Tag Archives: Sirina Camara

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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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)

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It would appear that I truly have a knack of tracking down former Étoile FC players…

To ardent Tanjong Pagar United fans, Anthony Aymard is not an unfamiliar name. The French defender spent 3 seasons with the Jaguars between 2012 and 2015. I managed to track down Anthony Aymard recently and interview the player about his time in Singapore and journey as a footballer. In part 1 of his story, I will look at how he makes the move to Singapore and plays for Étoile, his return to France, and how he managed to secure a contract with Tanjong Pagar – interestingly where he’d go on to become the longest serving French player for the club (and mind you, they had a number of Frenchmen between 2011 and 2014).

Beginnings in Central France

Like Sirina Camara and Jonathan Toto, Aymard came to Singapore through Étoile FC in 2011. However, unlike his peers, he never came from a professional youth set up. Born in central France, Aymard grew up in Saint-Étienne and rose through the age groups of Le Puy Foot 43 Auvergne. Back then, Le Puy was an amateur club, but it has since become a semi-professional outfit. The team currently plays in the Championnat National 2, the 4th tier of French football. After years playing at various stages of the youth football, Aymard managed to break into the first team set up in 2009. During one such first-team training session, his life was about to change.

Aymard Positioned Bottom Extreme Left. Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

Aymard turned up to training and noticed a new face, someone who was about to change his life. This individual was none other than ex-Gombak United player Johan Gouttefangeas, the man responsible for the creation of Étoile and launching the French-based club in 2010. Gouttefangeas actually came from the same city as Aymard. Even though he was not playing for Le Puy, he had been training with the club for a while. Soon, Aymard and Gouttefangeas became acquainted. Gouttefangeas, impressed with Aymard’s ability, discussed his impending project with Étoile.

“He told me that [since] I just started playing at the senior level at 20, I think [by going to Singapore], I could really do something. He said, ‘you could go there and try to see if you could break into the team. Maybe you could could come in as a substitute for games.’ Either way, he said it would be a good experience for me.”

Aymard was incredibly interested in the Étoile project, but he did not lie. Had you asked him where Singapore was on the map, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you.

As the Étoile project increasingly materialized, trials were conducted sometime in late 2009 for French players to be recruited for the club in Singapore. Aymard may have linked up with the 2010 side that won the S.League in their debut season. Unfortunately, he suffered a serious injury nearing the trials that sidelined him for a couple of months. As such, he had to miss the trials for the 2010 season.

Yet, in early 2011, an opportunity to play for Étoile beckoned once again for Aymard as the club held another trial at Toulouse. After the club’s success of clinching the S.League title, they wanted to continue their momentum but only retained a few players, with many either returning to France, joining Singaporean clubs, or transferring to other teams in the region.

“I remember getting a call on the 31st of December and I was with friends at Barcelona for holiday. The call was from Gouttefangeas and he asked if I could come down to Toulouse next week for a trial. And so I said okay.”

During the trials, Aymard really stood out because he realized that he came from the lowest footballing level. Other players had either played professionally or semi-professionally. He was the only player who came from a fully amateur background. Despite the gulf in level, Aymard shone brilliantly during the trials and Gouttefangeas rang him up a week later to offer him an opportunity to play in Singapore.

Photo Credits: Anthony Aymard

“I was still a student at that point and I had 6 months left for my degree. So, I had to discuss this with my friends. My dad told my I’m insane and questioned what I was going to do there [in Singapore]. I told him I needed the experience and justified the move saying I will come back learning how to speak English. The funny part was that, since I was only with the French players, I went to Singapore with zero English and I came back with zero English. The idea was to go to Singapore for a year and come back to finish the remaining 6 months of my degree.”

The First Season with Étoile and Return to France

Aymard left Paris and headed to Bangkok to link up with the Étoile squad for a training camp and played a series of friendlies against Thai sides, including Muangthong United. Playing in humid and hot temperatures was a challenging experience for the Frenchman.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“We played one friendly against Muangthong, a good team in Thailand. [The Étoile players] didn’t know each other but we could all see that there was quality in the team. I remember playing the match at 3pm. For the first 30 minutes, we smashed 2 goals past them. Then, after that, we were done. It was so hot and we were all exhausted. Then Muangthong scored a few past us and we lost something like 4-2.”

