Tag Archives: Tampines Rovers

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #4

Game Week 4 saw Matchdays 5 and 6 unfold, and what a week indeed! It was goals galore in both matchdays with Tampines slotting 7 past Young Lions and Lion City Sailors racking up 8 goals against Geylang International. In this combined team of the week, we have a pretty diverse line-up from a range of teams.

We are including consistent performers in the team of the week but we also have special mentions for stellar performers in either of the Match Days.

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

Zaiful Nizam – GK

I think Zaiful deserves more praise than he is usually given. Yes, he may not have had kept clean sheets but he was pulling some really fantastic saves this week. His performances against Geylang helped the team to a 2-1 victory while he kept Balestier in the running against Hougang.

Yu Tokiwa

Another week and another fantastic display from the Japanese left-back. His assist against Tampines helped the White Swans even the score, and his defensive displays at the back frustrated the Tampines offense. An overall solid showing.

Shuya Yamashita

The Japanese centre-back scored twice against Lion City Sailors in the mid-week fixture to ensure the White Swans remain the only undefeated side in the SPL after 6 matches. Alongside Tokiwa and co, Yamashita also marhsalled out waves of Tampines attacks over the weekend.

Nur Adam

An Assist midweek and a sharp showing against Geylang side shows how mature he truly is as a footballer despite his tender age. At this current juncture, Nur Adam will probably become Singapore’s next long term left-back, much to the dismay of Harith Kanadi.

The Midfield

Diego Lopes

He came in with a hefty price tag. He’s showing why he’s the 3 million dollar man. It wasn’t just that he scored a hattrick or that he created 2 assists but rather, the Sailors looked a lot more expressive and confident when Diego plays for them.

Ryoya Taniguchi

Taniguchi has remained a dependable figure for Albirex Niigata this Game Week. Engineering attacking moves and notching in a goal in each fixture, Taniguchi has flourished in his new attacking midfield role this season (last season he was more of a centre-midfielder).

Gabriel Quak

Another week, another feature. Gabriel Quak is really cementing his place as the best winger in the SPL. While he was decent midweek, he was simply incredible against Geylang International. 2 goals and 2 assists against Geylang, he’s in the squad this week.

Reo Nisiguchi

The Japanese left winger seems to have finally settled in at Tanjong Pagar and scored brilliant goals in both fixtures. He is gelling well with the attacking half of the Jaguars and other teams need to watch out for him and Junior because they have finally found a steady rhythm together.

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

The Japanese forward already has 10 goals this season. It’s only been 6 games. Doi’s brace in the mid-week rescued a point for the Cheetahs and his 63rd minute strike against Balestier, secured another win to extend their unbeaten run to 5 games.

Luiz Júnior

I have always have been a fan of Luiz Júnior and it is delightful to see the 2020 Team Of The Year player finally find his scoring boots again. The Brazilian scored in the thrilling 3-3 draw against Hougang. While the Cheetahs may have denied him and Tanjong Pagar their first win in the mid-week, he bagged a brace against Young Lions over the weekend to help the Jaguars secure their first win in six years.

Stipe Plazibat

The Croatian Hit Man scored a brace against the 8-0 thrashing of Geylang International and scored a vital goal in the draw against the White Swans. Stipe may be 3 goals away from Doi, but as I have said time after time, never count him out.

Special Mentions Matchdats 5 and 6

All Photo Credits to Singapore Premier League

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

Game Week 2 saw a ton of drama unfold, with Matchday 2 and Matchday 3 of the Singapore Premier League being played mid-week and over the weekends, respectively. To stress, we are featuring the players that have been consistent over the two matches. In that sense, don’t be that surprised about the sheer number of […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #3

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

UEFA’s Faustian Bargain

UEFA’s impending Champions League reforms are nothing more than a desperate money grab from teams ready to break away A story that has lingered under the surface during this season is now coming into prominence, as the UEFA Executive Committee is holding a meeting next week to vote on, and likely pass, a very serious […]

Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #2

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

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

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

The Defence

Mukundan Maran – GK

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

Lionel Tan

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

Irfan Najeeb

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

Baihaiki Khaizan

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

The Midfield

Fabian Kwok

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

Kaishu Yamazaki

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

Idraki Adnan

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

Farhan Zulkifli

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

The Forward Line

Tomoyuki Doi

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

Boris Kopitovic

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

Gilberto Fortunato

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

Special Mentions MD2 & MD3

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

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

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Our Singapore Premier League Team Of The Week #1

My buddy Kim Ng co-wrote this one with me. Cheers Fam!

The 2021 edition of the Singapore Premier League has finally kicked off, and what a thrilling first game week we’ve had. We want to start something new here at SoccerKakis, so we’re launching our very own Team Of The Week Series!

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

The Defence

A total of 19 goals was conceded in the four games that transpired over the weekend, and with no team mustering a clean sheet, every coach would surely be concentrating on their defensive organization for the upcoming fixtures. As such, we have gone with a three-man defence, and the 3 players that have stood out for us are:

Takahiro Koga

This was a tough one because almost all of the keepers did not really have the best of days in their opening fixtures. Takahiro Koga and Zainol Gulam were exceptions, but Koga gets the nod from us after his heroic displays against the Cheetahs.

Darren Teh

The ever-reliable Darren Teh shut down many of the Jaguars attacks and remained a pesky offensive outlet on the right flank. His presence stretched out the Tanjong Pagar side and allowed for the advancement of his side into the final third.

Tajeli Salamat

The defensive dynamo played a big part in the Sailors’ opening goals and, while the Sailors’ defensive organization was questionable, Tajeli put in a fantastic individual display, notching an assist with a timely interception and sprint.

