Living a dream
These Singapore Chinese footballers buck a trend that is affecting the country's talent pool
AGE: 26, CLUB: WARRIORS FC
This year: 15 starts, 3 clean sheets
Honours: League Cup (Balestier Khalsa, 2013)
LAU MENG MENG
LEFT BACK, 32, HOUGANG UNITED
This year: 10 starts, 2 subs
CENTRE BACK, 23, HOUGANG UNITED
This year: 7 starts, 3 subs, 1 goal
CENTRE BACK, 24, WARRIORS FC
This year: 13 starts, 5 subs
ANG ZHI WEI
RIGHT BACK, 26, HOME UNITED
This year: 12 starts, 2 subs, 1 goal, 1 assist
Honours: Singapore Cup (Geylang United, 2009)
HO WAI LOON
LEFT MIDFIELDER, 21, BALESTIER KHALSA
This year: 18 starts, 2 assists
Honours: Singapore Cup (Balestier Khalsa, 2014)
POH YI FENG
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER, 28, BALESTIER KHALSA, 1 CAP
This year: 16 starts, 1 sub, 1 goal, 1 assist
Honours: Singapore Cup (Balestier Khalsa, 2014); League Cup (Balestier Khalsa, 2013)
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER, 26, TAMPINES ROVERS
This year: 9 starts, 3 subs
Honours: S.League Goal of the Year (Geylang International, 2014)
RIGHT MIDFIELDER, 31, WARRIORS FC, 68 CAPS, 7 GOALS
This year: 7 starts, 6 subs, 2 goals, 1 assist
Honours: Asean Championship (Singapore, 2007 and 2012); S.League (Warriors FC, 2014); Singapore Cup (Home United, 2011)
FORWARD, 23, HOME UNITED
This year: 8 starts, 6 subs, 1 goal, 3 assists
FORWARD, 22, BALESTIER KHALSA
This year: 10 starts, 12 subs, 2 goals, 2 assists
-- PHOTOS: BENJAMIN SEETOR, FAS, ST, TNP FILE
Fandi Ahmad has lamented the fact that Singapore's Chinese football talent is no longer advancing through the ranks.
His former international teammate Kadir Yahaya reiterated the point recently.
The famous Quahs, along with the likes of Robert Sim, Seak Poh Leong, Lim Tang Boon, Au-Yeong Pak Kuan and Lim Tong Hai, among others, all wore the national jersey with distinction, but since the turn of the century, local Chinese footballers have hardly featured as Lions.
The only one currently featuring regularly in the Lions squad is LionsXII winger Gabriel Quak.
For a nation with only a population of some 5 million, but looking to punch above its weight on the Asian scene, it is a giant problem if a majority Chinese population of more than 70 per cent is not represented in the national side.
There are seven local sides in the 10-team S.League, but only 16 out of 151 registered first-team players are Singapore Chinese.
Admittedly, the problem is not new - Chinese parents here simply don't believe their children can earn a good living in professional football and so push them to drop any serious thoughts of pursuing a career in the sport, instead steering them towards striving for success in their studies.
Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic feels that the existing system has to be tweaked to persuade potential Chinese footballers to give the S.League a shot.
Speaking to The New Paper recently, the 49-year-old said: "I was coaching the Singapore Institute of Management team for three to four years and my teams were 80 per cent Chinese. But when they had to choose between let's say a career in banking and football, guess what they will choose?
"A football career is too unpredictable, especially in Singapore. A short-term contract is tough for both the boys and the families.
"My suggestion would be to allow part-time contracts, start daily training sessions later, for example 7pm, so that those with good jobs can come in after knocking off from work.
"Give people more options, more choices, so that good players, not just Chinese ones, won't have to give up football."
Currently, some club chairmen do exercise flexibility for their players.
For instance, Tampines Rovers midfielder Fabian Kwok, 26, works part-time at car distributor Komoco Holdings, run by Stags boss Teo Hock Seng.
Said Kwok: "At my former club, I was given the opportunity by Geylang International chairman Leong Kok Fann to pursue my degree while I was playing, so it was a win-win situation.
