Tag Archives: SPL

Aurelio Vidmar to BG Pathum United? Who Should The Sailors Turn To?

Disclaimer: I do not want Vidmar to leave the Sailors

I stumbled across this article thanks to our pals at Lions Of Asia, and I think it is worth addressing. Yes, this may just be nothing more than the work of some journalists churning material for the rumour mill. However, let’s assume that this is true and entertain this prospect.

After all, it is not an unlikely scenario. Aurelio Vidmar previously coached BG Pathum United between August 2016 and July 2017. After guiding the Rabbits to a 3rd place finish in 2016 and a 5th place finish in 2017, Vidmar left the club and assumed the position as Adelaide United’s Director of Football in 2018.

BG Pathum United have a fantastic squad, arguably one of the best in Southeast Asia and they won’t be pushovers in the upcoming AFC Champions League group stage fixtures. Vidmar has unfinished business with the Thai side, and winning the Thai League 1 title would be a very achievable goal for next season. Vidmar is also a AFC Champions League specialist of sorts. He guided Adelaide United to the 2008 AFC Champions League Final, and he is most likely sought after by BG Pathum to ensure the club progresses far in the competition. Drawn against Viettel, Ulsan Hyundai, and the play-off winner between Shanghai Port and Brisbane Roar or Kaya, BG have a decent chance of progressing.

BG Pathum would therefore be an interesting project for Vidmar to take on, but therein lies another question: what about the ongoing Lion City Sailors project? Why would Vidmar leave the Sailors?

That’s something I cannot really fathom. The Sailors are arguably the most ambitious start-up project in Southeast Asia right now. They have loads of money, appear to have a clear direction (as evident with their aggressive marketing, 10-million-dollar-training centre, and AFC One Star Academy), and most importantly have the best squad (on paper) that Singapore football could potentially offer. Vidmar is given all the tools. So why would he leave?

Or is it a case of him being pushed out? Forrest Li would probably expect instant success with the Sailors, and can you blame the man for wanting it? The Sailors assembled a star-studded line up last season but came in third. This season they doubled up on the star power, bringing in Diego Lopes on a multi-million dollar deal and experienced Jorge Fellipe but also reinforced with a host of local stalwarts. Nur Adam, Amirul Adli, and Faris Ramli were added to a squad that already boasts Gabriel Quak, Shahdan Sulaiman, Adam Swandi, Song Ui-young, Stipe Plazibat, Hassan Sunny, Tajeli Salamat, Hafiz Nor, Aqhari Abdullah, and Saifullah Akbar. Unlike other managers in the league, Vidmar has quality across all positions and, more importantly, quality in depth.

This squad is equipped to compete on all fronts. And I mean ALL fronts. The Sailors theoretically have what it takes to win the AFC Cup this season. Why would Vidmar jump ship? Maybe he’s been forced to walk the plank instead? Perhaps. After all, the Sailors drew 2 games and lost 1 after six games thus far. The Sailors management probably believe that their club should be cruising through their matches.

So let’s assume that Vidmar does leave. Who is the ideal manager that the Sailors need to helm their vessel?

Well, I don’t believe that any one manager should steer this ship. Instead, there are two that could potentially co-manage the Sailors and bring them to greater heights.

The funny thing is, no one has talked about this combination thus far. The Lee Lim-saeng and Kim Do-hoon combination could potentially work at a club like Lion CIty Sailors. You already know how much I admire Lee Lim-saeng. I have mentioned him in a previous article before and I stand by the claim that he is one of the best managers to have ever graced the Singaporean footballing landscape. His track record after his time in Singapore is spectacular too. 3 years in China (Two in the CSL and one in Chinese League One) and 1.5 years with Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the K-League is really remarkable.

Kim Do-hoon may be an unfamiliar name to those who do not follow Korean football. Kim was the Ulsan Hyundai manager that won the 2020 AFC Champions League and the 2017 KFA Cup. Winning the premier Asian continental competition is no easy feat, and he brings a wealth of experience.

