Junior Eldstal: "I'm Malaysian, lah!"

That ‘Manglish’ suffix should suffice if you ever doubt Junior Eldstal’s claim to his Malaysian nationality. In this exclusive interview, the Sarawak midfield enforcer talks to FFT about Malaysia, Sweden and everything in between...

Who is the Prime Minister of Malaysia? Well, at least everyone in Malaysia who follows the news should know the answer to that. The reason we’re saying this is because it is not very surprising if people don’t know basic facts about their own country. Case in point: American pop singer Christina Aguilera actually forgot the lyrics to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl 2011. So, we couldn’t resist from having a dig at the talk of the town, Junior Eldstal. Having just returned to the country less than a year ago, there’s a chance that the Sarawak midfielder would not know the answer to our simple query...

“Najib Razak,” he answers confidently with a smug look on his face. Well, that's no fun.

“I’m still learning about Malaysia every day and it helps that I have my team-mates with me,” he says. “When I just arrived, they were very helpful. And there were a few Sabah lads in the team like Mafry [Balang], Ronny [Harun] and Bobby [Gonzales], so we instantly clicked. I couldn’t understand Malay at first, but thanks to them, saya boleh cakap Melayu sekarang, lah.”

"FourFourTwo thinks I'm stupid ah."

To give you a little bit of context, Junior is a rare breed of mixed-blood Malaysian footballers. He was born to a Swedish father and a Kadazan mother. And the fact that we’re actually sitting down in a lovely cafe at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur to do his interview is almost as rare because he was busy playing for Sarawak and the national team almost all year long, and is just so happened to be in town for his doctor’s appointment.

“I recently had an operation on my back,” he tells FFT. “I have been having a nagging back pain for quite some time, but we couldn’t identify the problem at all, so I just continued playing. It was only when I landed very badly against Myanmar [in the 2013 Merdeka Tournament final] that it finally hit home. I found out that it was a slipped disc, which was putting pressure on my nerves.

“I feel better now. When I just did the surgery, I couldn’t do anything for three weeks because my back was very weak. Now I can do some stretching and light exercises to work on my fitness. It’s frustrating, but it’s all I can do for now.”

When asked to pen a return date, Junior says: “Hopefully I will be back by February, but I don’t want to risk coming back too early. If I am not careful, it may end my career.”

On the bright side, Junior is getting some precious rest time due to the injury setback. Having played non-stop since his return to Malaysia, Junior can finally afford to have some time to himself to do what he enjoys doing, including watching the recent World Cup qualifying play-off ties between Portugal and Sweden on TV. When quizzed on which team he rooted for, the Swedish side of him helps answer the question.

“But at the same time, I wanted Portugal to be in the World Cup because of my favourite player, Cristiano Ronaldo. So, I was between a rock and a hard place, really,” says the self-professed Manchester United fan. It’s great that he has brought up Sweden himself, as we’ve planned to ask him about that and his decision to don the black and yellow kit.

Chose to play for Malaysia instead of Sweden

By choosing to represent Malaysia in international football, he has passed up the chance of playing with world-class players like Zlatan Ibrahimović and Kim Källström and going to the World Cup with a team with higher chances to qualify – despite their recent failure. So why Malaysia?

Without a hint of hesitation, Junior replies: “I have no regret on how my career has panned out. I had been playing in Europe for so long but I didn’t get any chance to prove myself. Datuk Rajagopal and Ong Kim Swee have given me the opportunity to represent my birth country and I really appreciate it. I will forever be grateful to both of them and will never look back.”

There and back again

Born in Sabah on September 16th, 1991, Junior left his birth country at a very tender age. Due to his father’s work commitments, he was in Sweden for five years before spending a big chunk of his life in England. During this period of time, Junior was engrossed by football as well as other sports.

“I used to play different kinds of sports, but mainly football and tennis,” he says. “When I turned 10, my dad told me to focus on one sport. Despite being better at tennis than at football, I chose football because I loved it more.”

Armed with a passion to succeed, he began his football education at the Aldershot Town football academy in England, where he learned his trade for six years. He then had short spells at Reading and Farnborough in the English lower leagues before an unfortunate injury halted his progress.

Junior, erm, Junior Eldstal

“When I was playing for Conference side Farnborough, I tore three ligaments on my left leg and was out for a year,” he recalls. “As an 18-year-old, it was really crushing and I almost gave up on football because of that.”

Thankfully for him, he was given hope. “At the same time of my injury, I was accepted into the Hartpury College, which is part of University of the West of England. It was a brilliant place because they had their own football academy, so I could slowly work my fitness back into football while studying.”

As he was slowly getting back on his feet with his college team, his route back to Malaysia opened for him. In the final year of his college, he was required to gain some real working experience. Whilst he was browsing through the ample options, his parents suggested for him to go to this person in Malaysia: Sabah legend and Astro SuperSport pundit Scott Ollerenshaw.

