So the saintly Aleksandar Duric is calling it a day. Despite his obvious envy, Neil Humphreys knows Singapore won't produce another footballer (with abs) like the striker again.
At the age of 107, Singapore football’s favourite adopted son is hanging up his battered boots after his final game for Tampines Rovers. There is nothing more to say other than ‘clear off, Duric, you won’t be missed’.
This paragon of virtue has long been a thorn in the side of regular men who do not knock off half-marathon charity runs for fun, men who prefer potato chips over push-ups. These are men who, quite frankly, do not appreciate the sterling, selfless efforts of the fittest 44-year-old in Singapore.
Duric’s endurance extended beyond the comic book pages of Roy of the Rovers and stretched back to childhood. He was that kid in class who sailed through exams, scored in the school cup final and won over his peers, always smiling that beguiling smile, forever charming.
Only he wasn’t. That’s what made him even more irritating. Heavy industry sustained him, challenged him and propelled him, clearing one ludicrous obstacle after another. He didn’t fit the lazy, comforting narrative of the natural-born genius, the gifted artist who knocked off sporting masterpieces between stifled yawns. So-called God-given talent makes us feel better about our own inadequacies, allowing us to gloss over our lack of inner resolve. If we had been given the gifts of Lionel Messi, we’d surely be up at 6am and pounding the treadmill.
But we weren’t. So why bother?
Athletes blessed with a genetic stepladder to reach the top can be more reassuring. Grafters like the fictional Rocky had to run up real steps to get to their personal summits. Sod that for a storyline. That seems like too much hard work.
But Singapore went and adopted its own Rocky. Duric had more talent than most and the stamina of an Olympic rower, quite literally, but his inexhaustible will trumped his skill. He ran further than anyone else. He trained harder than anyone else. He outlasted everyone else. He proved what could be achieved with an uncompromising work ethic. He drove his body to the brink and, my God, it was annoying.
In a radio studio, I once caught a glimpse of his washboard abs up close and very personal. The roads around Jalan Besar Stadium have softer surfaces. I tried not to succumb to the homoeroticism of the moment but it’s hard not to stare at such sculpted perfection on another man’s body. His stomach turned my own. His enthusiasm was nauseating. It’s hard not to whither in his presence.
Comparing waistlines and training routines with Duric is a demeaning experience, like comparing jawlines with Brad Pitt. He always wins. He’s been winning since he first stepped out for Tanjong Pagar back in 1999. He’s been winning across 321 goals, 16 domestic titles and eight personal awards.
Duric’s consistency and single-mindedness might have been more palatable had he been an egotistical brat, a tantrum-throwing toddler inside the bleak house of modern football. If he splashed the cash with all the sensitivity of Michael Gray (who famously turned up for Sunderland training in a brand new Ferrari on the very day that 70 off-field staff were sacked), he would at least be more recognizable among the unwitting parasites leeching the game’s soul.
If he combined Mario Balotelli’s attitude, Joey Barton’s vitriol and Roy Keane’s malice and added a touch of the unwarranted ego of one or two S-League foreign talents in the past, we’d probably all feel a bit better about ourselves. A chance to gleefully revel in the flaws of supermen and women is a chance to briefly ignore our own.
In an increasingly voyeuristic culture, Duric has never been car crash viewing. Instead, he’s been a metronome of dull decency. When he wasn’t scoring one of his 24 goals in 53 appearances for Singapore, he was ferrying passengers around in a taxi to raise money for needy children. Or he was turning up at the most banal community events to boost awareness for a struggling S-league; sometimes sparsely populated events that were beneath the man’s resume. He never complained. He just smiled that damn smile and won hearts and minds like a military campaign.
And it worked. The boy from Bosnia annexed Singapore. His weapons were honesty and integrity. He ruled by positive example and the crowds loved him for it. For more than two decades, he was the dominant face of the S-League. At times, he was the only face. But he persevered, shaming footballers half his age with his professionalism and reminding the rest of us that a date of birth was not a sell-by date.
Finally, he’s off, taking his washboard abs and his waistline with him. Thanks for being the most perfect professional the S-League has ever seen, Duric. Thanks for being a faultless role model to any kid with aspirations to succeed in any sport. And thanks for making us all feel bad about our flabby guts. In other words, thanks for nothing (except that signed photo of the washboard abs.)
Photo: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.