So why a Lee and Kim coaching combination? Well for starters, both managers played for the Korean National Team together and even worked together in a coaching capacity before. Lee and Kim have chemistry and both offer something the other needs. Lee brings familiarity of Singaporean football and, crucially, culture to the table. Kim offers the prestige name power that the Sailors seem to be targeting. The football romanticist in me also wishes to see a Lee Homecoming (pun intended) to Singapore.

Crucially Lee and Kim are also currently not tied to any clubs. They are free agents in the market right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to see Aurelio pushed out of the Sailors. He is an incredible manager and I think he just needs a tad bit more time. That being said, I do believe that a Kim and Lee combination would work well for the Sailors should Vidmar leave.

Like I said, to reiterate, once again, this is purely based on speculation. I in no way want Vidmar to leave.

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

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An Article By Bob Wong

Singapore Premier League’s 2021 edition was always going to be a different league, taking into account the widespread impact of Covid-19.

Looking at the other countries where we saw big clubs’ revenues drop drastically due to the lack of fans, many expected this year’s campaign to be a prudent one where clubs would aim to be at least financially sustainable till normalcy resumes.

However, the privately-owned Lion City Sailors made a big splash across the transfer window, spending just over 1.8million euros ($2.9m SGD) for midfielder Diego Lopes from Portugese top-flight Rio Ave.

This news came as a surprise for a couple of reasons, first it was highly unusual to hear a football club spending so much for a player especially in a tough time with covid-19 having an impact on revenue across clubs around the world. Secondly, it was also surprising to see a footballer move from playing in Portugal’s top league to our Singapore Premier League which is quite a drop in standards when you compare the gulf in quality looking at both leagues. Additionally, this move smashed the previous transfer record of $50,000 back in 2018 for local striker Fazrul Nawaz.

All in all, one would conclude that this move by Lion City Sailors was highly unusual when one takes into account the current situation of football and how big the fee was.

Some may think of this move as a positive one considering how LCS was able to attract a player of such high calibre but personally, i can’t help but feel that this move will be a mistake that both LCS and Diego Lopes will come to regret. Here are the reasons why:

First of all, let’s consider why a club would spend so much money on a single player:

  1. Return on investment

Investing in a player with such a huge sum of money, the club naturally would want to see a return on investment from its player. A return on investment could mean two things: a) the said player could propel the club to winning titles and receive prize money back which could cover the investment cost or b) the player performs well enough for another club to come and swoop for the player in which the selling club would demand a higher transfer fee to make a profit.

Titles & Prize money

The first question we must ask ourselves is: Is Diego Lopes good enough to carry LCS?

Winning titles is dependent on the whole team being able to work together and grind results over the course of a full season. LCS appears to be betting on Diego Lopes to be the finishing touch on a team that is well-stacked across all areas to push for all available titles to them.

But will Diego Lopes be enough? Aurelio Vidmar is starting his second season with LCS, his previous season with LCS saw them finish 3rd behind Albriex and Tampines respectively despite having a strong team featuring established internationals like Gabriel Quak, Shahdan Sulaiman and Hassan Sunny. How confident are LCS in believing that an extra attacker with brazilian flair would be enough to break Albirex’s stronghold on the title?

Having watched LCS play thrice so far in this 2021 season, i would say that the issue with LCS is not with their attack but rather their defence, a 3-3 draw with Tampines Rovers and a shock 1-3 loss to Hougang does not spark any confidence in LCS being able to make a strong title push. As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “Attack wins you matches, Defence wins you titles”, i would thus conclude that Diego Lopes is not the boost that LCS needs to win titles

Selling for Profit

One would be able to argue that for a club to spend so much for a player, the club might also be keeping an eye out for the future whereby the player is able to perform well enough to warrant a higher transfer fee from another club.

Should Diego Lopes perform exceedingly well at LCS, LCS would look to make a profit off him should a richer club come calling. But the question is, how many clubs are there in SEA that would be able to afford a fee higher than the 1.8m euros ($2.9m SGD) that LCS spent on Diego Lopes?