Madhu Mohana

Tampines were faltering behind and needed someone to ignite their comeback – that man had to be Madhu. Besides scoring the first goal in what was to be a 3-3 comeback, Madhu also was decent at the back.

The Midfield

We really wanted to maximize the midfield because there were so many spectacular performances by players in the attacking half. Hence, we went with a five-man midfield. Song Ui-Yong is our honourable mention here for scoring 2021’s first SPL goal amidst a dynamic display, but his early substitution and missed chances means he just misses the cut in our star-studded midfield.

Joel Chew

The former Tampines man may have not played the entire match, but he certainly impressed during his time on the pitch. Big things seemingly await Joel, and it’s a treat to witness his progress with the Young Lions this season.

Chiku Kosuke

The Japanese midfielder notched an assist and demonstrated his creative prowess from corner kicks. It’ll be interesting to see how the Albirex number eight progresses through the course of the season. If his performance against Hougang is anything to go by, he poses a real threat from the middle of the park.

Yasir Hanapi

Okay, we know that Yasir Hanapi played as a forward against the Sailors, but cut us some slack. We had to fit the Tampines skipper in somehow, and so we slotted him in an unconventional left wing spot. Madhu may have ignited the comeback, but Yasir sealed the deal. 

Gabriel Quak

The SPL 2020 Player of the Year demonstrated why, once again, he is arguably the best player to be playing in Singapore right now. 2 goals against the Stags is by no means an easy feat, and Gabriel was a constant presence on the pitch. His only mistake – not scoring more when he could have easily done so.

Šime Žužul

The unselfish Balestier target man channelled his inner Harry Kane as he set up Shuhei Hoshino on two instances, with one being the wonder strike. Some have said that Hoshino and Žužul cannot play together, but their outing against Young Lions really proved otherwise. Other teams beware.

The Forward Line

Ah, we really had our pick for this one – we couldn’t include Stipe, Moreseche and Ilhan Fandi. But we went for a dual samurai combination up top. Jumbo and Tsuboi definitely looked menacing upfront. It will be interesting to see how they fare for the rest of the season after truly making a statement on the opening day of the campaign.

Shuhei Hoshino

‘Jumbo’ was definitely on form this Gameweek, with an absolute peach of a volley to score Balestier’s third in what was arguably the Goal of the Gameweek. His first goal was also a lovely outside-of-the-box curling effort that gave the keeper no chance.

Kiyoshiro Tsuboi

It seems that Albirex manages to unearth a new offensive gem every year, and this year’s marquee Japanese forward proved no exception. His brace consisted of a powerful strike (which, to be fair, should have been handled by veteran Ridhuan Barudin), and an acrobatic diving header that thumped into the back of the net.

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers, Albirex Niigata, Young Lions

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Hearing From The Interviewees – Thoughts On the New Season

The 2021 Singapore Premier League Season is going to kick off in less than 24 hours, and while it’s a real shame that fans are unable to attend the matches in person, there is a lot of hype for this campaign. Several clubs have made high profile signings, and it’ll be interesting to see how these stalwarts fare this season in Singapore. Besides that, the return of the Singapore Cup and continental football means that there is a lot to look out for this season.

Yet, I wanted to ask some players how they felt regarding the new season and so I reached out to some players I interviewed. Here is what they had to say:

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Tajeli Salamat

Tajeli had a fantastic season with Lion City Sailors last season and even featured in the 2020 SPL Team of the Year. While hoping to continue his fine form, the Sailors’ defensive dynamo does admit that he is feeling a little nervous because “with the new season, there comes new goals.” That being said, Taj is excited and hungry for the league to kick off.

“After the delay of the league start date, I have been really looking forward to the start, and now that it’s already March, I can’t wait to play.”

“Regarding changes from last season, I think we have improved together as a team both physically and mentally. The bonds between us are also getting stronger each day. It’s important that we remain as one unit. As the saying goes, together we stand, divided we fall.”

“I really put in the hard work last season, and featuring in the team of the year really meant a lot to me. This year is going to be no different. I will continue to work hard and I hope to achieve more for the team and individually. Oh, and of course, going far in the AFC! End of the day, whatever I am doing, I am working hard for my family – my wife, my newborn son and my parents – cause I am a family guy now. I am doing this for them.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Delwinder Singh

Like the rest of Tanjong Pagar, Delwinder had a season to forget in the 2020 campaign, where the Jagauars finished in last place. That being said, the club has done some serious business in the window and they are looking to make a statement this year.

“Definitely feeling great and excited about the start of a brand new league! We didn’t do well or rather of what we thought we could be able to do. Hence, I’d say it’s redemption time and to get things straight from the start starting with this Sunday’s game. We as a team believe in our philosophy and hence, it’s about continuing and believing in it with our football and showcasing it.”

“We’ve brought in experienced heads who can help in terms of pushing us to our limits and even beyond! Apart from that, it is some minor changes in terms of our football philosophy and to be honest, we’re raring to get this going and to put all our hard work at test. On a personal note, apart from club training, I’ve started working with Rory from Edge of the Box Mentoring, and the sessions has been excellent in terms of getting me physically and mentally ready for the challenges ahead, so I hope I can use it efficiently to help me deal with the various challenges that I’ll face.”

“As a team, I’d say at least qualifying for the AFC would be a good stepping stone. This will only lead to greater things in the future. On a more personal note, firstly would be to do my upmost best to help the team by restricting the opponents. By doing well, hopefully it opens the door back into the national team again as there’s AFF Suzuki Cup to look forward to.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Anders Aplin

COVID-19 prematurely ended Hougang’s maiden AFC Cup voyage, and after tasting it once, they are probably hungry for it again. Hougang coach Clement Teo may have stated that Hougang are “not looking at the title as of now”, but with their recent transfers, the Cheetahs are a serious threat to any opponent. At the heart of their defence is Anders Aplin, the self-declared Offensive CB.

