Author: Lion City Sailors
Fired-up Sailors ready for Tigers battle
A resounding 3-2 comeback win over Albirex the last time out (21 May) put the resilient Lion City Sailors back on the right track for their assault on the 2023 SPL title and they will look to continue in the same vein when they face Balestier Khalsa at Bishan Stadium on Thursday (1 June) night.
Sitting third in the table with 23 points, the Sailors trail SPL frontrunners Tampines Rovers and second-placed Albirex by six points and four points, respectively. As such, nothing less than a win is key for Risto Vidaković’s men to gain some ground in the title race.
Their next challenge will not come easy, with fourth-placed Tigers displaying a dynamic style of football with players who are not afraid to get physical. The stakes are high, but Sailors midfielder M. Anumanthan called for a calm and assured approach from his side.
“Everyone knows how important this game is, so there isn’t a need to put extra pressure on ourselves,” said the 28-year-old, who has also featured at the heart of defence in recent matches.
“Balestier has been playing quality football recently, but we are getting stronger as a team now as witnessed from our second-half performance against Albirex. We’ll go out there and try to perform to the best of our abilities.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge and helping the team get the three points. We have to take this as any other game, follow the coaches’ instructions for us, and I’m sure we can win – we know we have the ability to.”
Anu revealed how the Sailors’ morale was boosted tremendously from the comeback win against Albirex and emphasised the need to build on the momentum.
“Football consists of two halves, and when we were down in the first half, we knew it wasn’t the end, and we believed that we just had to push through. After scoring the first goal, we gained momentum and won. Optimism and positive attitude played a huge part in our victory over Albirex,” said the Singapore international.
“Of course, we need to improve on more aspects of our all-round game, but everyone’s feeling positive and we’re out to beat Balestier. That win will count for nothing if we do not build on it and keep getting wins under our belt.”
Hafiz Nor, who pulled off an incredible goal-line clearance against the White Swans, sang from the same hymn book as he spoke about the team’s growing confidence under Risto’s tutelage.
“Day in and day out, we’re progressing very well as a team in the game model that Coach Risto has laid down for us. We’re feeling great from the win against Albirex, but that game is now over – we’re fully focused on the next game now,” said the utility player, who is the Sailors’ current top appearance-maker with 70 in all competitions.
“Although we beat them 3-0 earlier this season, they’re not an easy side to play against. We cannot underestimate them and we need the utmost focus to get the three points against them.”
While the Sailors will be the away side at Bishan on Thursday, Hafiz is backing the fans to turn up in full force to inspire the team to an eighth victory of the season.
“We’ve been so touched by their support and it was a sweet moment for the team to celebrate with them after our comeback in the last match. I’m sure they’ll be there again to give us that extra energy from the stands even though they’ll be sitting at the away side.
“We’re going to give our all to repay their love for us,” declared Hafiz.
They stroked the ball around patiently, moving the ball smoothly from back to front before a sliver of an opportunity peeked through the crowd with the ball slipping through the same gap, nestling in the back of the net.
The score read: Lion City Sailors 1-0 FC Porto.
This was the Sailors Academy’s Under-12 Elite team, up against Portugal’s finest, and storming into the lead in the quarterfinals of the inaugural Porto International Youth Cup – as Asia’s sole representative.
They eventually lost the game 5-2, but their fearless execution of the Sailors’ Academy philosophy of passing football won the admiration of those watching – something they did throughout the tournament that took place from 6th to 8th April 2023.
The Sailors’ Academy boys were Asia’s only representative in the 12-team competition, and flew the flag proudly, giving a good account of themselves against academies more steeped in history, bringing immense pride to Sailors’ Academy Head of Foundation Ashraf Ariffin.
“We knew we’re going to face strong teams that are better than us, but did we prepare for it specifically? No, not really. We continued to prepare in the same way as we did for our weekend matches in the domestic PUMA Youth Champions League (YCL),” he said.
“Our coaches are trying to instill belief in our teams and the boys truly stuck to our principles of play, and they applied our game principles at levels beyond their usual, especially that opening goal against Porto.
“We did eventually lose – one of those goals were conceded due to us trying to build from the back – but I didn’t want to alter our football just because we were playing against a very strong team. And I must say I’m really proud of the boys.”
Played in a seven-a-side format with 20-minute halves, the Porto International Youth Cup saw the Sailors’ Elite U12 team consisting of players born in 2011 line up against the likes of Benfica, Braga and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the group stages.