Looking at our closest neighbours around us in Southeast Asia, Johor Darul Ta’zim (Malaysia) and Buriram United (Thailand) are the only clubs that have come close to matching the fee that LCS have paid for Lopes. JDT paid 1.37m euros for striker Diogo back in 2016 while Buriram paid 1.5m euros for striker Maicon recently in 2020. This goes to show that only a handful of clubs are able to pay over 1m euros for players in SEA and that any chance of LCS making a profit off Diego Lopes from a club around SEA is even slimmer.

For LCS to bet on making a profit off Lopes, they are betting that Lopes performs at the highest standard consistently and is the catalyst in sparking strong runs in both League and Cup competitions. Is Lopes capable of doing this over an entire season? He may have looked promising in his first run out for LCS but lets not forget that Jermaine Pennant also had the same promising impact when he first started playing for Tampines before peetering out at the end of the season.

There is that every chance that Lopes does not have the desired impact that LCS hopes he can make which would lead to the worst scenario that Lopes leaves on a free upon the expiry of his contract, meaning that LCS effectively wrote off 1.8m euros from their books for nothing.

To sum it up, the return on investment for LCS on the exorbitant amount of money they have spent on Lopes requires alot of effort and pressure on Lopes to perform exceedingly well for them. Can Diego Lopes do it? Only time will tell.

  1. To create an unfair advantage over the rest of the clubs

LCS is the only privately owned club in the SPL now, with the rest of the clubs relying on FAS to support its operations. Being the only privately owned club now, LCS is able to rely on their investors pumping in money to strengthen its team at a more consistent rate than others.

With the ability to now match transfer fee valuations, they are also in a position to match wages at levels that the other SPL clubs are simply not able to compete at. This thus creates an advantage in terms of players’ ability for LCS, not only does LCS boast an exceedingly high number of active international players, they are also able to attract top-tier foreign talent in both Lopes and defender Jorge Fellipe.

Moving forward, I expect LCS to not stagnate its growth in becoming a local powerhouse, i predict that they will accelerate their rate of growth within the league by becoming bolder in the market. Assuming that their investors are willing to pump in more money to secure LCS’ long term status as a local football powerhouse, Diego Lopes will not be the only big-money signing that we will see come out of LCS. In the near future, we can expect to see LCS spend more on transfer fees to attract better players and strength its team even further.

With this thought comes the next question: Is LCS’ advantage of being privately-owned being an exceedingly unfair advantage over the other clubs? Having discussed on how LCS’ increased financial strength has an advantage over the fees and wages being offered, does this mean that in the coming future, we will see better players from other clubs move to LCS on the basis that LCS is simply able to offer more?

If LCS adopts a strategy of being able to buy better foreign players and combine it with the strategy of picking off the better players from the other clubs, this would create a situation whereby only LCS is strengthening itself while the other clubs are progressively getting weaker.

Therefore, i would conclude this point by saying that this big transfer move from LCS is only the start for them. Regardless of the whatever impact Lopes is able to make at the club, this big money move is a starting statement for LCS to embark on its journey to being a football powerhouse by simply being richer than the rest.

My Thoughts

Having discussed about the possible risks and benefits that this move would have on the LCS, I have come to conclude that LCS would eventually come to regret a move of this magnitude.

Earlier in this article, i have concluded that the only way that Lopes turns out to be a good signing for LCS is that Lopes is able to a) propel them to titles and prize money or b) perform well enough to warrant a bigger transfer fee from another club. Which leads me to my next question

Is the Singapore Premier League the correct environment to pull off such a move?

My opinion is that when you compare the standard that our SPL is playing at right now with the long term planning that LCS is trying to make, it just isn’t what both the SPL and LCS needs right now.

For big money signings to be worth the investment, a) the player needs to be in a competitive league where he is able to perform well and be noticed by foreigh clubs and b) he needs to be in a club that is able to make deep impressions in international tournaments.

For starters, i am of the opinion that our SPL is simply not good enough  for other foreign clubs to use as a barometer if the player is good enough for a higher level of football. If Lopes fails to perform consistently well, other clubs looking to buy him will be thinking ‘This player drops from the Portugese top league to Singapore Premier League and is not the best player there, i doubt he can make it in another league better than Singapore’s one.’ Quite simply put, Lopes will have to be cream of the crop if he wishes to eventually move to a league more competitive than Singapore’s current league.