Anders briefly mentioned how he’s “really looking forward to the start of the season. It’s been a long and tough pre-season so we’re definitely eager to get going.”

“I’ll take each game at a time. Collectively, I suppose AFC would be something we want to qualify for.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

Gavin Lee

Despite narrowly missing out on the title, Gavin can surely be proud of what the Stags accomplished last season. This season offers a new opportunity – the AFC Champions League.

“The team and I are very excited for tomorrow’s first game. We have prepared well and the boys have applied themselves well throughout the pre-season. I think besides some new faces in the team, not a lot has changed. We are still the same motivated group and we want to achieve what we missed out on last year. Plus we continue to believe in our playing principles as it forms a big part of our processes, as well as continue to develop strong brains required for a successful season.”

“The goals for a club like Tampines remains constant every year. It is our duty to do our very best to achieve them. We like our big games but every game in the league poses different challenges. We enjoy playing against the various opposing strategies and we are ready for this new season!”

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MY CLUB IS IN THE ASIAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!

An Article by Brendon Tan

Musings from a Tampines Rovers fan on the club’s first-ever foray into the group stages of the Asian Champions League.

27th January 2021 – that is the magic date.

As of writing this, we are less than a week to the 2021 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) draw which is happening on the 27th of January 2021 at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Just across the Causeway, in neighbouring Singapore, local football fans and Tampines diehards will be glued to their screens as the result of the draw are announced.

One of these diehards who will be watching will be me.

For the 40th time, the continent’s biggest prize in club football will be up for grabs. The region’s best will find out on that very day which group they will be in and what teams they will be up against. Holders, Ulsan Hyundai, with two ACL titles under their belt, will be hoping to defend their crown after beating Iran’s Persepolis 2-1 at the finals of the 2020 ACL.

This year’s tournament will be a special one. Not only is it the first time the ACL will have 40 teams instead of the usual 32, but it will also feature Singapore’s Tampines Rovers Football Club (TRFC) for the first time in the group stages of the ACL.

As a Rovers fan, I could not be prouder of my team for such a historic achievement.

On December 2nd, we qualified for the ACL on the last day of the 2020 season, finishing as the top local team. (On December 2nd, we qualified for the ACL, after grinding out to an admittedly nerve wracking 1 – 1 draw with the Lion City Sailors.)

The last time a Singaporean side was involved in the group stages of the ACL was in 2010. Back then, the island’s most successful local side, Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC) (now known as Warriors FC) took part but only managed to finish 3rd in their group.

Photo Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

Before that historic day, the Stags had never made it out of the qualifiers of the ACL and have spent most seasons playing in the group stages of the AFC Cup. For the uninitiated Eurosnobs, this is our region’s equivalent to the Europa League. Unfortunately, this was ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was frustrating for us fans as the Stags were actually doing incredibly well in the tournament. The ACL was also allowed to continue, which added salt to the wound.

But that is all in the past.

On the 27th of January, Tampines Rovers will know what teams it will be competing against in the Champions League.

The thought of East Asian giants like Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, Guangzhou Evergrande and Gamba Osaka potentially playing at our local grounds, whether it be Jalan Besar, Bishan or the National Stadium (oh footballing gods please just let it be Our Tampines Hub (OTH) for once) is tantalising. However, this, unfortunately, seems very unlikely due to the current pandemic situation. The competition will very likely be played at a centralised venue.

It is also a great pity that we might actually not be able to go for any of the games live and might have to settle with simply watching it on the telly. 

Nonetheless, the thought that our local veterans Yasir Hanapi and Daniel Bennet might soon be asked to lead our Stags against teams such as J1 League Champion, Kawasaki Frontale, is extremely enticing!

There is the possibility that we might see our own Japanese Magician, Kyoga Nakamura, dribbling past his fellow countrymen with his usual brand of trickery. Or Madhu Mohana might be throwing his famous long balls into the box potentially against teams like Sydney FC or Pohang Steelers. All of these will no doubt be exciting sights to behold for us Stags fans.

It also delights me that our very own young prospects such as Shah Shahiran (who has been a revelation for the club so far) will get the chance to feature in the region’s biggest club tournament as well. The opportunity for our young Stags to play with Asia’s finest will no doubt provide invaluable experience for them and hopefully improve our team overall as well.

In fact, looking at the pre-season signings we have been doing, it seems likely that the Stags will be fielding a rather young albeit promising team for the upcoming season. I admit this initially left me a little bit concerned but nonetheless, I place my full faith in the team and of course, in Gavin Lee’s abilities as a coach. Trust the process, I say.

Photo Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

Regardless of whether we make it far in the competition, it brings me great joy just for me to be able to see my local team on the continent’s biggest stage!

With that, I am confident my Stags will be going all out for the win when the tournament officially begins next month.

COME ON YOU MIGHTY STAGS!

P.S. Also, TRFC in this year’s edition of Pro Evolution Soccer (PES)? You love to see it.

Featured Image Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

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Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike most Cambodian internationals, Thierry, while ethnically Khmer, was born in France and even represented the French U-16 team. Don’t let that misguide you, though, Thierry is a patriotic Cambodian and is proud to don the national team jersey every single time. For those of you unfamiliar with Thierry, he plays as a defensive midfielder and he is one of the best Southeast Asian DMs today. I have always wanted to know more about Thierry, and I had the privilege to talk to him a few weeks ago. This is his story.