After a 10 day pre-season stint at Thailand, Aymard headed to Singapore for the Charity Shield against Tampines and was pleasantly surprised to find his name in the starting eleven. Usually playing as a centre-back in France, he played at right-back for that match but didn’t expect to start much later for the season, given his lack of professional experience. Yet, Aymard found himself playing quite a bit that season. In fact, he was the primary right-back for Étoile and played a total of 26 games.

Despite the significant game time, Aymard and co. were unable to repeat the momentous feat of their compatriots a season earlier. The French-based club finished in 5th position, which was disappointing to say the least. It would be the final season for Étoile in the S.League, and the club pulled out of the league altogether, opting to focus on grassroots football instead – something that Étoile is still engaged in. Aymard reveals that monetary issues led to the closure of the club. Towards the end of 2011, salary problems plagued the clubs for months, with the club paying partial payments of their salaries. In the end, Étoile managed to pay most players who came back to Singapore for the 2012 season. Yet, there were also some, like those that did not return, supposedly missing 2 to 3 months of their salary.

“You know, the last 2 to 3 games of the season. I remember that some players were talking in the changing room that if they recieve no salary, they would not play. The boss didn’t want word to spread around outside of Singapore. So, he would pay some money urging the players to play and promising them they will get the rest later on.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

“Johan Gouttefangeas was the chairman of the club but he was not the financier of the club. There was some businessman in Singapore financing it and so I remember filing a report with MOM (Ministry of Manpower) and in 2 to 3 months I received my money. I remembered before the report with MOM, I kept on emailing him and emailing him but there was nothing, no response. Then after the report, I remember the [financier’s] secretary calls me up and tells me they have the money and whether I could come on down to Raffles Place. I remember that. She gives me a cheque and I was kind of [uncertain] because when we were playing at Etoile, we would cash in the cheques [issued to us] but they would bounce back. There was no money.”

Aymard only received his owed salary mid-way during the 2012 S.League season when he returned to start his second chapter in Singapore. This time with Tanjong Pagar. Also it’s important to note that the financier is not associated with Etoile FC Academy run by Ludovic Casset.

Return to Singapore and The Quest to Find for a Club

After the end of the 2011 season, Aymard went back to France and waited patiently for an official contract from Étoile. The club officials had promised the players that the 2012 season would be better financially if the club kept going. However, the contract never came. Instead, an email explaining the club’s decision to pull out of the league entirely.

Unlike some of his other teammates, Aymard had limited contacts and had no chance to try his luck elsewhere in the region. Neither did he have a chance with other clubs in Singapore because they had mostly filled out their foreign player slots by the time Étoile’s decided to exit the league. Instead, he played for 6 months with Le Puy yet again and also juggled working at Decathlon during this period.

The goal was to try his luck yet again mid-way through the S.League in June. Aymard knew Sirina Camara was still there, and he often called Aymard to come to Singapore for holiday and to try. So he decided to try his luck in Singapore with no offers on the table. Thankfully, he did have friends in the country. Besides Sirina, he also knew Jonathan Toto, Franklin Anzité, and Frederic Mendy.

Franklin Anzité was away on international duty with Central African Republic when Aymard arrived in Singapore and gave his housekeys to Mendy so that Aymard could have a place to stay while searching for an opportunity.

“I prepared my CV but I really had no contacts whatsoever. Then I recalled something. In 2011, I remember one of the biggest sports channels in France came over to Singapore to do a documentary on Étoile. They followed us around and interviewed us and showed our game against Tampines. So I looked up the documentary on youtube and I saw a FAS representative who spoke in the video and I took down his name.”

This FAS representative was none other than Ridzal Saat, who was Deputy Director for Development and Planning in the FAS. In 2014, Saat would be headhunted by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to become its Services Manager for Asia.

“I tried to find his contact and I did. So I emailed him before leaving for Singapore, asking about any way I could reach out to clubs to ask about transfers. Three to four days later, 24 hours after landing in Singapore, [Saat] emailed me back. He informed me that he heard Tanjong Pagar was looking for new foreign players after letting go some of them. He gave me their manager details who I contacted and the manager asked me to come the next day for training at Queenstown Stadium.