"Even now with Tampines, I'm working and playing football, so I'm very thankful to the chairmen from both teams for allowing me to develop myself out of football, too."
National-team calibre players in the S.League earn between $5,000 and $12,000 a month.
Some like Safuwan Baharudin, Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss Harun have gone on to command a monthly salary ranging from $15,000 to $30,000 playing in the Malaysian Super League.
Balestier have four Singapore Chinese players - vice-captain Poh Yifeng, Jonathan Xu, Ignatius Ang and Ho Wai Loon - and the Tigers stormed to The New Paper League Cup final, going down 2-1 to Albirex Niigata last month.
Poh, 28, has been excelling in the Balestier engine room for eight years, earning a national call-up in 2013, while 21-year-old Ho Wai Loon, who can play at left back or left wing, has emerged as an ever-present for his club and featured for the national under-23s at the recent SEA Games.
Ang, a 22-year-old forward, starred for the LionsXII with two goals in just 88 minutes of action when he appeared in four matches as a substitute last season.
Xu, a 31-year-old midfielder, grabbed the opener in the Tigers' historic 2-1 win over East Bengal in the AFC Cup in March.
Among the quartet, Poh, Ho and Xu were key players for the Tigers when they won the RHB Singapore Cup last year.
Most of the footballers The New Paper spoke to cited their immense love of the game for taking the road less travelled.
"I fell in love with football young. I'm doing something I love and I'm getting paid for it," said Poh.
"Along the way, I have learnt a lot of life lessons - the need to be disciplined, to work hard, learning how to speak up, and building relationships."
At S.League champions Warriors FC, three Chinese players are in the thick of action trying to help their team retain their crown.
With 68 caps and two international titles with the Lions to his name, Shi Jiayi is the most accomplished Chinese footballer in the S.League today, but 26-year-old goalkeeper Daniel Ong and 24-year-old centre back Emmeric Ong are enjoying breakthrough seasons as the Warriors set the early-season pace in the title race.
Ong, who had to convince his parents to allow him to play professionally, said: "The desire to achieve more in my football career has definitely been the driving factor behind me staying in the S.League.
"I've gained so much experience travelling and playing in front of huge crowds.
"It's typical that Chinese parents will object to this career path and my parents were the same, initially. But I'm thankful they have been so supportive.
"I will advise other aspiring Singapore Chinese footballers to stay committed and work hard for what they want. The same thing applies to any other career - hard work will pay off."
Kwok, last season's S.League Goal of the Year winner, is optimistic more Singapore Chinese players will come to the fore.
"I saw (2010 Youth Olympic Games footballers) Jonathan Tan and Brandon Koh from my time at Geylang and they are very skilful players.
"Negative rumours about the S.League may have scared away potential players, because they say it isn't really lucrative.
"But I would encourage other Chinese to pursue a football career - try your best and have no regrets.
"Playing football doesn't take up the whole day. You can still do many things in the remainder of the time while not playing. Sacrifices can and must be made to fulfil dreams."
BY THE NUMBERS: 16
Only 16 out of 151 registered first-team players in the seven local S.League clubs are Singapore Chinese.
Goalkeeper, 28, Tampines Rovers, 1 cap
This year: 9 games, 4 clean sheets
Honours: Asean Championship (Singapore, 2012)
Goalkeeper, 26, Hougang United
This year: 2 start
Honours: SEA Games bronze (Young Lions, 2007)
SIM TECK YI
Centre back, 23, Courts Young Lions
This year: 3 bench appearances
Honours: S’pore Cup (Home United, 2013)
Central midfielder, 31, Balestier Khalsa
This year: 9 starts, 5 subs, 1 goal
Honours: S’pore Cup (Geylang United, 2009, Balestier Khalsa, 2014)
GOH SWEE SWEE
Forward, 29, Hougang United
- This year: 3 subs
"My suggestion would be to allow part-time contracts, start daily training sessions later, for example 7pm, so that those with good jobs can come in after knocking off from work. "
— Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic, on what can be done to attract more football talent from the Chinese, who form the majority of the population