Humble Beginnings

Thierry was born in Villepinte, which is a commune located in the north-east suburbs of Paris, to Cambodian parents. Thierry’s parents had fled Cambodia during the 1970s just before Pol Pot took control of the state. However, while he was born a French citizen, Thierry’s heart always belonged to Cambodia. He was brought up in a traditional Cambodian household, learning Khmer, eating Cambodian cuisine, and celebrating traditional Cambodian holidays.

Nevertheless, it was in France where Thierry developed his passion for the beautiful game. Like many of us, Theirry grew up with football, and he often played it with his friends. Ever since he was young, he had always been an ardent Manchester United fan (good man) and he idolized David Beckham. While he may have played football casually before he reached his teenage years, that was about to change as he became a teen. At age 14, Thierry signed with the academy of renowned French club RC Strasbourg [who now play in Ligue 1]. It was during his time at the academy when Thierry honed his craft as a footballer, and the experience motivated him to try and become a professional player.

Thierry left the Strasbourg Academy and sought for a professional career elsewhere in France. However, the dream to play at the highest level in France failed to materialize, and Thierry played in the lower divisions in France, turning out for reputable teams like FC Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and FCM Aubervilliers. However, Thierry wanted more – to become a professional player had been his dream for years, and he knew he would look back with regret if he never tried his hardest to become one.

In 2012, Thierry, motivated by his passion to play football professionally without having to work part-time, decided to move to Cambodia to carve out a professional career for himself. It was only the second time Thierry had been in Cambodia (he had been in Cambodia in 2007 with his family). Thierry went to Cambodia as part of a team of foreign players with Cambodian ancestry and heritage. This team went for trials, and a few players managed to earn contracts with Cambodian clubs. Thierry was one such player, and Phnom Penh Crown came in for the defensive midfield general. It would mark the start of a 4-year association with the club.

Living the Dream with Phnom Penh Crown FC , Misfortune with Krabi FC & Almost Playing in Singapore

The transition from football in France to Cambodia was an interesting one for Thierry.

“The environment and the infrastructure were [completely different]. However, I know I didn’t expect the conditions in Cambodia to be the same in France. I wasn’t sad and or anything. I was doing my best to enjoy my work. The only thing I [sort of] faced a challenge with, is the weather. Even now, it is very hot. For me, I like the cold weather. So, when I came here, it was very hot for me at first and it didn’t help that matches were played at 3pm. So, it was very difficult. Now thankfully, few teams have flood lights so matches can be played at 6pm.”

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

During his 4-year stint with Phnom Penh Crown, Thierry would go on to win the C-League title on two occasions. It was also during his time at Phnom Penh when Thierry met his wife in 2013. In 2016, Thierry would end his stint with Phnom Penh on what could be best described as not in the best of terms. It is something that he still is unhappy about – the manner in which he departed the club. Thailand would be his next destination, with Krabi FC his new team [then playing in the 2016 Thai Division 1 League]. A Brazilian coach at Phnom Penh helped Thierry get into contact with Krabi, and the Thai outfit signed him up on a three-year deal.

“Football in Thailand was good. They have good pitches and you’re surrounded by good players. I loved the football there.”

However, that spell would end sooner than expected, as after 6 months, the Thai club replaced their head coach. Unfortunately, Thierry wasn’t in the new coach’s plans, and he would return to Cambodia via a loan to Électricité du Cambodge FC for a few months.

Interestingly, before the move to Krabi transpired, Thierry had an offer from a Singaporean club in 2016. Who was this club? Let the man tell you himself:

“I almost signed for Tampines Rovers. I did not sign with them because I was a big fan of football in Thailand and I really wanted to play there instead.”

I won’t lie. When Thierry revealed this to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was also wondering about what could have been. Surely, it would have been a real coup for the Stags to sign a player of Thierry’s quality.

When asked about whether that was a possibility in the distant future, he had this to say:

“I’m interested to play anywhere so long as I am happy and comfortable with it.”

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

Raising his Game to the Next Level – Stints with Terengganu, Sukhothai & Perak

Fortunately, Thierry found an escape from his ordeal with Krabi, as Terengganu FC came knocking on his door. Playing for Terengganu is something that Thierry looks back with fond memories.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The experience in Malaysia was very very good. I really enjoyed my football and the life I lived there. I really admired the players, the staff, the coaches, and the fans. Everything was very good. One moment that I remember is when I played in the Malaysia Cup with Terengganu in 2018. My daughter was also born in Terengganu in 2019 so it has a special place in my heart.”

After a 2-year spell with the Turtles, an offer from Thailand came beckoning again in 2020. This time, Thai league 1 side Sukothai came in with an offer. Unfortunately, his time in Thailand would be marred with yet another issue. Thierry mutually terminated his contract with the club after 3 months into his one-year deal with them. An issue developed between his agent and the coaches which resulted in his decision to leave the country.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Thierry had different offers on the table, but after a brilliant spell with Terengganu, he had his heart set on a return to Malaysia. This time, Perak became his new home. However, Thierry couldn’t feature much for the Bos Gaurus because the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“It was very difficult. Being home for 3 months with no training; no football. I was with my family thankfully because I had friends [other teammates] who had no family around them like I did.”

However, Thierry’s fine performances at defensive midfield helped Perak finish 4th in the Malaysia Super League. His impressive performances did not go unnoticed, and a slew of clubs came in with offers for the Cambodian talisman. However, Thierry decided to return to Cambodia instead, signing for Visakha FC.