The aim of participating in the competition was for the players to test themselves against the cream of the crop in Europe – a rare opportunity for aspiring Sailors trainees.
With the top four from the two six-team groups qualifying for the quarter-finals, the Sailors did enough to finish fourth to set up a last-eight clash with hosts Porto where they eventually bowed out.
It was a creditable performance, especially considering a number of players had to cope with fasting during a tournament that took place during the month of Ramadan.
“They had to wake up around 4.30am for Sahur every morning and most of them fasted at least half, if not three-quarters of each day, until they could not take it. I salute them for their determination, and they didn’t let that affect their performances.
“Some of them really stepped up and showed they could play at levels that they haven’t hit before. They gave a really good account of themselves and that was clear to me watching the team scoring in most games and even if we did lose,” he said.
While it was an encouraging overall display, Ashraf is under no illusions of the improvement needed for his trainees to make the step up and go neck and neck with their European counterparts.
“In Singapore, we are usually the aggressors, playing with more intensity and at a higher tempo. But when we went to Porto, the tables were turned.
“In terms of 1v1 duels and the level of aggression, we definitely need to improve. Being exposed to this level of football only serves to make our boys realise how much they need to work to get to where they aspire to be,” he said.
“Back here, they’re doing pretty well playing against players one year older than them in the YCL but they now realise they’re still quite far away from their peers in Europe.”
The Sailors’ U12s Elite side has continued to do well since returning to Singapore, recently crowned champions of the U12 category in the second YCL season, and are already looking forward to more such overseas experiences.
And these are written into the Sailors’ Academy structure.
Its Elite Under-13 and Under-15 teams are on their way to two-week training trips to Feyenoord Rotterdam and Porto respectively between 27 May to 11 June, while the U11 boys will travel to Sweden in July for the Gothia Cup.
It took a bit of huffing and puffing, but the Lion City Sailors eventually toppled Tanjong Pagar United’s defensive walls on Saturday (27 May) evening to maintain their perfect start to the Deloitte Singapore Women’s Premier League (WPL).
Yeong Sheau Shyan’s charges dominated proceedings at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium, dispatching the Jaguars 2-0 in what was their fourth win in four WPL outings in 2023.
“We did well against a team that was sitting deep. They had only one striker up front and the space at the back was tight, so it was really tough,” said Sheau Shyan. “Last year, when teams played like that, we struggled and took a long time to penetrate and score.
“I’m happy with the progress that we are showing.”
The match commenced as it often has against opposition set up in a low block – with the Sailors dominating possession – but on Saturday, they started to find a way through early.
The Sailors threatened as early as in the eighth minute when a Miray Altun freekick found Lila Tan, who saw her powerful shot beat Tanjong Pagar goalkeeper Nurul Haziqah Haszman but not the crossbar.
Lila would not be denied, staying sharp in a melee following Nur Syazwani Ruzi’s corner to flick home a header for her first goal of the season in the 19th minute.
“It’s an amazing feeling to score, for sure, but it’s really all about the team. Everyone played their best tonight, stayed very disciplined in our positioning and really followed what Coach Sheau Shyan taught us,” said the forward, who turns 20 on 4 June.
The victory was sealed deep into injury time when the irrepressible Nur Izzati Rosni dazzled past the Tanjong Pagar defence to deliver a cross, which Madison Telmer got a touch to, before 15-year-old substitute Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran popped up at the far post to slot home.
“We had three players at the far post and Ardhra was the one that put the ball in. I’m really proud of her, she was an enterprising presence on the Sailors’ left flank,” said Sheau Shyan, who had much to smile about on the night – especially on the sprinkling of talent that is now beginning to emerge from the Sailors’ Girls Academy.
Ardhra is the first player promoted from the Academy to score a WPL goal for the Sailors, while her peers Josephine Ang and Natasha Naszri also came on as second-half substitutes.
Fellow teenager Madelin Sophie Lock – who turned 16 few days ago – was also handed her Sailors Women debut and put in an encouraging display at the heart of midfield alongside Madison.
“Madelin did a good job today, she was steady, calm, and elegant during the first half. Performances like these are a testament to our Academy’s effectiveness in terms of producing players who can comfortably step into the WPL,” said Sheau Shyan.
“We have to keep preparing for the young players to step in at any time and with the likes of Madelin, Natasha and Ardhra in the team, the Sailors future looks bright.”
