go to Japan and takes his coaching game to another level.

Featured Image by Habil Hakim.

P.S Shout out to our reader Mhod Mahsum for helping us reach out!

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