The Current Visakha Project

To those unfamiliar with Cambodian football, Visakha FC are a relatively new club that have made some serious strides in becoming a real force to contend with. The club was formed in 2016, and in 2020, they won their first accolade, the Hun Sen Cup [think of it as the Cambodian F.A. Cup]. The club have some serious financial backing and through their injections, are trying to revolutionize Cambodian football. Some of the stalwarts playing alongside Thierry this season include Afghan international and former FC St. Pauli II player Mustafa Zazai and Cambodian international and ex-PKNP forward Keo Sokpheng.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Another reason why Thierry wanted to come back was because Visakha offered him a multi-year contract. Besides the prospect of being part of the Visakha project in the long-run and helping it grow, Thierry also wanted the job security. At 29, Thierry is still far away from retirement, but he is already thinking ahead and looking at post-playing possibilities.

“If I go abroad to play, I always only sign a one-year contract and I need that stability now. It is sort of a gamble. I chose Visakha because they are the best club in Cambodia right now – they are the best club in terms of team, management, and infrastructure. Really, everything is the best.”

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

Besides his accolades at the club level, Thierry is also an accomplished international footballer for Cambodia. Once upon a time, however, Thierry was on track to represent France. He had played for the French Under-16 team in the past. While opportunities to represent France at the youth level became limited due to huge number of talented French players, his youth caps illustrate the quality that Thierry brings to the table.

Fast forward a few years, while with Phnom Penh, Thierry got called up to the Cambodian Under-23 team in 2013. While it was proud achievement for Thierry, his dream was still to represent the national senior team one day. He didn’t have to wait for long because in 2014, Thierry’s dream materialized into reality.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The best day ever. I enjoyed every [national team] training before that match. It was a dream for me to represent my country. I was lucky to get the chance to be the captain of the team. It was a big honour for me. I am very proud because I worked very hard for this, and it is sort of like a reward.”

The biggest moment of his footballing career came not long after when Thierry captained Cambodia against the footballing titans of Asia themselves, the Japanese national team in 2015. Playing against Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo. It will forever be a precious memory for Thierry. That same year, Thierry also scored his first international goal against Macau. He had been plagued with injuries in 2014, and that goal (especially at home in front of 60,000 passionate Cambodian fans) was another magical moment he recalls. Thierry does believe that the Cambodian national team has greatly progressed since his debut in 2014, but he notes how there is room for much more improvement.

“I wish that more Cambodian footballers move abroad and step out of their comfort zone. I do feel that the C-League is improving, but footballers need to go overseas and test themselves to become better. Going overseas will really challenge you. You need to take that risk.”

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

“I think there are many barriers. The Language, the food, and the distance from the family are some reasons why Cambodians don’t try to go overseas. To young Cambodian players, I would tell them to sacrifice everything for their own development. They need to make sure that they work hard and eat properly. They need to train extra and really push themselves. The coach can’t always spoon feed you or keep an eye on you. Right now, some players think after reaching the national team, they don’t have to push anymore.”

Thierry has also overcome many personal struggles in his journey thus far. Often only showcasing the positive things that have happened, many do not know how much he struggled with his injuries and finding clubs to play for.

“When I was at Phnom Penh Crown, I was out of contract for 3 months and I was really stressed about finding a team. Luckily, I managed to find one. I do think that had I stayed with Phnom Penh Crown, I might have not left Cambodia. I struggled a lot for 3 months. I was lucky to have my wife and family who really believed in me and gave me the strength to fight harder.”

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

There are a number of people that Thierry believes that played a big part in his journey in Cambodia. His parents and wife had immensely supported the player, especially when he was struggling. One other person that played a big part is Anthony Aymard, the ex-Tanjong Pagar defender, who helped Thierry a lot. They are still in regular contact with each other.

Interestingly, while he has a massive social media following, there is no big team that handles his socials. It is all ran by the man himself – Thierry (with the help of his wife, at times).

What’s next for Thierry? Well besides playing an active role in helping Vaisakha attain new heights, Thierry also wants to mentor young Cambodian footballers. He believes many young Cambodian talents lack the necessary skills required for overseas football. Besides issues with language, Thierry wants to help equip players with the necessary knowledge on transfers, contracts, and marketing themselves.

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

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

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European leagues, 5 substitutions are allowed as opposed to 3. More importantly, there is a lot at stake for clubs this season, given how the top 3 teams will be eligible for continental competition next season onwards. The revisions to the AFC Champions League means that the top-placed Singaporean club would have an automatic berth in the group stages, and for the first time in a decade, we will definitely have a Singaporean representative in Asia’s premier continental competition. The second and third placed Singaporean sides would have an automatic place in the AFC Cup group stages.

Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

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In Part 1, I looked at Gavin’s journey to coaching in top flight football. In Part 2, I look at Gavin’s first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach and some of the things he has learned and experienced.

Takeaways from His First Year

There was a lot of buzz when Gavin got appointed as the Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019. People who knew Gavin were very excited and supportive about the decision. Here, there was an up and coming young football coach who had his own ideas. However, there were also people, who didn’t know Gavin, that were skeptical about the move. They wondered whether Gavin could manage a team that had several players who were older than him.

Even though Tampines failed to win the league in 2019, it’s safe to say that the club has progressed a lot under Gavin’s stewardship. In 2018, Gavin had been assistant coach to Jürgen Raab. Under the former East German international, the club finished 4th in the league, finished bottom of their AFC Cup group and were knocked out by Home United in the quarter-finals of the Singapore Cup.

By contrast, as I mentioned earlier in the article, Gavin steered the Stags to a second-place finish in the SPL, won the Singapore Cup and came second in their AFC Cup group, narrowly missing out on qualification from the Group Stages in the AFC Cup by goal difference. Gavin has a plan for the Stags and it has been working thus far.

One thing that Gavin realized quite quickly as Tampines Rovers’ head coach is that even though he was working with adults, grown men, his players were still boys at heart.