Additionally, my other point pertaining to international tournaments such as AFC Cup. Another way for players to get noticed is to perform well at regional competitions where clubs of different countries go head to head to be crowned the best team in the region. For Lopes to be noticed, he has to be in a team that can compete against foreign clubs and perform well. To date, Singapore has failed to make a name for itself at these regional tournament with the most notable being Home United making it to the AFC Cup Inter-zonal Semi Finals back in 2018 while most local clubs fail to make it past the group stage.

LCS are participating in this year’s edition of the AFC Champions Cup, we have yet to see if Vidmar is able to put together a deep run in the cup with the squad he has. And if Vidmar is able to do so, is Lopes capable of standing tall against his foreign opponents and bringing LCS to a deep cup run? For a club to spend so much money on a player, i would say that there is considerable pressure to do so.

Conclusion

Let me just start off by saying that i was duly impressed by LCS being able to attract such a high profile signing. It is a testament to LCS’ new look and financial power to be able to make such signings when you think about how our last notable signing was a washed up Jermaine Pennant to Tampines Rovers.

Taking into account the financial impact of Covid-19 has across the leagues around the whole world, it would be unwise to spend such a large sum over a player when it can be argued that clubs should look to financially stabilise itself instead of splurging over marquee signings. LCS is making a bold move in this precarious financial climate and i sincerely hope that their investment will pay off great returns for both the club and the league in terms of achievements and proposal.

And while i am of the opinion that Lopes is not a good signing for the LCS when one thinks about the long term implications of this signings, i feel that this is a positive step for SPL when it comes to exposure to better talent and also signals optimism for other investors to dip their toes into SPL should LCS perform well.

While it is simple to just write Diego Lopes off as a marquee signing to kickstart its journey to being a top club in Singapore Football, i daresay that there is a lot of implications directly related to this multi million dollar signing. With the money attached to his name, all eyes will be on Lopes’ be it from his own teammates and manager or people around the League. He needs to be able to perform well enough to justify his money or LCS will have to eventually write off this massive 1.8m euros sum as money wasted on a marquee signing that couldn’t bring the club to the heights they aimed for.

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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 teams have also shone this week.

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

Mukundan pulled some important saves against Tampines and helped his team retain their resounding lead. If he keeps this up, a national team call-up could be in the works soon.

Maksat Dzhakybaliev

The Kyrgyzstani defender put in another solid display at the back and his 67th-minute header was truly the icing on the cake. Maksat has truly established himself alongside Lionel Tan as Hougang’s primary central defensive pairing and his performances against the Stag demonstrate why.

Jorge Fellipe

In an impressive debut, Jorge proved to be a solid rock in the Sailors defense, making multiple crucial clearances and generally stifling the Young Lions’ offense. What’s more, the game provided a sneak peek into his aerial prowess, almost scoring on 3 separate occasions with thundering headers. Was unlucky not to net one, but one would think that his time will soon come.

Yu Tokiwa

The Albirex left-back put in a fine performance against Geylang United over the weekend. Making 73 passes with a 88% passing completion rate is certainly impressive and his contributions both in defence and attack helped Albirex to win.

The Midfield

Harhys Stewart

In a game where the Young Lions seemed to have the Sailors’ number (for the first 20 minutes), Harhys was a constant driving force in all 90 minutes of the game, and seemed to be ever-present in both halves of the field. Provided crucial challenges and solid link-up plays, and should have gotten at least one assist should his forwards been more clinical. 

Kaishu Yamazaki

The “engine room” of the Hougang midfield once again was a constant presence against the Stags. The box to box midfielder became a central figure in the attacking moves by the Cheetahs. The Kaishu-Fabian partnership seems to have clicked really well. Other clubs beware.

Gabriel Quak

If there was anyone who doubted Gabriel Quak’s form, the reigning Player Of The Year definitely showed that he was to be a Sailors mainstay with a powerful display last Saturday, as he was a key piece in the LCS’ offensive moves. Beaten to the chase for the year’s first hat-trick, but was very close on numerous occasions, and had to settle for a brace.

