He sat there in silence, ice-pack pressed onto his head, eyes lost in the ripple of a blank gaze that bounced back upon itself.

Kodai Tanaka had already ripped off his armour and rinsed off the sweat of battle, but there in the bowels of Pathum Thani’s Thammasat Stadium, wounds were still raw. That dull throbbing in his head – a result of a coming together of two opponents in the heat of competition – was not the source of the 23-year-old’s pain, at least not the cause of the sting at the core of his being.

The Lion City Sailors fell to a 1-0 away loss to Bangkok United on Wednesday (29 November) in Group F of the 2023/24 Asian Football Federation Champions League (ACL) campaign. It was a defeat that snuffed out their dreams of becoming the first Singapore side to qualify for the last 16 of Asia’s top tier club competition.

The difference between the teams was measured in small margins, and defeat was bitter – and stinging.

The long dark road

But just six months ago, Kodai would have given anything to look defeat in the eye – and take that dastardly devil’s best punch square in the mouth.

At the time, Kodai was trudging along the long road to recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that threatened to deny the 2022 Singapore Premier League Player of the Year any chance of competing on Singapore football pitches in the year he reigned as their best player.

“When I was injured, I really felt like my mind was a complete blank – I couldn’t think about anything.

And of course, I cried a lot – night after night,” said Kodai. “There were many times when I felt like breaking down, and many times when I wanted to quit.”

“I have now achieved my goal of playing in the Champions League, and I have so many people to thank for helping me get here, like the trainers around me, and of course my family and friends.”

Light – and tears – at the end of the tunnel

Kodai made his ACL debut in the Sailors’ famous 2-0 win over two-time ACL winners, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and he remembers every second of the experience, even the thoughts running through his head as he stood on the sidelines waiting to come on for Maxime Lestienne.

“It’s true, I was crying at the time. I felt like I was finally able to stand here, after all that I had to go through to work my way back from the injury,” he said.

“I could picture all kinds of people’s faces, and when I remembered them, it was very emotional.”

Tears would flow again – more freely so – after the final whistle.

Said a wistful Kodai: “I was trying not to cry, and I knew that if I shook Niels’ hand, I would definitely cry. So I wanted to just briefly shake his hand and quickly move along, but he caught me.”

Physiologist Niels van Sundert was an ever-present on Kodai’s recovery journey, and the Japanese forward was effusive with his praise for the Dutchman – and not only for his professionalism on the rehabilitation front.

“He was always there for me when I was good and bad, even when things were difficult and I was feeling down, he would very firmly tell me that I had to do this,” said Kodai. “Sometimes we even fought, and he would be angry with me.

“But he was always there for me, helping me in any way he could, sometimes that meant just being with me.”

And all those memories came flooding back when Kodai embraced Niels at the touchlines of Jalan Besar.

“It wasn’t exactly what he said to me at the time. There were times in the past when he comforted me by hugging me when I was going through a really hard time, and I had flashbacks of that – I naturally started to cry,” recalled Kodai, his voice quivering.

“I’m really grateful for all that he’s done for me.”

The path ahead

The thought of lining up alongside his teammates to face Asia’s best in the ACL fuelled Kodai’s drive to get off the treatment table and back onto the pitch.

The Sailors still have one match to play in Group F, against Kitchee SC at Jalan Besar on 13 December despite already out of contention to qualify for the Round of 16.

And while Kodai is still raring to go, looking for his first ACL goal, he has already derived so much from his long hard road to recovery.

“When I returned to the pitch, I heard many fans and supporters calling my name “Kodai”, and I felt really happy,” he said, again recalling that Jeonbuk Jalan Besar night as a beaming smile flashed across his face.

“It felt fantastic to be back on the pitch as a professional footballer, and it made me want to work even harder in my career.

“I feel that I need to work harder to show my gratitude to the people who have helped me on my journey to recovery, and by showing that kind of attitude, I can give courage to people who have suffered the same injury or have been out of action for a long time.”

For now, Kodai has turned his focus to finishing the season strongly.

“I believe in my teammates, and of course the head coach and staff as well, and I know how hard everyone works, and I know how hard everyone works for the team, and that’s why we’ve won as a team,” said Kodai.

“I have unshakable confidence in the team, and that we will have a strong finish to 2023.”