The footballer who ran... and ran
The Michal Vana saga was Singapore's first taste of corruption in football. Ng Wan Ching, a former TNP reporter then on honeymoon in London tracked him down to his home in Prague, and an explosive interview followed
The odds were stacked against her. Ms Ng Wan Ching had no knowledge of local football and faced several other obstacles.
But the former parliament, health and features writer with The New Paper pushed ahead with the help of her husband and scored big in late October 1994.
The prize: an exclusive interview with former footballer Michal Vana in his hometown Prague, months after he was arrested and charged with corruption.
Vana, who was playing for Singapore in the then-Malaysian Premier League, had fled the country while on bail, but was later spotted in his native Czech Republic, leading to Ms Ng's abrupt assignment.
The Vana saga had started two months before that, when the striker, then 31, was arrested - along with referee T. Rajamanickam - by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau on Aug 12, 1994.
Even as Vana's arrest came as a shock to a football-mad country then, an even bigger bombshell was to follow.
He was declared a no-show in court, and an arrest warrant was issued.
Mr V Supramaniam, Vana's bailor, had even gone to the player's Bayshore Park condominium apartment to search for him that day, but to no avail. The businessman's $500,000 was later forfeited.
In the meantime, two former TNP reporters Yaw Yan Chong and Ganesh Rajaram approached Mr Daniel Kummermann, then a foreign desk correspondent of the Lidové Noviny, one of the Czech Republic's leading newspapers, to locate Vana.
The paper's Jaroslav Beranek then tracked Vana down and interviewed him in his Prague apartment. The newspaper carried the interview on Oct 19, with a grateful Mr Kummermann informing TNP a day later.
TNP then ran the explosive story - Mr Beranek had spotted Vana and his children Marek and Lucy at the Benesov Stadium watching his former team, Svarc Benesov, play Liberec.
Mr Beranek later persuaded Vana to give an interview in the latter's home. Vana said he left Singapore on a boat "across the straits" to an unnamed second country.
Meanwhile, Ms Ng was being activated despite being on her honeymoon.
She and her husband managed to get tickets and visa. They first flew to Berlin and then took a train to Prague.
After settling down in their hotel, the couple took off in a taxi for Vana's home in U Dekanky, a middle-class suburb in the Prague 4 district.
She said: "I knew nothing about Prague and they had just opened up (after the Cold War era).
"The apartment block was quite scary... It was so dark there - the street lights weren't that bright, everything looked very dark and there were dogs barking."
EXPLOSIVE ALLEGATIONS: Footballer Abbas Saad (left) with teammate Michal Vana in a 1994 file photo. THE NEW PAPER OCT 21, 1994
As no one responded when they knocked on Vana's door on the third floor, the couple spoke to his neighbour and gave her their contact details to pass on to Vana.
Ms Ng said: "We then left, never expecting him to call us back."
But he did, and Ms Ng persuaded the "friendly but hesitant" man to meet her at a hotel. He agreed.
It turned out to be a two-hour interview, where a "cocky" Vana portrayed himself as the naive victim and evaded some of Ms Ng's tough questions.
He told her that the Singapore Government could not touch him and claimed that his sick father might not have seen him again if he had gone to jail in Singapore.
He also claimed that he took the money for his sporting goods business and didn't know that the money was from a bookie.
He also said: "My friend, who works in the Austrian Football Association, had come to Singapore to try to sign me to play for an Austrian club.
"He waited for me in a country close to Singapore and lent me his passport. I travelled on his passport... My friend does not look like me at all, but no one noticed."
Once in Vienna, Austria, he mailed the passport back to his friend.
Vana was so relaxed during the interview that he posed for a picture after the interview with Ms Ng, putting his arm around her.
The apartment block was quite scary... It was so dark there - the street lights weren't that bright, everything looked very dark and there were dogs barking.
- Ms Ng Wan Ching