The Sailors Women will next take to the pitch some three weeks later, facing fellow WPL title challengers Albirex Niigata (S) on Sun, 18 June at the Yishun Stadium.
Defensive solidity, a fiery desire to win and a classy Paula Druschke curler drove the Lion City Sailors Women to a 1-0 victory over Tampines Rovers at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium last Sunday evening (21 May).
And while the game saw the Sailors dominate possession to register their third win in three Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) games in 2023, Nur Syazwani Ruzi asserts that her team must continue to improve if they are to keep their winning streak going against Tanjong Pagar United this Saturday (27 May).
“We need to utilise our chances to score more goals because right now, we are not converting our chances. Our conversion rate is not great, and this has to be improved,” said Syazwani, who was named the Player of the Match in the Tampines fixture for her sparkling display at right-back.
“I’m always looking to give my 100% no matter the result, and I am very confident in our team’s abilities. The team consists mostly of national players, so we have an edge because of our exposure to international football,” said the 22-year-old.
Nonetheless, Syazwani is wary of underestimating Tanjong Pagar, who sit 4th in the 10-team WPL standings with two wins and a loss.
“It will be a tough game because Tanjong Pagar is a resilient team with speedy attackers who can cause problems. Farah (Nurzahirah), Yuki (Monden), and Dhaniyah (Qasimah) can all do damage if we’re not careful,” she added.
Midfielder Natasha Naszri also cautioned against any form of complacency.
“We must work defensively and offensively as a team. We have shown before that we are capable of doing this, and if we do it again, I’m sure we can get the result we want against Tanjong Pagar,” said the 16-year-old, who made her Sailors Women bow in a 45-minute runout against Tampines.
Now gleaning much from training alongside the more experienced girls at the Sailors after being promoted from the Girls’ Academy, Natasha is buoyed to achieve more with the reigning WPL champions.
“I initially struggled against Tampines, but my confidence grew after I got into the game and I was more comfortable playing. Going forward, I want to create chances for the team, and I hope I can rack up good numbers in that area and help the team to win,” said the Singapore U16 captain.
“Being one of the youngest in the team, I am happy to be guided by my senior teammates such as (Nur) Umairah (Hamdan), Fatin (Aqillah) and Syazwani. There are so many great players here I can learn from; it’s about picking up their good habits on how they train on the pitch and how they take care of themselves off it.”
While the debut against the Stags boosted her confidence, the young and forceful midfielder is not resting on her laurels and insists she is only focused on improving her game.
“I have always dreamed of training in a top-class training facility and being surrounded by so many good players. I’m looking forward to putting in the hard work and helping our team to win our upcoming games,” she added.
Having witnessed tremendous support from the Sailors’ faithful from the Choa Chu Kang stands last Sunday, Natasha hopes her Sailors can turn in yet another performance worthy of the love that has been showered upon them.
She said: “It was so great to see our fans coming out in full force to support us. They give us this unique energy and motivate us to push harder in the game when we’re not doing so well.”
Syazwani echoed Natasha’s sentiments, adding: “It is so touching to have fans come down to support us that day against Tampines despite our Men’s team playing at about the same time.”
“We really do appreciate it, and I have to tell them: Come and join us this Saturday at Choa Chu Kang, your support will be of immense value to us!”
As the final whistle sounded at the Bishan Stadium on Sunday (21 May), there were hugs and high-fives amongst the 11 Lion City Sailors on the pitch, even a few who fell to their knees.
Chants of “Let’s Go, Sailors” floated up into the sky, propelled by blue-and-white scarves spinning and waving in the Bishan stands.
These jubilant post-match scenes came after Risto Vidaković’s Sailors dug deep into their reserves to come from a two-goal first-half deficit to claim a much-needed 3-2 win over Albirex Niigata (S) in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
Risto was delighted with his changes’ ability to bounce back from a sluggish first-half display to find a steely resolve and take all three points – a facet the Sailors Head Coach believes augurs well for the rest of the season.
“We didn’t play well in the first half and missed some chances, and everyone had their heads down. It was a cemetery inside the locker room at half-time,” said the Serbian, who paid tribute to the character shown by his players.
“Football is a game of 90 minutes and we need to stay focused over the course of it. We knew that if we scored one goal quickly, we could turn the result around, and that’s basically what happened.
“I’m really proud of the players. They played their best and never gave up.”
The result means the Sailors stay well in the hunt for the SPL title – they are now just one point off second-placed Albirex and three behind Tampines Rovers who lead the nine-team SPL standings.
