Singapore cerebral palsy footballers set for Asean Para Games challenge
SINGAPORE – Two years ago on home soil, the Singapore cerebral palsy (CP) footballers lit up the National Stadium as they captured the bronze medal at the Asean Para Games (APG).
While they could not better the silver they won on their debut in 2013 in Myanmar, Mohamed Zainudeen’s charges endeared themselves to the Singapore public with their exciting style of play and determined approach.
In a week’s time, the CP team will kick off their third APG campaign in Kuala Lumpur against hosts Malaysia in their Group B opener as they look to do the nation proud again.
With defending champions Thailand and silver medallists Myanmar drawn in Group A along with Indonesia, Zainudeen admits that Singapore have been “quite fortunate” to be separated from the three powerhouses. Debutants Cambodia are the third team in Group B. The top two in each group qualify for the semi-finals.
But preparations have been less than ideal, according to the 47-year-old. While they went to Japan and a few other countries in the region for friendly matches and tournaments before the 2015 APG, there was only one overseas trip this year — a tournament in Indonesia in May.
And even that was not a particularly fruitful trip as the Indonesians tried out players that were not classified.
In CP football, which is seven-a-side, players are classed from 5 (FT5) to 8. A higher number means the player is more able-bodied. A minimum of one FT5 player must be fielded, while only one FT8 player can be on the pitch at any time. The rest will be made up of FT6 and FT7 players.
“They have a lot of new boys, so they took the chance to try them out,” Zainudeen, who took charge of the CP team in 2010, told TODAY. “If I compare our preparations with (those before the) 2015 APG, definitely it’s not there (as good).”
This has been compounded by the shifted priorities of the players, all of whom are working, with the exception of one who is still schooling.
“It’s not easy for them to get leave,” noted Zainudeen, who has 14 men in the team. “Four players from the 2015 team have dropped out because of such commitments as they went on to work and pursue their own (other) interests.”
Zainudeen has managed to recruit replacements — Ismail Kadir, Syafiq Sulaiman, Pranav C Balu and Magesvaran Sangily — but squad depth is another obstacle, as the talent pool is more or less limited to these 14. In contrast, their rivals have more players to choose from and, crucially, more higher-classed players available — Singapore do not have a FT8 player and around four or five FT5 ones. There will be a classification exercise in Malaysia before the tournament.
“Malaysia have home ground advantage and the luxury of new players,” he said. “The other teams are the powerhouses — Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia are strong teams with new inclusions … They are blessed with more players — a country like Indonesia, they have a CP league with eight teams, (which gives them) hundreds of players to choose from.”
Not having other CP teams to spar with also means Zainudeen’s side have to play against able-bodied social football teams, which they do almost every Saturday. “We have to make do with what we have,” he said. “The boys get a chance to rough it out, in the heat and bumpy ground … (but) it’s been good, they’ve been stepping up because when you play with these teams, you have to raise your level.”
The odds may not be ideal, but it will not deter the CP footballers. Progressing to the knockout stages is the minimum target Zainudeen has set for the team, who trained intensively four times a week from April to August before tapering down to thrice a week over the past month.
“Attendance has been good,” said Zainudeen, whose team trains at Queenstown Stadium for around two hours per session.
“The new ones have been with us for almost a year, they are very comfortable and looking forward to their first APG. We have continued to work hard as we can’t be sitting down and thinking about how strong the opponents are. This is our third APG and we have an experienced squad. We are up for the challenge. Our boys are mentally strong, they will go out there and give all they have.”
Singapore Cerebral Palsy football squad for APG 2017
Peter Kam, Firdaus Noor, Danial Ismail (goalkeepers), Ismail Kadir, Abdul Mahdi Rahman, Shafiq Ariff, Pranav C Balu, Suhaimi Sudar, Jeremiah Tan, Khairul Anwar Kasmani, Mubarak Rastam (C), Shahidil Saidi, Magesvaran Sangily, Syafiq Sulaiman.
Fixtures (Group B)
Sept 18: vs Malaysia, 8.15am, Field C, National Sports Council, KL Sport City
Sept 20: vs Cambodia, 8.45am, Field C, National Sports Council, KL Sport City
Sept 21: Semi-finals
Sept 22: Final and third-fourth play-off