“Good ol’ Uncle Scotty is a long-time family friend and my parents thought if I should work with someone, it should be with him,” he says. “Obviously, being born in Malaysia, it was tempting for me to reconnect with my roots, so I came down here for two weeks.”

Upon returning to Malaysia for the first time in more than 10 years, the discussion about playing professional football wasn’t exactly the first thing on the agenda as Junior was focusing on getting his college credit. It happened a bit later when he had a game of futsal with Ollerenshaw and co. one day.

“It was just so happened that I played futsal with them and Scott said he was really impressed with me,” he recalls. “After the game, he asked me if I fancied playing football in Malaysia. I didn’t say yes straightaway because I wasn’t in my best shape at that time, but he told me to get myself fully fit back in England and that he would give me a call.”

Making full use of his extensive connections in Malaysia, Ollerenshaw rang up Sarawak coach Robert Alberts and asked him to take a look at Junior. Alberts agreed to it, and by the time April 2013 came, Junior Eldstal was officially unveiled as a Sarawak player.

“The entire experience still feels surreal for me. I’m thankful to coach Alberts for believing in me,” says Junior. He also recalls how Alberts helped him in his first few weeks at the Sarawak State Stadium, which he describes as horrible.

“At first, I was honestly struggling because I couldn’t get used to the weather. But the coach was very understanding. He didn’t rush me into games despite all the media buzzing about this new Malaysian-born Swedish guy. Instead, he gave me a few playing minutes here and there to get me acclimated to the game here.”

He continues: “It didn’t upset me because I fully understood that he was trying to help me. I knew if I trained hard, I would get my chance.”

Hellogoodbye, Premier League!

And he did eventually get his chance. Thrust into his favoured position in the centre of Sarawak’s midfield, Junior played a crucial role to inspire the Crocs to the Malaysian Premier League crown ahead of surprise package Sime Darby, ensuring their promotion back to the Super League. He also helped his team to reach the Malaysia Cup semi-finals. Comfortable sitting deep to screen the defence and break up opposition attacks, the young midfielder has shown he is equally adept at marauding forward to help carve open defence. His colossal build, towering above most M-League players, has also made him a difficult player to take down. Perak’s rising star Nasir Basharudin, who played against Junior in the 2013 Malaysia Cup where his team infamously lost 6-1, said he couldn’t cope with the Sarawak man at all.

“During set-pieces, we all knew what he could do, but there was no way of stopping him. His size gave him an overwhelming advantage over the rest of us. There should be a law against him!” Nasir joked when we spoke to him last year.

Even Ollerenshaw, now Junior’s manager, didn’t foresee his scintillating form. “In all honesty, I was surprised to see him settling so quickly and performing above expectations,” said the SuperSport pundit. “But he will be the first to admit that he is not a finished article and still has much to work on.”

His splendid form and commanding presence in midfield didn’t go unnoticed. Following the conclusion of the season, he was voted by coaches and peers as the 2013 100PLUS-Astro-Arena-FAM Most Promising Player, ahead of Super League young stars Nasir, Nik Shahrul Abdul Halim, S. Sivanesan, Nazmi Faiz and K. Reuben.

He also attracted interest from both Super League and Premier League, especially since his contract with Sarawak was expiring. Despite being offered a more lucrative contract elsewhere, the Sabahan decided to sign a one-year extension with the Crocs, putting an end to speculation about his future in Kuching.

“Yes, there were bigger teams who wanted me to join them during the off-season,” Junior acknowledges. “But Sarawak have given me the opportunity to play professional football, so I want to be loyal. Plus, I love the club, the fans and the coach.”

Besides that, Junior also cites the city of Kuching for playing an important part in his decision. “Although it cannot be compared to Kuala Lumpur, Kuching is a beautiful city and the people are nice. At my current age, I think Kuching is the perfect place for me to develop because there are too many temptations if you live in major cities.

Most young players make the mistake of getting drawn into the party lifestyle and forget that they are athletes. I don’t want to become like them.

“And it isn’t like there aren’t any good places that I can’t hang out at in Kuching; just that they are quieter and more secluded,” he laughs.

According to Ollerenshaw, one of the teams that actually approached him regarding Junior was Premier League side Sabah, Junior’s home state team. He said: “Sabah did express their interest to sign him for the 2014 season. Despite being the team closest to my heart and the fact Liza [Junior’s mum] was from there, I think almost everyone would agree that it is in Junior’s best interest to stay with Sarawak.”

“As a player, you would want to play at the highest level and test yourself against the best players. Sarawak will be able to provide that for Junior under the expert guidance of Robert,” he added.

On top of getting noticed by other teams, Junior was on the Malaysia national team’s radar as well. In just a few months since joining Sarawak, he was called up by Datuk Rajagopal to play against the likes of Chonburi FC and Chelsea, marking an incredible start to his football career. Then shortly after that, he was linked with a call-up to the national U-23 side to play in the 2013 Merdeka Tournament.