But 12 minutes into the match at Bishan, it looked like a completely different story was unravelling.
After a disappointing 3-3 draw with Brunei DPMM a week ago on 13 May, the Sailors were looking to bounce back but Albirex stunned the home crowd by racing to a two-goal lead midway through the first half.
Nur Adam Abdullah unfortunately netted an own goal while trying to clear Seia Kunori’s header in the 13th minute, and 12 minutes later, Tadanari Lee stuck out a leg to divert home Kaisei Ogawa’s free-kick to put Albirex 2-0 up.
The Sailors then had goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad to thank for keeping the men in white-and-blue in the game. He pulled off a superb reaction save to deny Tadanari from point-blank range in first-half stoppage time.
Half-time allowed Risto’s men to change things around – with Bernie Ibini-Isei replaced by Abdul Rasaq Akeem while Hafiz Nor came in at right-back for Zulqarnaen Suzliman.
The changes appeared to bring more balance to the team, and the Sailors began to show more desire and aggression to press higher up the pitch – with Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes hassling Albirex midfielders to win the ball.
Things started to flow in the second half, with Maxime Lestienne combining expertly with Diego to work his way into the danger area. The latter then latched on to Shawal Anuar’s cut-back from the right flank to slot home to halve the deficit in the 49th minute.
The Sailors rode on to the momentum and made it 2-2 four minutes later, as Maxime’s pinpoint cross eluded the Albirex defence and found Shawal, who slammed home at the far post.
Substitute Riku Fukashiro thought he had restored Albirex’s advantage in the 63rd minute, but an acrobatic goal-line clearance from Hafiz Nor on his 70th appearance for the Sailors kept the score level.
The Sailors continued to dominate and completed the comeback in the 75th minute.
After an excellent cross from Maxime, Rasaq connected with a sweet volley that flew past Hassan Sunny to make it 3-2 and win the Sailors the game.
The scorer of the match-winning goal, however, was modest about his contributions to the team.
“The team worked very hard today to claim the three points – we were working hard the whole week too – and Albirex is not an easy team to play against. I am happy that I played my best and contributed to the team’s win,” said the 21-year-old.
“However, we cannot be complacent, and we must carry this confidence to the rest of the games as well.”
This drive for improvement is exactly what Risto is asking for.
“We cannot stay stagnant, we need to work hard to improve our team chemistry further and see how we progress even more as a team – but it is great to know that we can show character in tough situations,” said the 54-year-old.
“It’s not just about scoring goals. We want to be more composed on the ball, know how to release it quicker, circulate it, and most importantly, play beautiful football for our fans to enjoy.
“It was as if we waited for the fans to come in with the cheers to pick up our performance,” said Risto, chuckling. “But I have to say the support from them helped to bring us to a different level, they really are our 12th player.”
The Sailors’ next SPL game will see them take on Balestier Khalsa at the Bishan Stadium next Thursday (1 June).
The Lion City Sailors were held to a 3-3 draw by a dogged Brunei DPMM side at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (13 May), but Risto Vidaković and his men have put that result behind them, turning their focus firmly to the important task at hand – a tasty encounter this Sunday (21 May), against Singapore Premier League leaders (SPL) Albirex Niigata (S).
It is a high-stakes battle at the Bishan Stadium for both clubs, with the third-placed Sailors looking to close the four-point gap that stands between them and the White Swans who have a game in hand.
Tampines Rovers are second in the nine-team SPL standings on 23 points, three ahead of the Sailors.
Nur Adam Abdullah is confident that the Sailors will bounce back and is backing his side to show tenacious fortitude against Albirex, who triumphed 4-0 the last time the teams met back in March.
“All of us came into the DPMM game to get the win, so we were disheartened to concede late. A win against DPMM would have set the stage nicely for us, but that draw certainly doesn’t define us, and I’m confident we’ll be able to show what we’re made of against Albirex,” said the full-back.
“Albirex look very sharp this season, and it will be tough facing them, but we’re progressing well as a team in the game model that Coach Risto has laid down for us – we just have to finish the chances we create,” added the 22-year-old, pointing to the DPMM encounter.
“We should have closed that game with the chances we created, but we didn’t do that, and we were punished. We can’t let that happen again.”