“I remember telling Sirina when I landed I have no club. Sirina responded telling we could go to Hougang and here and there to try and get me a club. Then after Saat’s email the next day, I told Sirina I’m training with Tanjong Pagar. He was shocked at how fast I managed to get a trial.

“The coach at the time was Singapore legend Terry Pathmanathan and he was a very strict guy. You know, no smiles. But, he was a centre-back as a player and he was focusing on me a lot. There was another player on trial and that was Carlos Delgado. That time they already had 2 foreign players and Tanjong Pagar needed just two more to fill their foreign player spots. After 1 to 2 players, the assistant coach, Tokijan, told me to go and take the beep test.”

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Thankfully, Aymard managed to pass the beep test and he was offered a 6 month contract. What is truly remarkable is how lucky Aymard was. He returned to Singapore in June 2012 with absolutely nothing – no concrete offers whatsoever. He had a return ticket a month later. To him, if he had received a contract, he would stay. If not, he was going to enjoy this month long vacation with his former teammates before returning home and deciding what’s next. Yet, the stars seemed to have aligned in his favour and everything worked out just fine for the talented Frenchman.

In Part 2, I look at Aymard’s time playing with Tanjong Pagar and later on with Phnom Penh Crown Football Club as well as what he’s up to nowadays.

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Featured Image by Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

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.

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The ‘Lion’ that got away: An exclusive with Sirina Camara Part 1

Sirina Camara is a familiar name to those that have been following Singaporean football closely in recent years. He arrived on our shores in 2011 with Étoile FC, a foreign team comprised entirely of players of French origin. Following the dissolution of the club in 2012, Camara and some other French players remained in Singapore. Slowly though, these players left the country and ventured elsewhere, but Camara remained. He played in the S.League for a total of 8 years, where he spent a season at Young Lions FC, followed by a total of 6 seasons at Home United. During that time, the FAS seriously considered naturalizing the defender, along with other promising foreign stalwarts in the league like Jordan Webb, Paul Cunningham, and Song Ui-young. Yet, nothing materialized. Camara continued to occupy the foreign player slot and put in consistent performances for The Protectors. Then, in 2018, Camara abruptly left Home United in October and was never heard from again.

Photo Credits: Junpiter Futbol. Follow them on Insta!

Camara’s departure has always been a mystery to me. As an idealistic fan or perhaps a naive youth, I was confident that the Frenchman would be a mainstay at Home, if not the S.League, and eventually gain Singaporean citizenship. I knew he suffered an injury mid-way through the season which ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign, but something was off. Why did he not feature for Home the next season?

I reached out to Camara and he agreed to share his experience with me. And boy, was it an experience.

Early Days with Étoile and Missing Home

In 2011, Sirina Camara was not a professional footballer and instead had been playing for the LB Châteauroux Academy. After 4 years, it didn’t seem like he was going to make the cut to the Châteauroux team and he was weighing his options. At 18 years old, he had completed school and was forced to make a difficult decision – should he continue to play in the academy and hang on to his footballing dreams, or does he quit football entirely and look for a job. Camara chose the latter, and he took up a janitorial job cleaning offices. He was a janitor for 2 months, but it was barely enough to scrape by. His mother had fallen ill, and the responsibility to provide for his family fell on him. Then, out of nowhere, a call from an agent comes along. The agent informed him that there was an offer to trial for a French club in Singapore, and he’d have to fly down to Singapore in short notice. Given the dire financial situation he found himself in, he decided to take up the offer without a second thought.

“I won’t lie. I didn’t know where Singapore was in the world. I have never been to Asia before. But it was an exciting time for me. I was only 19 years old and one of the youngest in the Étoile FC squad. For me, when I got that offer, I told myself okay, let’s just go with it and see where this will take me.”

Camara was supposed to complete the two week trial with the club, head back to France to spend sometime with his family, and then return to Singapore to start the season. Things didn’t pan out that way though, and his initial stay in Singapore turned out to last a few months instead.

“When I arrived, it was already the Charity Shield tie against Tampines. After the Charity shield the league started [soon after]. So, I didn’t get the chance to return to France to tell my family that I signed with a club in Singapore and spend some time with them. Instead, I stayed here after signing the contract.”

It wasn’t until months later in August when Camara was able to head up to France. It was his sister’s wedding and he couldn’t control his emotions when he reunited with his family.

