One-armed Warrior made good

Asraf Rashid, who was born without a full left arm, shares exclusively with FFT's Gary Koh on how a particular encounter with another professional disabled footballer changed his life forever…

A man and a boy met for a kickabout one evening at the Queenstown Stadium in 1997. What happened on that momentous occasion changed the latter’s life forever. Bonded by the love of football and a common physical trait – they were each born with only one perfect arm, 11-year-old Asraf Rashid forged a special bond with then-Tanjong Pagar United Swedish winger Håkan Söderstjerna.

17 years on, the passing of the baton was complete. Now into his third season with the Jaguars, the adult Asraf – or ‘Achap’ as he is popularly known to colleagues, friends and loved ones – is living out his childhood dream of playing professional football and enjoying every moment of his journey. Like the previous one-armed warrior, the 1.68m-tall midfielder graces the Queenstown turf with elegance and artistry down the wings, usually with his favoured left foot, and displays tenacity and determination that makes him one of the most respected figures in the scene.

“A reporter and a photographer from The Straits Times spotted me playing for school and linked me up with Håkan,” says Asraf, who made early headlines then when he scored 11 goals in six matches representing Jin Tai Primary School in the national primary schools football tournament, as he recounts to FFT his once-in-a-lifetime meeting that ignited the trailblazing path as the first and so far only physically-challenged Singaporean to play in the able-bodied professional sport. “I had never heard of Håkan before, so I went for it.”

What happened afterward in that nostalgic encounter left a deep impression in the shy young Asraf, who also began watching his hero donning the club’s renowned red-and-white stripes that year.

“When I met Håkan, it was such an eye-opener,” blushes the eldest of four siblings. “We only chatted briefly, but it felt like an eternity. I was left impressed with his words that from then on, I began working towards playing professional football.”

His first meeting with Håkan Söderstjerna

His struggle to the top

Born with a deformed left arm that ends just below the elbow, the road towards a playing career for Asraf was far from a straightforward one. Beyond the securities of parental protection and familial love, the visibility of having only one perfect arm tested the young boy psychologically on and off the pitch as he assimilated himself into the mainstream education system and able-bodied sports. Aside from weird stares, cursory looks and almost silent murmurings, the biggest challenge he had to deal with was derogatory taunts on and off the pitch.

“There was a lot of taunting in my younger days,” he recalls. “Everyone has their threshold levels on how much abuse they can take and so do I. I would often lash back without much thought because I simply couldn’t take it anymore.”

From showing signs of agitation at the first instance of hearing negative remarks, he rose above the gauntlets of verbal abuse to shut them up with his on-pitch displays, a change of attitude that he credits to his parents.

“My parents spoke to me regularly and advised me on how to deal with such situations,” he says. “Thanks to them, I realised that this kind of tit-for-tat verbal retaliation would never end, so I learned to cope by thinking positively.”

Making up for his physical disadvantage and lack of height, Asraf won admirers with his determination and fervent passion for the game he loves so much. It was the mental toughness that impressed Zainudeen Hassan, who was then coaching Asraf under the Milo SPEX Scheme – the predecessor to today’s Centre of Excellence youth development programme.

“I recalled the day when we had to drop him from the Milo squad purely based on competence alone. He burst into tears when he was told about it. So, we decided to give him the option of continuing to train with the team, which he immediately took up,” the seasoned football coach recalls. “His determination, good attitude and love of the game are very noteworthy and these are the fantastic qualities that I still remember him for.”

Those were the same attributes Asraf had to draw reserves from when a horrific tackle in a Prime League game in 2004 ruptured his right knee ligaments, ruling him out of action for more than a year. To rub salt in the wound, the club whom he had signed Prime League forms with, Sembawang Rangers, also shut down that year, throwing him into the football wilderness.

Despite suffering those setbacks, Asraf gradually worked his way towards returning to action with social games with his friends and relatives, including his more famous same-age cousin, Singapore international and Home United striker Fazrul Nawaz. In early 2006, he embarked on the first steps in his comeback by participating in the trials with Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC).

Asraf’s high work rate and positive attitude in his comeback impressed the coaches at Choa Chu Kang Stadium so much that he eventually emerged as a contender for a place in the first-team. Warriors’ long-serving club youth coach Razif Onn has nothing but praise for the player he views as one of the best local talents he has overseen in his decades-long coaching career.