“All they want to do is enjoy training; enjoy football just like the JSSL players I worked with. People often forget that even though they are adults, they want to enjoy football. My message to the team from day 1 has been that I want [my players] to be looking forward to training. I do not want my players to be dragging their feet to training and seeing it as work. We are all so privileged to be working in football and being paid to do what we love. If we do not enjoy what we do, it is going to be a problem. I know sitting on the bench is not going to be enjoyable. I understand that, but at the very least, when it comes to training, players need to enjoy being on the pitch.”

Gavin also gave me insights on how the recruitment process happens behind the scenes. Being the head coach, he will highlight certain areas that need reinforcement and, together with his technical team (Desmond Ong, Mustafic Fahrudin and William Phang) source for players. Of course, to play for a club like Tampines, a player is expected to be of a certain caliber. However, for Gavin, he pays particular attention to the character of the player, which he believes is “as important if not more important than the technical ability of a player.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

That being said, Gavin counts himself lucky to be working with a host of national team players before turning thirty years old. Daniel Bennet, Madhu Mohana, Irwan Shah, Yasir Hanapi, Baihaiki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Hassan Sunny and Ammirul Adli are just some of the names that he has worked with.

However, he conceded that planning ahead can be a challenge in the Singapore Premier League, and that is because of the league’s unpredictability. I agree with him. No one saw it coming when the FAS asked Warriors FC, the 7-time S.League champions and most successful team in Singaporean football, to sit out of the current 2020 campaign due to the club’s financial issues. One problem that Gavin has navigated around is the issue of transfers, where the Tampines head coach has promoted a number of players from the club’s Prime League squad.

“We do want to think ahead and as much as we can see ahead, we will plan for it. However, when it comes to the unpredictability of Singapore football, it is tough. [At the same time,] I think we have shown that we are serious about bringing young players in like [Ammirul] Adli, Irfan Najeeb, Shah Shahiran, and Joel Chew. If they are good enough, they are old enough.”

“At the same time, I’ve been saying this to reporters a lot since Baihakki joined us, if you’re good enough, you’re young enough as well. I think once they introduced the under-23 rule, it forced a number of senior players out of the door. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If you’re good enough, you’re young enough. It works both ways. You can’t be telling me that someone like Bai, who is good enough for Thai League 1, is too old for Singapore football. I do not buy that. If Daniel Bennet is good enough to play in the SPL, it is not Daniel Bennet’s fault [that he is 42 years old.]”

The importance of management and bringing in a culture to the club is another takeaway for Gavin.

“I hate this term, control. In football in general, you hear this term a lot; controlling players; managing players. I don’t see it that way. I see it as working together with players. It stems back to JSSL where I was given an opportunity to be the director of coaching and general manager quite young. [I was] Working with people older than me so I had to learn how to work with them. You can’t force things on people, you can only convince or influence them. Those skills were useful coming to Tampines.”

Thankfully, Gavin reveals that the older players knew what he was trying to accomplish at the club and threw their weight behind him. After Gavin managed to win over the core group of Tampines players, the rest of the squad followed suit.

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

“People think I have the most problems with the senior players; that they are the ones who will give me the most problems. They are the players who I have least problems with. To be honest, I have no problems with the senior players. They are the most professional because they get what I’m doing and they’ve got to where they are today because of their professionalism. It’s the younger players that need an education because they can be naive at times, but who better to guide them than the senior players.”

One message that Gavin and the Tampines team tell their young players is to use Tampines as a platform to go abroad. Honestly speaking, a player would probably reach a plateau and stagnate if he plays in Singapore for an extended period of time. It is important for players to move abroad so that they take their game to the next level. Gavin can tell this to his players easily because that is the same message sent to him by the Chairman. However, that doesn’t mean that Gavin has any concrete plans for the future just yet. Although, Gavin does have ambitions, and one of them is to coach a club in the Champions League, something that he has made public about.

“As a coach, the highest possible level is probably the Champions League and I really want to compete in the Champions League. What form that takes, I don’t know. I am not Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti where I can have my pick of clubs. I am not there yet. It’s why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future because I want to be focusing on the present. I need to get now sorted, if I don’t do that I won’t have a future. Well, I would have a future but it is a poorer one. It is something I tell my players, to focus on the now.”

Gavin has also gotten a clearer understanding of how Singapore football works. The various processes, the strengths and weaknesses of the current system in place, as well as the financing are just some of the things that Gavin has come to grips with after his first full year as Tampines Rovers head coach. As a result, he believes that people who criticize local football really don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes, which is true. Many of us (myself included) can lament about the state of Singaporean football, but without an understanding what issues linger in the local footballing framework, we are not really helping by complaining, are we?

Relishing AFC Football

While the Singapore Premier League is the main focus for the club, Gavin won’t hide the fact that he thoroughly enjoys the AFC Cup, primarily because of the higher level of competition. Take last year for example, the Stags were grouped together with Hanoi FC (champions of Vietnam), Yangon United (champions of Myanmar), and Nagaworld (champions of Cambodia). That campaign was a memorable one for Gavin, whose side came in second and only failed to progress due to goal difference.

“Last year we won 4 games, drew 1 and lost 1. We lost the game to Hanoi and I think people forget how good Hanoi are. Hanoi are potentially one of the best teams in Southeast Asia. So, they’re on the level of JDT. They have such a good team and the football they play is very good as well. I told the team last season that there would be one or two games where we’d concede a little more possession than we’d like and that’s against Hanoi.”

Gavin wasn’t wrong. The Stags won all their other matches but drew their first match against Hanoi at home, 1-1, and lost 2-0 away. Losing out on goal difference was probably rough, but Gavin and his team could hold their heads up high.