The Sailors twice came from behind to take the lead against DPMM with goals from Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes. With the score at 3-2, the Sailors had a couple of chances to put the game to bed, but instead it was DPMM’s Andrei Voronkov netted a 89th-minute equaliser to seal his hat-trick and steal a share of the spoils for Adrian Pennock’s side.
Manuel Herrera López, nicknamed Súper, called for laser-sharp focus from his teammates as they battle to stay firmly in the hunt to wrest the SPL title from Albirex, the defending champions.
“We must win against Albirex to bridge the gap between them and us. We must make sure to concentrate for the entire ninety minutes to get a win that will boost our challenge for the title,” said the Spanish centre-back.
“I will do everything I can to help the team for this Sunday’s big match, and that is the approach all of us have.”
Nur Adam sang from the same song book.
“Albirex are sitting at the top, and we will go into this with everything we have,” he declared.
Nur Adam is also champing at the bit to impress and deliver for the Sailors’ cause, and he firmly believes that the Sailors will have a spring in their step when they walk out at the Bishan Stadium – where they have won all four home games thus far.
“It is always good playing on home ground because The Crew will be there to support us, and the feeling is special. The fans are our 12th man with their voice giving us that something extra.”
They have had to play on difficult pitches, cope with the departure of key players, and find a way to overcome ultra-defensive teams intent on disrupting their game.
So far, the Lion City Sailors Women’s team has managed to pass every test they have faced, often with flying colours.
This Sunday (21 May), however, the reigning Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) champions – who won two games out of two thus far – will have to overcome their toughest obstacle yet, when they take on Tampines Rovers at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium.
But it is not the formidable challenge posed by the Stags – who boast the likes of Singapore National Team players Farhanah Ruhaizat and Stephanie Gigette Dominguez – that keeps Sailors Women head coach Yeong Sheau Shyan up at night.
Rather, her primary worry lies in the emotional and mental burnout experienced by most of her players in the aftermath of the recent Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. A total of 11 Sailors players were called up to the Singapore team that bowed out of the group stage with one win and two losses.
“The SEA Games not only put the players under a lot of stress physically, but also took a toll on their emotional and mental state,” said Sheau Shyan. “Even though they are back in Singapore now, many of them are still trying to recover.
“It’s understandable, because they had trained especially hard in the month before the Games, with many of them even taking no-pay leave to focus on National Team preparations.”
Sheau Shyan also revealed that she has concerns over whether her players can adapt quickly enough to playing the Sailors’ style of football, which is markedly different from what is asked of them at the National Team.
She elaborated: “The players wouldn’t have remembered much of what we’ve been preparing at club level; their minds were on other formations and tactics, because the National Team plays in a different way. For them to adjust back to our style of play is going to take some time and that’s something I’ve been trying to get them to do for the past week.
“Most of our players were called up for the Games, so for the past month, we’ve only been able to do individual and small-group training for the few players remaining. But it is what it is – these are things that we know we have to cope with and we’re up to this challenge.”
Given the difficulties faced by the Sailors, Sheau Shyan expects her side’s fixture against Tampines to be a scrappy affair.
“This is the biggest test for us and will allow us to see how strong our girls are mentally,” she said. “But I might have to play some of the younger girls who may not be tactically ready, but at least they’d be in a better physical condition.
“It’s not going to be easy for them to come in and adapt straight away, so I expect this Sunday’s game to be a messy battle, and whoever wants it more will win. Tampines are an up-and-coming team, so this will be a good challenge for us.”
The SEA Games experience, however, was not completely without its merits. For Nur Umairah Hamdan, it gave her a chance to understand the game from a different perspective, as the 21-year-old – who plays as a centre-back for the Sailors – was deployed as a centre-midfielder for the National Team.
“The SEA Games was tough, but it was an eye-opening journey for me because I played in a new position,” Umairah explained. “It taught me how to push my limits and try something new.
“More importantly, I’m more aware of how a central midfielder sees the game, and how they would like to receive the ball from defence. So now I have a better understanding of how a midfielder plays, I can help them out by giving them the kind of passes that makes life easier for them.”
The challenging experience of the Cambodian Games also brought the Sailors in the National Team closer together.
“We bonded a lot at the SEA Games. We were together in close proximity, and we helped each other throughout the physically and mentally draining journey,” said Umairah.
“But we’re all now excited to go back to play in the WPL. We miss the local league and playing for our club. I’m looking forward to stepping onto the pitch as a Sailor again and we’re all relishing this responsibility of helping the club become champions again.”
