As the 2018 Singapore Premier League comes to an end, we take a look at some players who are ready to make a surprise comeback in 2019.
Due to various reasons, a number of notable names missed out on being part of the inaugural SPL campaign. However, here are 10 players who are ready to strut their stuff at the stadiums again when the 2019 season comes along…
1 Shaiful Esah
As the SPL introduced age-oriented rules in 2018, a number of over-30s found themselves surplus to requirements with one of those being Shaiful. With a quality left foot that many could only dream of, his services were always in high demand.
An integral part of the all-conquering SAFFC (now Warriors FC) side that won four straight S.League titles from 2006 to 2009, the attacking full-back was also heavily involved in Singapore’s 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup triumph before winning another S.League title with Tampines Rovers the following year.
However the set-piece specialist could not get an offer in the SPL after being released in his second spell with the Warriors at the end of last season. Oddly, interest came instead from overseas, but he turned down offers from Malaysia’s Kelantan FA and Thailand’s Khon Kaen FC to spend more time with his wife whom he wed in January.
Shaiful has since found a job in the construction industry while turning out for Commonwealth Cosmos in the FAS Islandwide League, but is still keen on a return to professional football at the age of 32.
Shaiful says: “If there’s interested parties in the SPL who still want my services, why not? But firstly, they got to stop with this 10-month or 11-month contract thing… “
2. Nur Na’iim Ishak
Making his S.League debut at the age of 18 with Gombak United and subsequently a regular member of Singapore’s age-group sides, Na’iim’s career looked destined for big things. However a big move to Hougang United in 2016 failed to work out and he has been out of the professional scene ever since.
In the last couple of years, the nippy playmaker has been one of the standout performers for Yishun Sentek Mariners in the National Football League (NFL) while holding a full-time job in fire safety.
After coming almightily close to a SPL comeback with Geylang International at the start of this year before seeing the move break down due to a failure to agree personal terms, the 24-year-old is hoping that his fortunes turn in 2019.
Na’iim says: “My best memory in the S.League was coming back from injury to score my first goal and also get an assist in a 3-1 win against Geylang at Bedok Stadium during the 2015 season. Hoping that more will come in the future!”
3. Hazim Faiz
Famous for his two-goal feat against Juventus Under-15s in the 2011 Lion City Cup, Hazim made his professional bow as a squad player with Warriors FC in 2015 before being named in the Young Lions squad for the following year.
The promising forward scored two goals in seven starts, but saw his progress curtailed midway through that 2016 season due to NS enlistment. Since ORD-ing this May, Hazim wasted no time in embarking on a comeback trail – joining NFL Division One champions-elect Tiong Bahru FC where he has already plundered a few goals.
The 22-year-old is now yearning for a return to the SPL and be reunited with batch mates like Muhaimin Suhaimi, Illyas Lee and Ammirul Emmran.
Hazim says: “Through my two years of being away from the scene – watching my friends and the people I look up to in action day in and day out, I’ve realized how much I want to come back on the pitch and play again. I’ve missed the action, a lot.”
4. Hafiz Osman
Another familiar name in the Singapore Selection squad for the Sultan Gold Cup is Hafiz O, a veteran defender who won four straight league titles from 2006 to 2009 with Warriors alongside Shaiful and famously scored against Kashima Antlers in the 2009 AFC Champions League group stages.
However just like Shaiful, he found his services not required after the league introduced age-related rulings for this season as he was released in his second spell with the Warriors. Having started a fitness business a few years ago, he subsequently found employment as fitness coach of FAS Football Academy (FFA) before being lured into lacing up for NFL side Warwick Knights recently in June.
The 34-year-old believes chances of a SPL return is slim, but refuses to rule out any possibilities.
Hafiz says: “I’m enjoying my current job as FFA fitness coach and running my fitness business… but I miss playing football so much so that’s why I decided to play for Warwick. It’s now time for the younger ones to shine in the SPL, but I’ll be here to guide them and pass on my experience to them – being it coming back as a player or as a coach.”
5. Samuel Benjamin
Just like Nai’iim, Samuel was one of those who burst onto the scene with Gombak in 2012 and showed promising signs as an electrifying right winger. However, torrid luck with injuries thereafter meant his career never really took off as he spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch.
After being on the fringes of clubs like LionsXII, Hougang United and Warriors FC for the past few years, he elected to join Sporting Westlake in the NFL this year where he has since reinvented himself as a muscular centre-back.
Asides from football, the 24-year-old is also a personal trainer and have started his own pomade brand. However a call-up to the Singapore Selection squad for the ongoing Sultan Gold Cup has reignited his desire to come back into the professional scene.
Samuel says: “I’m currently in a good place now… But you’ll never know right? Passion for the Beautiful Game will always be there. I had offers previously and let’s see if any other offers come forth in the future.”