“Asraf was a disciplined and consistent player who was always first on the training pitch,” Onn observes. “He showed good tactical and mental discipline to be able to receive and execute instructions during training and matches. These qualities of his enabled him to establish himself as a good back-up to the senior team players.

“Whenever he was given an opportunity, he took it in his stride. His presence at the club was an eye-opener for others, who looked at him as a good example to follow and a driving force for them to become better players and human beings.”

Besides making the breakthrough into the senior squad, Asraf also won the FA Cup with the Young Warriors in 2008 in which he scored the match winner through a direct free-kick. He was soon courted by other clubs and subsequently moved on to his current employers, Tanjong Pagar via short stays at Woodlands Wellington and Home United. At the Queenstown Stadium, he helped the Jaguars to their highest league finish at sixth place and a Singapore Cup final appearance last year. Still going strong and living out his childhood dream as a professional player, Asraf is thankful to all the coaches who have guided him from his youth days to the various senior squads.

“Although the coaches have different mindsets, mentalities and football philosophies, all of them have looked past my disability and given me the motivation and impetus to perform on the pitch,” he beams. However, it might have been a slightly different story had Asraf opted to have a prosthetic lower arm attached to his body earlier in his life. This option was under serious consideration as he underwent extensive talks and examinations with his parents and specialists.

“When I was 21, my parents wanted to put a prosthetic arm for me, as they had plans for me for the future when I entered adulthood,” he reveals. “We had talked about it and had actually seen a specialist to discuss about it, but after careful consideration, I decided not to proceed with it. I am used to what I am physically and see myself as a normal person. Having a prosthetic arm would be like starting a new life all over again for me.”

Moving forward, Asraf is determined to carry on playing as long as his body permits him to and desires to carve out a meaningful post-playing career to help youths and other fellow disabled people to achieve their goals and dreams.

“Looking back, I am very grateful to be able to play football and carve it out as a career,” he reflects. “I am very thankful that my body can withstand the rigours and demands of professional football, and for the respect that I have earned from colleagues and opponents. Hopefully in the next few years, barring any further injuries, I hope to be versatile and experienced enough to be able to play in every outfield position on the pitch.”

Giving a helping hand

Already a well-known figure for overcoming physical and psychological obstacles to evolve into a professional athlete, Asraf has shown his handicap is no barrier to where he desires to be, and he wishes to tell the world exactly that. Like how Söderstjerna inspired him 17 years ago, the attacking midfielder has begun repaying the faith the fraternity has given in his younger days through clinics and talks during school outreach initiatives. One of the main beneficiaries from Asraf’s dispensing of sound advice and stories is the Singapore Cerebral Palsy (CP) national team, which has been achieving great feats under the guidance of his former youth coach, Zainudeen.

(Photo Credit: Weixiang Lim)

“To me, Asraf is a true hero who, despite his disability, has continued to pursue his passion and eventually realised his dream,” quips Zainudeen. “It is his success and tremendous human qualities that prompted me to invite him to speak to the CP boys before they left for the Dream Asia CP tournament in the United Arab Emirates in March 2012.”

Asraf, who was roped in to inspire the physically-challenged members that day, adds, “It was Håkan who inspired me that I could achieve my dreams despite my disability, so I wanted to do the same.”

The Jaguar’s candid pep-talk to the CP players kickstarted two great years in the competitions they participated in. They finished third among the six Asian nations in that Dream Asia CP tournament, took on world-ranked European oppositions in a quadrangular in Austria, and emerged as silver-medalists in the ASEAN Paralympic Games in Myanmar last January.

Through the thick and thin of his eventful football journey, Asraf is grateful for what his beloved sport has given him and is seeking to reach out and encourage people who are in a similar physical predicament as he is. Having already helped the CP team to ground-breaking heights as a guest speaker, Asraf is aspiring to share his life stories and lessons to others.

“I am not the most fluent speaker, but if there is anyone who wants to invite me to give motivational talks, I will be more than willing to share my stories,” he says. “I am not the only guy with a disability who can play. There are many people with physical disadvantages in Singapore who have the talent and passion to play football, but they may not have the support or encouragement. I wish to help them.”

“If you have a passion for football, you should keep playing because you will never know where your hard work can take you. If you are passionate in other areas, don’t be afraid to go for it. There will be a point of difficulties where there is the temptation to give up, but as long as you never give up and keep going, you will achieve what you want in life,” he concludes.

(From FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore May 2014)