“I had 10 days and when I was back, I cried and hugged my family like as if I was not going to see them anymore. When you’re young, you’re innocent. You don’t really know [the value] of your family. You just want to go outside and play. Even when I was at the [Châteauroux] academy, I was only 2 hours away. It wasn’t long. But when you take a 13-hour flight and when you’re that far away from you family, it is very different. I realized the importance of family.

“When i came back [to France], I didn’t want to go back to Singapore. It was my first year. I was scared and I was young, only 19 years old. Luckily, my family talked to me and then just took me, put me in the plane and sent me back over there to play soccer.”

Embracing Local Culture and “becoming” Singaporean

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

Étoile finished 5th that season and after 2 seasons in the S.League, the club withdrew from the competition and instead focused on grassroots football development. Together with Étoile teammate Jonathan Toto, Camara was snapped up by Young Lions FC, the national under-23 developmental side. It marked the start of Camara’s career in a local club, and it was also the first time he was properly exposed to Singaporean culture. In fact, his time at Young Lions was one of his happiest years in Singapore. However, he initially faced issues due to the language barrier.

“When I was in Étoile, I did not need to speak in English because everyone spoke French. At Young Lions, Toto was with me and he always helped me translate because his English was very good. However, after some time, Toto told me we needed to stop speaking French and to just speak English [instead]. It was only through [practice] that my English would get better.”

To make matters worse, Camara was a shy person, and some of his teammates mistook him for being arrogant because he always kept to himself or stayed with Toto. Looking back, Camara understands why people might have seen him as arrogant. However, it was a case of him not knowing enough English to strike a conversation with local players.

Thankfully, his Young Lions teammates soon warmed up to the defender, and he claims that it was the local players that opened his eyes to Singaporean culture. That marked a paradigm shift for the Frenchman as he started to see Singapore and Asia in a different light. As a Muslim, he found it fascinating how he could find Halal food almost anywhere in Singapore and was awestruck by the religious and racial co-existence in the city.

“When I went back to France during my first year with Étoile, I only had little things to share about Singapore with my family because I always stayed home. It was home, training, home, training. My second year when I returned to France, I had a lot of stories to tell my family. My teammates always brought me outside and I tried so many cuisines [that I hadn’t tried before in my life]. Now my favourite Chinese food is Chicken Rice. My favourite Indian food is Butter Chicken and my favourite Malay food is Maggi Goreng.”

Chicken Rice, Image by Jason Goh from Pixabay

Besides the cuisine, Camara also experienced the festivities of other faiths for the first time, something that he fondly remembers while at Home United FC.

“I remember [Ang] Zhiwei [invited] me over to his house and spend Chinese New year with his family. My other friend, Arvin, brought me over to his house for Deepavali and he gave me all sorts of spicy food. It hurt me the morning after but the food was so good. I also celebrated Hari Raya with my fellow Muslim players and that made my mother happy. She calls me every Hari Raya because she’s concerned about my well-being and always tells me that she misses the fact I’m not there [in France]. I tell her not to worry because the people I am with, they are like my family.

“I am so thankful to all the players for taking me in and treating me like one of their own brothers. It is not easy for a foreigner to come to a new country that has a different culture but all the players I play with and even the managers, I am so thankful to them for making my stay enjoyable.”

Camara wasn’t just content with sharing details about Singapore to his loved ones back home in France. He believed they needed to fully understand his experience and thus made it a point to show his family and friends life in Singapore. He showed his family and friends around whenever they came down for a holiday and soon they too loved the city-state. Camara even declares that like him, his family and friends who have visited Singapore agree that the country is the best place they have ever visited. Still today, Camara acts like a spokesperson for the country, urging those around him to visit Singapore.

From the start till the end of his Young Lions tenure, he thoroughly enjoyed his playing time. With all his team mates being in the same age group, it felt as if he was back playing in the academy once again. However, he would only stay at the club for a single season before moving onto greener pastures.

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

In Part 2 of this interview, I’ll dive into the details of his unrealized dream of representing Singapore, Camara’s experience at Home United and how that stint with Home started brilliantly but then ended on a sour note. Stay tuned for that article which will be published on Thursday! Until then, we will be publishing articles on the Premier League and other footballing articles so take a look!

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