“People were already talking about it way before the competition details were even finalised!” Junior exclaims. “I had already been called up by Datuk Rajagopal to play for the Malaysia XI, so I got a feeling that I might get called up by Ong Kim Swee. Of course, I tried to stay level-headed and humble, but I couldn’t stop myself from getting all excited about it. Luckily, I did get the call-up.”

Scoring in the 2013 Merdeka Tournament final

Not only did he get called up, he was given a starting spot in the team, playing in all but one games – a dead rubber against Thailand in the Merdeka Tournament group stage. He also managed to score the game-sealing goal against Myanmar to win the trophy, capping off a memorable tournament for him.

Dealing with controversies

However, his Malaysia return hasn’t been all smooth sailing. At first, there was some confusion regarding his name and his religion, as he was born Putera Nadher Amarhan. “After we moved to Sweden, my dad decided to change my name, which I’m fine with it,” Junior clarifies. “When I came back last April, the national registry still recorded me under my birth name. While I’m proud of my birth name, I’ve been Junior Eldstal almost all my life and will always be.”

“It was pretty funny because my friends in Europe would be confused and couldn’t figure out why people were calling me Putera on TV,” Junior laughs. But it wasn’t a funny business when he was mistaken as a Muslim because of his birth name. It certainly raised a few eyebrows because Junior stood out (a lot) with his tattoos. And even after the lifelong Christian clarified his religious belief, he still gets occasional glances and nasty remarks.

“I’ve seen a few comments and I know my tattoos have offended some people,” he says. “But I’m not doing it to offend anyone. For me, everyone has their own way of expressing themselves and I choose to express it on my body. All my tattoos have special meanings to my life and my belief. But I’m not angry or whatever with those comments. People can have their opinions and I respect that. I just hope that they will respect me as well as the people and things I love,”

However, with Malaysia being a conservative country, it has been difficult for him to shake off his ‘bad boy’ appearance. And it didn’t help when he caused a ruckus during Sarawak’s second-leg game in the Malaysia Cup against Pahang. In the closing stages of the match, things got heated as Junior grabbed the Pahang goalkeeper, an incident that he remembers well.

“We were chasing the game and I thought the Pahang goalie was time-wasting [by pretending to be injured],” he recalls. “I went and picked him up but [Pahang defender Damion] Stewart didn’t like it one bit. We sort of had a go at each other and had to be separated by other players.”

The incident wasn’t received well by most quarters of Malaysian football, with the popular consensus believing that Junior was lucky to escape without a red card. Questions were asked of his temperament, but Ollerenshaw, being ever supportive, leapt in to defend his young star. He said: “He’s a good and humble kid. He’s just ambitious and has a desire to prove himself and get the maximum from his footballing ability.”

Meanwhile, Junior’s lashing out has also earned an unlikely thumbs up from former Malaysian defender Shebby Singh. During our recent interview with him, the Blackburn Rovers global advisor said: “I like Junior. He brings with him a very refreshing attitude. He’s no Nigel de Jong or Yaya Toure, but he’s a hard running, tough tackling midfielder.”

“I’ve heard about his behaviour during the Sarawak-Pahang game. Personally, I like it. That fire in the belly of his is something we’ve been missing. He’s a winner and we need more players like him.”

When we tell him of Shebby’s remark, Junior could only blush. Although he isn’t defending his action on that day, Junior says: “I like to play physical football. I’m not the most technically gifted player but I always give my 100% in every game.”

“Some players tend to forget how lucky they are to be able to play football for a living,” he muses. “For me, I still get goose bumps whenever I’m in the tunnel and on the pitch and I still want to prove to everyone that I deserve to be on the pitch.”

Looking forward

After they were relegated from top flight football two years ago, Sarawak will be playing in the Super League again this year, a challenge very much welcomed by Junior. Despite losing their goal-scoring machine Bobby Gonzales, he remains optimistic about their chances in the new season, adding: “Above all, I think we just need to be careful. We can’t think that we will definitely finish in the top three in our first season. We have to be realistic and humble, so we should aim to stay up first.”

Although he won’t be able to play at the start of the season due to his back injury, he believes his team will do well with or without him. “I have confidence in my team because we have great players at Sarawak. Other players may play individually to score goals and rack in bonuses, but all of us at Sarawak play to win games for the coach. That’s why we are so strong.”

While he doesn’t want to admit it, we know Sarawak’s chances for survival will hinge on how soon Junior can return to add steel to the team. As we wrap things up, we shoot another general knowledge question at Junior: how many states are there in Malaysia? He looks puzzled and you can actually sense the wheels in his head are running, trying to pick the right number. Have we got the better of him?

“Hmmm… I think there’s quite a lot since there are many state teams in the league. I’m going to go with 13,” he answers uncertainly. Dang, talk about a lucky guess. We should’ve probably asked him some tougher questions instead, like how tall the Petronas Twin Towers are, who P. Ramlee was or what the animal mascot of the 1998 Commonwealth Games was. We’ll get him next time.

The interview was first published in FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore's January 2014.