Shafiq Ghani

Shafiq Ghani was Hougang’s lightning to Doi’s thunder. Would have been a crime if he had not scored in the game, as he well deserved a goal, but was redeemed with a lovely curling free-kick effort to put the cherry on the cake for a strong Hougang showing.

Kristijan Krajček

Against a poor Tanjong Pagar, the Tigers were constantly on the attack and that was largely thanks to Krajček. The Croatian orchestrated most of the moves, and scored 2 goals. If his form continues, the Tigers could realistically claim an AFC spot this campaign.

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

Doi once again demonstrated why he is arguably the best striker in the league right now. Notching the first hattrick of the season, Hougang have certainly filled the void left by Stipe’s departure last season. Doi already has 7 in 4 games and he is surely going to add more.

Stipe Plazibat

1 goal and 1 assists this week, Statement Signing Stipe put in a decent showing this week to feature in our Team of the Week. Plazibat notched in his 4th goal of the season and I still believe the Golden Boot award is up for grabs despite Doi’s form. Never count Stipe out.

Photo Credits: Hougang United, Lion City Sailors, Singapore Premier League

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

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

Beginnings in Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

Early Years in the Professional Career

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

Warriors, National Service, & Financial Saga.

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Start and New Role at Tanjong Pagar

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

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

Picture Credits: Playmaker (playmaker_sg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Resilient Utility Player, A Rarity In The Modern Game: An Interview with Tajeli Salamat

I had the opportunity to talk to Tajeli the other day, and it felt good talking with the current Lion City Sailors FC centre-back. I knew Tajeli from his time at Warriors FC, my favourite Singaporean team that was unfortunately forced to sit out of the 2020 season due to financial issues. If Tajeli is an unfamiliar name to you now, just wait for him to feature for the national team. He is a tenacious footballer who will do anything to improve his game and become the best footballer he can be. This is the story of Tajeli who took charge of his career, engineered his own moves to keep the footballing dream alive, and worked hard to overcome the challenges he was faced with.

Beginnings: From Street Soccer to Professional Football

Coming from a family where no one really plays sports, it may seem like a surprise that Tajeli pursued a professional career in football. But those close to the player would know that there were signs early on that he would become a footballer. Growing up, he just loved playing the sport, and no matter whether be it a street soccer game with friends or a match with the Zhenghua Primary School Football team, he always played his heart out. He usually came home late, which led to his mother scolding him frequently.

“During my childhood days, I always get scoldings from my mother. I’ll be there [at the street soccer court] 24/7 and once I get back, she’d scold me saying ‘you don’t know how to get back is it? You just want to play soccer until when?’ So like that was the question thrown at me back then.”

While his mother may have scolded him for spending too much time on football, it was these formative days playing street soccer that shaped his footballing career. Even though he didn’t come from a footballing family, his father wasn’t going to stand in the way of Tajeli’s footballing ambitions. His father enrolled him Jurong F.C.’s youth set-up, and the player progressed through the U-League squads. During his time with the Jurong F.C. youth team, he was in the same side as Tampines custodian Syazwan Buhairi and former Lions XI player Pravin Guanasagaran. Yet, it was not until the trials for the Singapore Sports School when Tajeli played in defence. Up to that point he was deployed as a forward in both Jurong F.C. and his primary school football team.

“When I was in Primary School, I wasn’t a centre-back. I was either a striker or a winger. During the trials for [admittance into] the Sports School, we were categorized into our positions. When they were [assembling] teams to face off each other, it was a case of 11 V 10 and they needed one additional player, but that player had to play as a defender. So they asked me and I said, why not give it a try? From there, they saw that I could play in another position.

While nowadays he operates as a centre-back at Lions City Sailors F.C, it would be more apt to label him as a utility-player. Besides playing in the heart of defence, Tajeli has also played as a centre-midfielder and operated down both flanks as a fullback and a wide-midfielder. In many ways, Tajeli is like what John O’Shea was to Manchester United during the 2000s – a reliable player who can operate in multiple positions, a true rarity in the modern game.