People probably think that the 4-3 thriller during the Singapore Cup Final was the most memorable for the Tampines head coach, but it was the Stags’ first AFC Cup match against Yangon that stood out for Gavin. I guess it comes as no surprise since it was Gavin’s first competitive fixture with the club (the AFC Cup/Champions League starts before the commencement of the SPL). What a start it was, though. Tampines cruised past Yangon 3-1 in what I’d call a dream start for any debuting coach.

The Stags have started strong this term in the AFC Cup as well and are still unbeaten in the group stages. The tournament will resume in October and hopefully, Tampines can go far this time round.

Coping with Covid-19

The global pandemic has brought football to a halt in Singapore. There are serious doubts as to whether the Singapore Premier League will continue. As things stand, training sessions have resumed but are limited to groups of 5 per session. While maybe not the most conducive way to train for football, Gavin would take this any day over zoom sessions. It has been a challenge to train during the pandemic, but Gavin and Tampines are doing whatever within their means to make the most out of the situation at hand. What worries the Tampines head coach more is an intensification of the infection.

“My biggest concern for this pandemic is a re-occurrence of it. The health and safety of everyone is so important, and the last thing we want is to go into lockdown (again). So, I trust the authorities and the medical experts making the decisions, but you see other countries having a second wave and the ripple effect of that is terrifying. It’s not just about football. Football is the last thing when it comes to these situations. Health and your livelihood is the most important.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC​

I had this interview with Gavin sometime in mid-July. While it’s been more than a month and with cases dwindling down, there has been no word from the FAS on the resumption of the SPL. I do hope that things get better and that we see professional football return.

To end off, let me say this. I did not know what I was getting myself into before I interviewed Gavin. Here before me was the head coach of one of Singapore’s biggest professional football clubs. After interviewing him I can say that you won’t find many people as passionate about football and the local game as Gavin Lee. He is a charismatic and inspirational figure who goes the extra mile to achieve his goals. I’m not kidding, even during his “free time,” Gavin reads about football, analyzes fixtures, and watches documentaries all in a bid to further his own coaching ability. He is the ideal role model for anyone who wants to turn football into a career, and it was a pleasure to interview him.

Featured Image Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

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Meet Gavin Lee, Singapore’s Brightest Coaching Prospect – Part 1: The Journey to Topflight Football

Even though Singapore has a professional football league with seven local professional clubs, the pool of players is small. There are many reasons for this, and one of them is the fact that most parents discourage their children from pursuing a professional career in sports. While many parents may be supportive of their children taking up sports as a serious hobby or ad hoc activity, they would rather their kids spend their time focusing on their academics. Getting a bachelor’s degree is usually seen as of paramount importance. However, to juggle one’s undergraduate studies and their sporting development is a monumental task. Hence, many often give up football altogether when they decide to pursue higher education in their late teens and early 20s.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. One such exception has to be Anders Aplin, who I interviewed sometime in May. The current Hougang United defender played for Geylang International during his last year in Nanyang Technological University and labelled how challenging that year was. One other person who knows this struggle of balancing academics and sports all too well is Gavin Lee, the current head coach of Tampines Rovers. The 28-year-old studied in NTU while coaching at JSSL full-time.

However, Gavin isn’t just a role model because he managed to fulfil “societal expectations” of obtaining a degree and at the same time pursuing a career in sports. He is a role model because, through his sheer hard work and resilience, he has overcome many barriers and went on to become the head coach of his boyhood club, Tampines Rovers, at the tender age of 28. However, don’t let his age fool you. In his debut season last year, Gavin managed to guide the Stags to a second-place finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). A truly impressive start for any coach.

I managed to interview Gavin sometime last month, and it was an enjoyable interaction. It was really easy to talk to Gavin. So easy that the interview often digressed to other footballing topics, and then it became a heart-warming conversation where we discussed everything under the sun. I won’t lie. I had a lot of fun in this interview, and it’s possibly top of the list for now.

In Part 1 of this interview, I take a look at Gavin’s journey before becoming Tampines Rovers head coach in 2019.

Beginnings in Football

Like many footballers, Gavin started off wanting to become a footballer from a young age. He grew up in Tampines and naturally fell in love with Tampines Rovers. Gavin studied at Tampines Primary, where a number of his then school mates make up the current national team. One schoolmate included Safirul Sulaiman, who Gavin now coaches at Tampines. He also played for the Tampines Rovers under-10 and then under-12 teams before moving onto the NFA set up. At NFA, he was coached by former Singapore stalwart Kadir Yahaya. At NFA, Gavin played in the same team as Harris Harun, Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad, and Gabriel Quak. While these players went on to forge successful professional careers as footballers, Gavin believed that his calling in football was to become a head coach instead.

“If I was going to do something, I wanted to be the best at it. I think I was an above-average player in terms of abilities but I knew I was never going to be as good as some of these players. At a younger age, I have already gotten exposure to coaching. My dad was, well still is, a coach and I remember I used to follow him around and help him out with coaching younger kids during my teenage years.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Subconsciously, I think that rubbed off on me because I’ve always seen my dad as a role model. [My dad] showed me his passion for coaching and Kadir Yahaya came along and showed me what coaching was. So, when I got a little more serious about coaching, I think things just picked off from there.

“I find a lot of you when I’m coaching other people. When you’re playing the game, you are more focused on your own contributions to the team so it can succeed. As a coach, you’re dealing with 25 other human beings and pulling them together in the same direction is not easy. I mean, it is never easy.”