6. Lionel Tan
A promising well-built centre-back, Tan made his professional bow with Home United in the 2016 League Cup before getting the big break with Hougang United the following year. He started half of the Cheetahs’ league games under then-coach Philippe Aw in 2017, but was unable to continue his development due to National Service (NS) enlistment.
Currently attached to the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) side that plays in the NFL, the 21-year-old is hoping to return to the SPL in 2019 with Young Lions as his ORD (operationally-ready date) falls on next July.
Other SAFSA players who are looking to return to the big time include Gareth Low, Jonathan Tan and Shafeeq Faruk…
Lionel says: “My best memory in the S.League has to be playing alongside wonderful players like Zul (Zulfahmi Arifin), Atsu (Atsushi Shirota) and Naz (Nazrul Nazari) – I learnt a lot from them. Of course playing in front of the Hougang HOOLS (Hougang’s unofficial’s supporters’ club) was a great experience as well. Hopefully there’ll be more good things coming up for me in the future!”
7. Zulkiffli Hassim
A speedy winger who has an eye for goal, Zulkiffli made his debut with Gombak United in 2009 but his career truly took off when he played for Balestier Khalsa from 2012 to 2016.
Playing an integral part in the Tigers’ rise as they won the 2013 League Cup, 2014 Singapore Cup and featured in two successive AFC Cup campaigns along the way, it was unfortunate that his time with the club ended in an unceremonious manner. He was suspended for the last seven games of the 2016 season for being found guilty of making derogatory racial remarks towards an official, before being released at the end of his contract.
He brought forth his talents into the NFL, where he has been scoring goals for fun for Yishun Sentek for the last two years, while holding an outside job as a Grab driver. The 32-year-old was close to a SPL return with Geylang this mid-season and had already trained with the club, but the transfer broke down due to wage issues. Nonetheless he is ready to try again in 2019.
Zulkiffli says: “The best memories in S.League were winning the 2014 Singapore Cup and playing in two AFC Cups with Balestier. Scoring the winning goal against Hong Kong giants Kitchee SC is something that I will never forget. Hopefully there’s a room for me back in the SPL once again.”
8. Al-Qaasimy Rahman
One of the biggest pre-season stories of 2018 ought to be a former Singapore Under-23 captain walking away from the sport at the age of just 26. It came as a surprise to many as the tough-tackling full-back was starting to reprise the form that saw him break into the Singapore national team a few years ago under then-coach Bernd Stange.
In 2017, he played an integral role in Geylang’s first top-four finish in 14 years and even scored his first professional goal. However he turned down a couple of offers to embark on a new journey as a mentor to student athletes at his alma mater Singapore Sports School this year.
We may not have seen the last of Al-Qaasimy in a football jersey though, as he hinted on a possible return if an attractive offer does come along.
Al-Qaasimy says: “I’m happy with where I am now. I always wanted to be an educator – working with youths, shaping their discipline, working on their character etc. I have a family now – a beautiful wife and two amazing boys. But to say I don’t miss football? I definitely do. It was my life, my career and it helped me to bring food to the table. You’ll never know if ‘hard-to-reject’ offers might come – be it locally or overseas.”
9. Afiq Noor
One of the five Singaporeans finalists alongside a certain Faris Ramli for a talent competition called Nike ‘The Chance’ back in 2012, Afiq was a highly-rated technical midfielder who played for the Young Lions for a few years before joining Hougang in 2016.
After a promising debut season with the Cheetahs under K Balagumaran, things turned pear-shaped in 2017 as he struggled to hold down a regular starting spot under Aw and was subsequently released from the club.
He then turned to Tiong Bahru in the NFL and stayed throughout the campaign, despite having professional offers on the table midway through. Now also helping his parents to run a logistics company, the 24-year-old is keeping his fingers crossed for a possible return to the SPL.
Afiq says: “Honestly I’m still considering whether to come back or not, because you know the career of a professional player is not that stable now. Despite my passion for the Game, I still have a family to think about. There have been some offers, but as of now I’ve yet to agree to any.”
10. Ang Zhi Wei
With pace and stamina in abundance, Ang made his name in the S.League as an energetic full-back and was a valuable squad member wherever he went to. After starting out with Geylang in 2009, he went on to play for clubs like Woodlands Wellington, Tampines, Home and Warriors.
After being released by Warriors at the end of last season, Ang found himself in limbo as no offers came in. NFL side Tiong Bahru handed him a lifeline thereafter and he has since reinvented himself as a prolific forward at that level, while holding a full-time job as a financial advisor with Aviva.
While acknowledging it will be tough to get back into the SPL with the current age-oriented rules, the 29-year-old is willing to give it a shot.
Ang says: “I’ve some fond memories of playing in the SPL and one of those was playing for Woodlands in 2013. I’ve been doing quite okay in the NFL but the standard cannot be compared to the SPL. It will be hard to get a professional contract again. But if the right offer really comes, I will consider it properly.”