In celebration of Mother’s Day, we take a deeper look beyond on-field heroics and into the stories of the unsung heroes who shaped our Sailors – their mothers. In this two-part special series, we delve into the childhood lives and experiences of our Sailors, told through the loving eyes of their mothers.
In the second part of our series, we look deeper into the multi-faceted roles that mothers play in the lives of players across the Sailors’ stable.
A big tear rolled down her cheeks as she choked up. It looked like the floodgates were going to burst open, but Mdm Roziah Abdul Aziz recovered her poise – just for a moment – before a second tear pulled a steady stream from her watery eyes.
“I’m very grateful for the way you brought us up, even though it was a very strict upbringing. I know me and my siblings often say ‘Why did you never let us go out? Why did you never let us do this, or that?’ But for me, it was very useful because it made me the person I am today.
“It was actually a blessing for us because now we’re more responsible, more disciplined, all thanks to you,” said her son and Sailors wide man, Danish Qayyum.
Those words gave Mdm Roziah – a stay-home mum – both vindication and gratification. And what is more, perhaps encapsulated the sheer impact a mother can have on the person – and athlete – her child grows up to become.
“Yes, I’m a tigress – like what Qayyum described me as. Every mum wants the best for their child and sometimes our good intentions are misunderstood. So, I want to thank him for understanding me,” she added, cheeks still damp.
While house rules and lessons can provide a setting for the development of young athletes – a clearly observable setting – young ones often fail to recognise the platform on which they stand to launch into the future.
Mom, the provider
Mdm Rohaini Hassan, a single parent, knew that she had to work doubly hard to raise Hami Syahin, ensuring she earned enough to fuel her young son’s dreams. His first love was football, and at her core, she knew she needed to do all she could to empower him to flourish.
And that she did, sending him for football lessons at Fandi Ahmad’s now-defunct Team-17 Soccer Connection academy from age five, and subsequently to the Singapore Sports School.
“The fees were quite expensive, and I was already paying for his older brother, so I didn’t want to send him there initially. But coach Fandi kindly gave us a discount, so I decided to let him go. It wasn’t easy, every Sunday we had to take a taxi to and from Bukit Panjang to Yio Chu Kang,” she said.
“At age 12, he was chosen to go Sports School and that cost $500 monthly – quite expensive to me – but because he loves football so much, I tried my best to support him and get the help of his uncles and aunties to chip in a bit to buy him boots and jerseys.”
Sacrifice, par for the course
Mdm Jenny Tan – a single mother of 13-year-old Celine and 16-year-old Chloe Koh who are part of the Lion City Sailors Girls Programme and Women’s Premier League (WPL) team respectively – wears different hats.
She has to, to make ends meet and to support her daughters and their football dreams.
On top of being the team manager of the Sailors WPL team and doing administrative work for the Sailors Girls Programme, she also crochets for extra income.
“My day starts at 5.30am and we’ll leave the house around 6 plus am. I’ll drop Chloe at Bugis MRT where she takes a direct train to school, before dropping Celine directly at her school. I then go home to do my crochets – I try to do as many as I can before reporting to the Training Centre for work.
“On weekends, there are matches for the WPL team so basically all my days are very packed. Income-wise, I’m still struggling a bit, but it’s all worth it for the girls,” she said.
“Usually when I’m sending them home after training, they will share with me how their day went and I’ll be encouraging them if they’re feeling a bit down.
The work has already started to pay off for Jenny who felt an immense sense of pride watching Chloe score two goals in her competitive debut for the Singapore Under-16s in the AFC Under-17 qualifiers at Jalan Besar Stadium last month.
A cheerleader, especially in tough times
Mdm Rafeah Awang is well familiar with having footballers in the household – three of her sons pursued football as a career with two of them, including Sailors full-back Zulqarnaen Suzliman, now playing professionally.
She was the biggest supporter and confidante when Zulqarnaen was out injured for a long period in 2022.
“Last year, he went through an op and was feeling really down. He was concerned about his recovery and kept telling me things like ‘I cannot tiptoe, Mummy’, ‘I’m useless, Mummy’,” she recalled, her heart clearly breaking all over again.
“I had to be there to encourage him, telling him that he’s still young, so just focus on rehab and doing physiotherapy. I wanted him to believe that he can get back to his best.”
And he has since returned strongly with several good performances in 2023, including a stirring display against Geylang International in which he produced three critical defensive challenges to help the team to a 2-1 victory.