Coping with Academics and Coaching

After finishing his Primary School Leaving Examinations, Gavin went to Pasir Ris Secondary School, where he met Yasir Hanapi, who was one year his senior. However, he would only spend a year there before transferring over to Victoria School in secondary 2, where he played for the school team. When he was secondary 4, Gavin decided that he was going to apply for Victoria Junior College through the Direct School Admission Exercise, citing that he was “never academically bright enough to get in.” After his A levels, like every Singaporean son, Gavin entered national service, and his coaching career reached a standstill. Gavin was never the most enthusiastic serviceman, but he got his job done and after his ORD went to work part-time as a coach with JSSL. However, while his parents supported his aspirations of becoming a football coach, they still (like most Singaporean parents) expect their children to obtain at least a bachelors degree.

“You know, I come from a Singapore family, you need to get the paper [qualifications]. Me trying to be the filial son, I had to try to get that degree. My parents, coming from that generation, always emphasized getting that degree because they didn’t necessarily have that opportunity. So, I had to kill two birds with one stone (getting a degree and progressing as a coach). I didn’t want to do a business degree or any random degree. I looked at my options and asked myself what can help me, so I saw sports science and I knew this could help me.”

Gavin pursued his degree in Sports Science at Nanyang Technological University for 4 years, which Gavin found especially beneficial. Besides refining his logical thinking, his time at University improved his critical analysis, ability to source for new information, and, most importantly, how to conduct research. By his second year at NTU, Gavin was working full time at JSSL. However, work commitments meant that he had little time and opportunity to socialize with his Sports Science cohorts nor participate in any hall activities.

Juggling academics and football is never an easy task, and I wanted to dive deeper into the topic and ask how Gavin managed his time. Gavin concedes that he struggled to balance school and football initially when he was younger during his time in secondary school. He left the NFA when he was in Secondary 4 because he believed that he couldn’t cope with the demands of training and adequately prepare for his GCE ‘O’ Level Examinations. Since he came from a reputable school, there was also a lot of expectations for Gavin to do well.

“When I was secondary 3 at Victoria School, I was in one of the better classes. I was in class 3D and I remember one of the HODs came in and said the school is expecting thirty 6-pointers from my class. I looked around and told myself, well I’m not going to be one of them. I had 6 to 7 scholars in my class. In hindsight, it was a good thing because it challenged me to focus on my academics. Maybe that’s why I thought I couldn’t manage both that and football (at the time).”

First Foray into coaching in the professional scene

In 2014, while balancing his work with JSSL and his academic responsibilities with NTU, Gavin was handed a fantastic opportunity to enter professional coaching by Alex Weaver. JSSL’s founder and managing director Harvey Davis allowed Gavin to take some time off so that he could work alongside Weaver at Warriors FC (my favourite club). The additional commitment of working with Warriors meant that his already long days became even longer, but despite that, Gavin learned a ton under Weaver’s guidance.

Photo Credits: Gavin Lee

“Alex opened the door and showed me a whole new world into coaching. I think that was important because, at the time, I knew there was more when it came to coaching but I didn’t know how to get there. So Alex came in and gave me a signpost saying ‘go here.’ Things just grew from there.”

Gavin spent close to 2 seasons with Warriors, and during his stint with the club, Weaver wanted Gavin to come on board in a more official capacity. However, the Warriors management did not see the value in Gavin then and did not want to hire an unproven manager. It would be more apt to call his time at Warriors an invaluable stint. The club did not pay Gavin, but the absence of a salary did not matter to him. He knew it would be incredibly difficult for him to get such an incredible experience again. Weaver did “pay” the player with drinks from Starbucks and food from Pastamania. These small gestures by Weaver meant a lot to Gavin, and their bond strengthened as they continued to work together at Warriors.

Gavin is still in contact with the former Warriors head coach, and they are still very close today. Weaver is now a football periodization coach at FC Basel’s Academy, yet the pair still make it a point to FaceTime every week. Gavin has visited Weaver several times in Switzerland and has stayed over at his family’s house. He has also stayed over with Weaver’s parents in Stoke, and Gavin is forever grateful for what the Weavers (Alex and his family) have done for and continue to do for him.

At JSSL, Gavin coached the son of the Tampines Rovers’ chairman Desmond Ong and became acquainted with him through that. Interestingly, Gavin’s father coached the son before Gavin coached him. Back then, Desmond was just a lawyer at Raffles Place. However, he approached Gavin to coach the Tampines Rovers Under-19 team and become assistant to then-head coach Jürgen Raab. Fortunately, he reached an agreement where he could work for both JSSL and Tampines Rovers. By doing so, he had the best of both worlds. How so? Well, Gavin had a step into professional football with Tampines Rovers while he remained coaching some of the best youth players in Singapore with JSSL.

Harvey Davis has been an important figure in Gavin’s career. The JSSL managing director has always recognized that it has been Gavin’s dream to become a head coach one day and has always fully supported his career. However, Gavin did not want to leave JSSL entirely. Yes, the academy needed someone else to help fill some of his responsibilities, but Gavin had invested so much of his time in JSSL that he could not simply walk away from it altogether.

Photo credits: Gavin Lee

“I had put in so much blood sweat and tears into JSSL with Harvey and we’ve developed it into a proper organization. The last thing you want to do is to leave the place in a worst state than when you [first] came on board. But, Harvey was extremely supportive for me to go across [into professional coaching full time] and I guess I never looked back when the opportunity came.”

One big factor that influenced Gavin’s decision to take up the Tampines job was the Stags’ chairman. As ambitious as Gavin is, he needs to partake in something sustainable. He did not want the appointment to be a gimmick – a one-season wonder kind of deal. Thankfully, the board knew Gavin well and were sold by his philosophy and process. While that may be, it also meant that Gavin needed to deliver results on the pitch and show the board that they were right in placing their trust in him.

In part 2, I look into the next chapter of Gavin’s career, his first full season as head coach of Tampines Rovers and see what plans he has in the future.

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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 […]

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.