After his time at Sports School, Tajeli didn’t want to pursue his further studies and was determined to enlist in National Service early so that he can continue his football development while he was a teenager. He was given the chance to enter the “Through train” programme, where Sports School students have a direct transition to Polytechnic education, but he declined it. Just as he was about to serve the nation, he received a call-up to play for a regional youth tournament in 2011.

“I decided to go to ITE instead so I would have an opportunity to feature in this tournament. However, I think that was the mistake because after that, they changed the age group from those born 1994 and before to 1995 and before. That was my only regret and I should have done my NS first because I think at that moment, I was blooming.

“I was in the NFA U-18 team playing in the Prime League but they promoted me to the Young Lions First team, so I represented Young Lions when I was 17, while still in ITE.”

After a season with Young Lions, Tajeli then signed for Balestier Khalsa for the 2013 season, and the Tigers went on to win the League Cup that season. He was playing brilliantly for the Tigers, who went on to win the RHB Singapore Cup in the 2013 season. However, Tajeli wasn’t able to feature in the later stages of the competition because National Service (NS) came calling that August, and it signalled an end to his footballing development. He did continue to play Sunday League football, but he never continued his development with a Prime League or S.League team.

Instead, he spent most of his time staying in camp. But it wasn’t all to bad for Tajeli. The player relished his NS experience and he even clinched the Best Recruit award for his company. Since he was part of a mono-intake with 2SIR, only the Best Recruits could be selected for the SISPEC course to become a 3rd Sergeant. With his footballing career seemingly over, he seriously considered signing on with the Army but decided to wait until after his NS to decide whether he was going to or not.

Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

Back into Football After NS & Almost Calling it Quits…

After he completed his NS in June in 2016, he was offered a chance to represent Singapore once again in another youth tournament, and he joined up with Young Lions yet again. He joined the club mid-way through the season, and at the end of the season he managed to seal a move back to Balestier Khalsa. What’s interesting is that Tajeli engineered this move all on his own.

“Back then it was coach Marko [Kraljević who was managing the club]. I think I also knew him during our time at Jurong FC and I probably refreshed his memory when I asked if he remembers. He told me that he remembers me. I just made the first step to ask if they’d be keen to have me in the team. What also helped was that I played for Balestier in 2013.”

However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the However, his time at Balestier was going to be a short one. Following the end of the 2017 season, Tajeli was not immediately offered a contract extension by Balestier Khalsa FC, with management telling him that they would only provide him a contract pending Head Coach Marko Kraljević’s return to Singapore for the following season. That November, Tajeli worked part-time handling deliveries for RedMart while he was waiting for his contract to be renewed, something he was almost certain would happen. Then January came and SPL clubs were filling in their squads for next season. He remained hopeful of a contract from Balestier. Yet, that contract never came, and while the season went underway, Tajeli was left without a club. He tried approaching Tampines Rovers and Geylang International but since they could only offer him part-time contracts, he rejected them. It was that moment when Tajeli felt like it was time to call an end to his professional career.

Following the end of the season, for the next five months, he worked part-time with RedMart. While the job came with certain perks such as the provision of a van, which allowed him to travel around, his pay paled in comparison to what he was earning as a football player. He started applying for full-time positions, but he was unsuccessful. He even applied to sign on with the Army and the SCDF. However, during that difficult period, his then-girlfriend (now wife) was there to help him financially and it is something that he will always be grateful to her for.

“My wife supported me financially and emotionally. I don’t want to use her money, you know? So I decided to work at RedMart. She was there for me and she was just a student at ITE Ang Mo Kio working part-time. I am truly thankful to her for standing by my side.”

During this period, Tajeli, who still loved football passionately, wasn’t about to give up on his dreams totally. He went for trials with NFL teams such as Yishun Sentek Mariners for trials before being selected to play for Tiong Bahru FC. However, something didn’t sit well with the utility player. The NFL season hadn’t commenced yet, but deep down, he felt that he belonged in the SPL.