A mother undoubtedly plays multifaceted roles in the life of her child – from discipline master to cheerleader and chefs, even nurse.
Dreamer, believer, constant
Perhaps most importantly, a mother is a young athlete’s first coach, shaping their worldview as they embark on their chosen sporting path.
In Jenny, Chloe and Celine have an enabler who believes studies and sports can come hand in glove, and that football – still somewhat of an out-of-the-norm dream for Singapore girls – is a sport they can and should commit to.
“I used to be a Combined School softballer, so I know how sports can really help kids develop resilience, time management and learn about teamwork. I believe that sports participation will definitely help my girls in school group projects or even when they go out to the corporate world to work,” she said.
“As long as they try their best in school and can be promoted every year, I’m okay – I don’t need them to be top A-star students. I want them to be all-rounded people who can excel in a few areas in life.”
It is clear that even as sportsmen are at the age that they are fully able to take care of themselves, mothers still play a big role in their lives.
From setting the stage and providing a platform for their young to grow, one thing is clear. Mothers never stop, even – in the eyes of their children – at the expense of being embarrassingly naggy.
“Sometimes she will still give advice in front of my friends and that makes me very malu!” said a sheepish Hami.
“But I guess that’s what mums are and will always do. They’ll always be there to be our guiding hand, ensuring we stay on the right path in life and be a righteous human being.”
In celebration of Mother’s Day, we take a deeper look beyond on-field heroics and into the stories of the unsung heroes who shaped our Sailors – their mothers. In this two-part special series, we delve into the childhood lives and experiences of our Sailors, told through the loving eyes of their mothers.
In the first part of our series, we turn the spotlight on goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad and his mother, school teacher, Madam Nailul Azmi Ismail.
Brows furrowed as he steps onto the pitch, Zharfan Rohaizad walks to his spot in the Lion City Sailors starting lineup, then stops. Lips turned downwards, dragging both moustache and beard to complete the picture of focused aggression, his eyes squint as they scan the stands for his target: mommy dearest, Madam Nailul Azmi Ismail.
With a simple wave of his right hand to his mother, the 26-year-old goalkeeper completes his pre-match ritual, before walking into his castle, the Sailors’ penalty box.
“She comes for every game, rain or shine,” said Zharfan. “Sometimes when my dad can’t take her, she will make her way herself to matches and make it a point to be there when we walk out of the tunnel. It’s my ritual to see her sitting there and to wave at her.”
Despite Zharfan’s machoman persona, Mom’s influence extends far beyond his pre-match ritual, and it runs deep.
“There’s never a day that I don’t hear her voice inside my head saying: “you can’t do this” or “you shouldn’t do that”,” he said, of Mdm Nailul, his most ardent supporter.
She insists that Zharfan’s grizzly exterior is merely a front, one that falls to the ground when they speak.
“He’s such a darling lah – every now and then, he will do something that will touch my heart. He looks like a very tough boy on the outside, but he’s actually very gentle and thoughtful on the inside,” she said, eyes glistening.
“Every time I’m going out on my own, he will check on me ‘Mum, are you sure you can manage or go on your own?
“We talk a lot too, and he shares with me what’s up with him every day. Every morning, I will text him to say “I love you”– just to motivate him because I know a professional footballer’s journey is not easy,” she said.
It has indeed been quite a journey, for both Zharfan and his school teacher mom, Mdm Nailul.
After a bout of fever, 7-year-old Zharfan was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse (MVP), a rare heart condition that occurs in around two per cent of the population. In sufferers, the mitral valve of the heart does not close smoothly, allowing a small amount of blood to leak backward when the heart contracts.
While it is harmless in most cases, this shook Mdm Nailul.
Her brows furrowed as she recalled: “I couldn’t take it then – I remembered speaking to my husband, “how come of all people, it’s him?”
She was constantly in vigilant-mother mode, looking out for her child. From monitoring his food intake to dishing out daily advice, while a happy-go-lucky Zharfan merely dropped football for a “less vigorous sport”.
“When the doctor finally discharged him, it was like our world instantly became so much brighter!” she said, recalling the conversation with 11-year-old Zharfan’s heart surgeon.
Mdm Nailul had to juggle the role of protective-mom with that of bad cop – the multi-role facet of life that most mothers are well-familiar with – because health condition or not, rambunctious boys often continue to be just that.
She smiled as she recounted various incidents in the life of a young and playful Zharfan.
