SINGAPORE: With age restrictions set to limit places for senior local players in the S.League, there has been some debate about the implications for those above the cut-off of 23 years old.
All local sides in the nine-team S.League, save for the Young Lions, must have in their ranks at least six local Under-23 players. At least three of them must be named in the starting line-up for all league games.
Among the worries highlighted by some is the lack of opportunities for older local players - with some giving serious thought to prepare for life after football. Most of these senior players, however, have since signed new deals with local S.League clubs following the end of their 11-month contracts in the previous campaign.
For some local players over the age of 25, though, the timing of the S.League’s decision to limit the number of seniors was opportune.
“For some of us, the S.League’s decision came at a right timing,” said former Home United winger Faris Ramli, who will don PKNS’ jersey in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) this season. “As for me, I chose to play outside of Singapore because I wanted to improve myself.
“It’s the same for those who left for other leagues ... especially for those who decided to make career moves due to the S.League's age factor. Of course there are pros and cons to playing overseas, but that’s football. You have to grab every opportunity that comes,” added the 25-year-old.
When the new league gets underway in March, at least 12 Singaporean players will be playing in clubs around Southeast Asia. It represents the first time that Singaporean players playing professionally overseas number in the double digits.
It will also be the first time that four Singaporean players will be plying their trade in Thailand, with the latest being former Singapore international Baihakki Khaizan, who is moving to Muangthong United.
Despite Singapore’s poor showing in international matches last year, Faris said that he is not surprised that his fellow national team-mates are being targeted by regional clubs.
“To be honest, it’s not as surprising as it looks due a number of regional leagues requiring an ASEAN player to fill their respective foreign player quotas,” he said. “That being said, for a number of us, we have been trying to find ways to improve ourselves and we’ve talked about it among ourselves in the national team.”
“Fellow players who know what it’s like being foreigners in other teams ... have been advising us to test ourselves in foreign leagues,” added Faris. “I’m now of the belief that more players should consider plying their trade overseas, rather than being comfortable in your own home league.”
Having a substantial number of players leaving the S.League for foreign clubs is a trend that has not gone unnoticed by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). “The unprecedented number of Singaporean footballers playing abroad suggests that clubs in the region have the confidence and trust in the abilities of our players,” said its acting general-secretary Yazeen Buhari.
“These players are examples for our youths to aspire towards, especially knowing that their football development and skills were honed while playing in our domestic league.”
CHALLENGES OF BEING A FOREIGN PLAYER
As one of the four Singaporean players playing club football in Thailand this year, former Tampines Rovers goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud is also hoping to improve his game by playing in the highly-rated Thai league.
Even though he will playing in the second division with Nongbua Pitchaya, Izwan is fast realising the challenge of playing in Thailand.
“It’s pre-season now (at Nongbua), but it is tough seeing how everyone is pushing themselves to the limit,” said the 27-year-old. “For me, the challenge is two-fold as I’m also fighting to get back to full fitness after being out injured for two months.
“The language barrier is also an issue which I hope to overcome, but my goal for now is to be injury-free and also help my team win as many games by trying to keep as many clean sheets as possible,” added Izwan, who is among the overseas-based players believed to have accepted a slight pay cut for the experience of playing abroad.
And it is not just sporting challenges which the players face. Those with families have had to decide whether to bring along their wives and children.
One such player is Melaka United’s Shahdan Sulaiman, who managed to secure a year-long loan move to play in the MSL. “I’m thankful to my wife for agreeing to follow me here with the kids, even though it was a last minute decision as everything happened in less than a week,” said the 29-year-old.
In spite of the challenges, national captain Hariss Harun believes his compatriots will benefit from a stronger mental fortitude that comes with playing overseas. “The boys who are out in foreign leagues will definitely get to experience great atmospheres and higher levels of play weekly,” he said.
“I am sure this will push us a little more because now, as foreign imports, the expectations on us will be higher,” said the former Home United midfielder, who re-signed with MSL club Johor Darul Takzim this season after a short-term loan move with the Protectors last year.
GOOD PREPARATION FOR 2018 SUZUKI CUP
An added motivation for these overseas-based players is the higher-levels of intensity at these foreign clubs, compared to training sessions in S.League clubs.
For a majority, it is hoped that playing overseas will lead to being better prepared for the 2018 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup later this year.
Said PKNS midfielder Faris: “The main reason for most of us in wanting to venture out is chiefly due to the desire to challenge ourselves. This is the only way - to be a foreigner, to explore different leagues and try something new,” he said.
“As for the Suzuki Cup, it’ll be a very good platform to showcase where we really stand. About a dozen players are out overseas, and when we come together again we’ll definitely show national coach Sundram what we’ve learnt,” added Faris.
Simply being in a foreign club, however, will not guarantee a place in the national team, acknowledged Johor Darul Takzim (II)’s new signing Hafiz Abu Sujad.
“I think the important thing is that you need to play in a lot of club games and perform, in order for the national coach to select you for the Suzuki Cup,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that just because you’re playing overseas, you are guaranteed a slot.”
“For us, we’ve definitely got to work hard and make an effort to play our very best in all games,” added the 27-year-old.
National coach V Sundramoorthy is hopeful that these players will come good after returning from their various foreign clubs. “Playing abroad will give them greater exposure to a variety of playing styles, atmospheres and environments,” he said.
“These players have been selected to join the clubs on their own merit and will want to justify their place in the squad, which will only serve to further improve their abilities,” added Sundram, who played with Swiss side FC Basel in the late 1980s.
“The different experiences and new insights that the players will bring to centralised national team training sessions, bode well for the future.”