…Before a Warriors Lifeline

Tajeli decided to have one last crack at playing SPL football and ringed up Paul Poh, who was the General Manager of Warriors FC at that point in time. In 2016, Paul personally called Tajeli and offered him a contract and the player asked if there was any opportunity to play with his club.

“I asked him if he could offer me the same contract that he offered me last time. He told me to come down for a trial the next day so that the coaches can assess me and see whether I can make it to the team.”

Luck seemed to have been on the player’s side, because he put in a noteworthy performance during his trial that caught the eye of Mirko Grabovac, the then-Warriors Head Coach. Not long after, Tajeli went for a medical check-up and he went into the squad.

Tajeli enjoyed his time with Warriors partly because of his close friendship with Sahil Suhaimi. Besides being his roommate whenever the club headed to Brunei to face DPMM FC, Tajeli enjoyed playing with the Warriors no. 7 because they shared chemistry both on and off the pitch. Deployed mostly as a Right Back, Tajeli had a telepathic connection with the right-winger and they produced some brilliant linkup play. Tajeli also looks back with fondness at his playing time with Warriors and is thankful that the club provided him with a lifeline to return to the game loves.

Leaving Warriors and Starting a New Chapter with Lion City Sailors F.C

While Warriors provided a lifeline to Tajeli’s career, it wasn’t a smooth sailing journey towards the end due to the club’s financial issues.

“In Singapore, end of the day, it’s all about the money. Players need to be paid but Army also taught me well – to go with the flow. It wasn’t a case where the issue surfaced before the start or after the end of the season, when you had the time to make a decision on your career. It was during the season, so what else can you do?

“At the back of my mind, I know that money is important but I also want to be better [as a player]. I knew I can’t just focus on the now but also think of my future. I might be doing well and not paid now but I might be getting better pay in the future.”

Tajeli was with the club until they shut down, but when a better opportunity came elsewhere, he had to make the move. In fact, two clubs, Geylang International and Lions City Sailors FC, wanted to secure his services. However, Tajeli understandably went with the latter because the Sailors offered him a better contract. He needed to settle certain costs and payments that were incurred as a result of the unpaid wages fiasco at Warriors FC. As such, his time at Warriors also influenced him choosing his next destination.

While the club is still new and the team still hasn’t really had much time together given the Covid-19 Pandemic, Tajeli has been impressed by how the Sailors are making their club really professional. He cites a small example to show the club’s professionalism.

“When we go for games, we report to Bishan Stadium [the Lion City Sailors Home ground] and we’ll have our teamtalk and everything. Then we will board the bus together as a unit and move on to the stadium. So, it’s new to me. For the past clubs I’ve been, it’s always been report to the away stadium directly.”

Lion City Sailors have definitely added something fresh in a stale Singaporean landscape. The whole rebranding of Home United has been pretty impressive, and their recent launch of their youth academy has shown that they are determined to improve the quality of Singapore football. Most importantly, they have a highly rated head coach in Aurelio Vidmar. While there hasn’t been much training sessions, the Australian icon certainly embodies the professionalism of the club – an assessment that Tajeli wholeheartedly agrees with.

“I think he is a good coach, he emphasizes more on the basics. Even though we may be competent with our basics, he [Vidmar] wants us to polish it. Even small passes like short passes, it has to be firm, it has to be on the ground so that it is easy for the receiver to think ahead and turn, you know?”

The sailors are one club I will look at closely the next few seasons and hopefully, more clubs can follow in their suit.

National Team Ambitions and Future Aspirations

Tajeli also hopes to play abroad one day. One of his regrets was turning down an opportunity to play for an Australian National Premier League team. The NFA Under-18s headed over to Australia for a series of exhibition matches, where scouts from NPL and A-League clubs were present. Out of the 24 players from Singapore, Tajeli was the only one approached with an offer. While a move abroad to Australia sounded promising, he had to turn down the offer due to National Service and the fact that they required him to give a somewhat immediate answer.

Representing Singapore for the 2019 SEA Game., Photo credits: Tajeli Salamat (@3llyc4nc3l0)

“They wanted me to give an answer immediately. Like after I landed back in Singapore, I needed to speak to my parents and all, and then if I accepted their offer, I needed to fly back in 3 days. I remember them telling me that my visa would be done and my accommodation all taken care of.”