“I remember once he called me “Ibu (mother in Malay), are you free tomorrow?” so I asked him what had happened, and he simply told me I had to meet his discipline master. The moment I stepped out of the taxi, he was already waiting at the school’s lobby looking sheepishly at me.
“Evidently he let his friend copy his test, and as a result his friend passed, and he got a zero as a punishment!” she exclaimed, chuckling.
“I was very fierce and firm as a mother. I once told him in primary school, the moment there is one mistake or one complaint about you, I will step into your class and give you one slap in front of your friends!”
Zharfan has clearly taken these childhood lessons on board.
“Her advice is always firmly inked in my mind and has helped me grow to become a responsible adult. The most important thing she taught me was to be respectful to my peers and whoever I’m talking to. To earn respect from others, you first need to give respect.
“It has taught me to have a clearer vision around me and to be a better version of myself,” said Zharfan, who admitted he was on the hunt for a nice gift for Mdm Nailul’s 54th birthday – which coincidentally falls on Mother’s Day this year.
“Throughout my 26 years of living, she has been there for me – telling me what’s good, what’s not, advising me what to expect in life,” said Zharfan, his voice quivering.
“She has gone great distances just to see me being happy and to succeed, so I just want to tell her “l love you”. And I’ll never stop making you happy and proud.”
Mom has one wish for Zharfan, to become the no. 1 custodian for the Singapore national team. And she has one more target for her grizzly son too, one that comes with a clear deadline.
“I hope I can have a daughter-in-law soon, maybe in two years’ time?” she said, laughing as her voice trailed off in hope.
Zharfan laughed too, squirming uncomfortably in his seat, as his tough exterior lay in a dismantled heap at the foot of Mdm Nailul who may soon have a companion in the stadium when Zharfan lines up on the pitch and waves at the stands.
Fresh from their 2-1 comeback win over Geylang International last Sunday (7 May), another stern test awaits the Lion City Sailors as they face Brunei DPMM at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (13 May) evening.
It will be the second time the Sailors will come up against the 2019 Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions this season, having run out 3-1 winners in their first encounter at Bishan Stadium in March.
Adrian Pennock’s side may sit sixth in the nine-team SPL table, but Christopher van Huizen has warned against complacency and believes Sailors have what it takes to make it two wins in two against them.
“There was an element of surprise for us as we were unsure as to what to expect from DPMM in their first game back in the SPL. We ultimately got the win, which is the most important thing,” said Chris.
“I’m confident we can claim the three points again, but we are not going to be big-headed and take things lightly. We will be watching them closely and work really hard to achieve what we want.”
Against the Eagles, however, Risto Vidaković’s men had to dig deep. Going behind to a 10th minute Iqbal Hussain’s opener, they eventually prevailed via a pair of brilliant Maxime Lestienne free-kicks in the final 20 minutes.
Reflecting on that game, Chris said of his former side: “Geylang wasn’t an easy opponent who played fantastic football. I thought we started well, but that early goal did catch us off guard.
“We were not particularly worried and I thought we played better with the way we kept the ball after the break. It is a good sign that we were creating chances.
“With players like Max and Diego (Lopes) who are able to carve out the opportunities, we just need to work on our end product by converting them.”
While a winger by trade, Chris – who topped the SPL assists chart with 10 in the 2019 season – has found himself being deployed at full-back in recent times for both club and country.
He admits that although the position change may be something still new to him, it is something the fleet-footed 30-year-old relishes.
“I feel blessed to be this versatile and contribute to the team. I am always learning and I acknowledge that there is still room for improvement – especially in my defensive positioning and in 1 vs 1 situations. That said, I also hope to protect Zharfan (Rohaizad)’s goal and help him keep as many clean sheets as possible.
“I also count myself lucky to have someone like Max playing in front of me, I can just support him from the back. I don’t bother about the criticism I face, I simply want to prove people wrong and I’m happy as long as the team gets the three points at the end of the day.”
Victory against DPMM will not only see the Sailors leapfrog Tampines Rovers into second spot for at least 24 hours, but also put pressure on leaders Albirex Niigata (S) – their opponents in a blockbuster clash on 21 May.
“As you can see, we are not very far off the top two of Albirex and Tampines in the standings. Going into the second round of the SPL, it’s important to do our best and maintain the consistency week in, week out if we are to stand a chance to reclaim the title,” said Chris.
“The fans are our 12th man and they will play an important role once again. I hope to see them in the stands cheering us on as we push for the win.”