However, Tajeli understands that he would stand a better chance to earn a move abroad if he got called up to the national team – something he isn’t far off from. Tajeli got his first call-up to the national team in 2019 but is yet to earn a senior cap. He was called up this March for National Team training and could possibly feature for the Lions this year if Covid-19 restrictions are lifted and football was to continue.

For those that have been watching football, some of you may recognize Tajeli as one of six players publicly named by the FAS who broke curfew rules during the 2019 SEA Games following a loss to Thailand in the group stage. Personally, I think the way that the actions of the FAS were deplorable, to say the least. That however, will be for an article another day. It was the first time that Tajeli represented Singapore as a professional player and he has bounced back from the SEA Games fiasco as a stronger player, raring to earn his senior cap.

Tajeli is a fine footballer but what makes him stand out is his resilience and work ethic when he’s on the field. He has faced many challenges in his career but is unfazed by them. Instead, he works hard to overcome these challenges and become a better footballer. I firmly believe that featuring for the national team will be the gateway for Tajeli’s career to really take off. Who knows, perhaps a move to Australia might come calling again.

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

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

A Slightly Different Route to become a Professional Footballer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

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

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

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

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

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

Juggling his Final Year in University and Playing Professionally

Photo by Lum3n from Pexels

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

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

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

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

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

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

The AFC Cup and New Goals with Hougang

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

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

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

Photo provided by Anders Aplin, Photo Credits: Heinkel Heinz

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a Small World We Live in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings as a Keeper and emulating Casillas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

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

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

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

Future and Goals?

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

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

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

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

Picture by Lim Weixiang, Tampines Rovers

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends during recess either discussing transfer rumours or play football in the school field (even though I was never any good). However, also though there was much talk on football, it was mostly centred on European Leagues, especially the English Premier League. There was barely any serious conversation on the local league (then known as the S. League). Instead, the S. League and then later the revamped Singapore Premier League (SPL) is often ridiculed with low attendances and low live telecast viewership despite free streaming.

Today, the league is facing a severe crisis. The last time a local Singaporean club had won the title was in 2014. Since then foreign-based clubs, DPMM and Albirex Nigata’s Singaporean satellite team, have won the title. Warriors FC, who were the last local team to win the title and are the league’s most successful team with 9 championships, was embroiled in controversy after not paying player and staff salaries of more than S$350,000. The Football Association of Singapore has recently asked Warriors FC to sit out the 2020 season of the SPL, but this request was rejected by the club.

If Warriors FC were to be forced to sit out the season, the number of clubs would reduce to 8 teams with only 6 local teams – one of which is the national youth team that is ineligible for continental competition. If the club were to be disbanded due to financial issues, they would join the ranks of former clubs like Tanjong Pagar United FC, Gombak United FC and Woodlands Wellington FC. The loss of a club not only shrinks the national pool of players but also leads to many footballers losing their steady flow of income. The SPL is Singapore’s only professional sports league but yet is plagued by financial insecurities. There have been no new local entrants to the league since 2014, and there haven’t been any serious attempts by the Football Association to increase that number.

Official Singapore Premier League Logo from SPL website

One route the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) can take to ensure the survival of the League is to completely restructure the League’s format. The creation of a franchise league set up akin to that of Major League Soccer and that of the Indian Super League may be what the Singapore League needs. Clubs on their own do not possess sufficient financial muscle. However, if they band together under the FAS, they can better share their resources more effectively.

For a franchise football league to work, however, some things need to be either changed or completely eliminated from the current league setup. Foreign Leagues do not value add the League if foreign players if they cannot be naturalized. The Foreign player quota should be increased, and only international players of sufficient quality and stature should be sought after. Much like the MLS system, the FAS should assist in contributing to the wages of Marquee players. Having a salary cap would also prevent clubs from overspending their budget.

A radical attempt may be what is necessary to rekindle interest in the Sport. Singaporeans used to passionately support the national team, and when the S.league first started in 1996, thousands came to support their local clubs.