Gary Koh provides a brief breakdown on Johor Darul Ta’zim’s AFC Cup opponents, who are making their first appearance in the Asian club football scene this year...
Who are they?
One of the oldest clubs in Singapore, Balestier were first formed as Fathul Karib just before the turn of the 20th century. Based in the Toa Payoh district, they were a prominent local side who regularly competed for honours in the pre-independence era, particularly contributing nine players to the Singapore national team in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.
The restructuring of the local club in the 1970s saw them renamed as Balestier United Recreation Club. Under the stewardship of long-serving chairman Thavaneson Selvaretnam who took over the running of the club in 1979, they gradually rose to be among the regulars in the then local top-flight Singapore Premier League.
Renamed as Balestier Central Football Club in 1996, they were among the pioneer members of the Singapore professional league, the S.League, and were rebranded in their present form following a merger with another professional club, Clementi Khalsa, in 2003.
While the club are consistent in their development of young players and loyalty to long-serving club stalwarts, it is only under the stewardship of former players Darren Stewart and Marko Kraljevic that they finally collected silverware in the professional era – the Singaporean League Cup in 2013 and the Singapore Cup in 2014.
Balestier are a tight-knit unit who possess a strong work ethic and fierce determination to fight for one another on the pitch. They are tough to break down in the domestic league as their defence frustrates the best of attacking sides. A fourth-best defensive showing among the 12 league sides last season demonstrates their solidity at the back.
One glaring deficiency in the present first team squad is the lack of a midfield general since the exit and eventual retirement of South Korean midfielder Park Kang Jin at the end of last season, while Serbian replacement Tarik Cmajcanin is not registered for the AFC Cup due to import restrictions. Besides that, their lack of continental experience – all but Jonathan Xu Wei Hua are taking part in the AFC Cup for the first time – was exploited by Kitchee in their first group match.
Balestier prefer to take the direct approach when they make the transition from defence to attack. The backline will pass the ball to the centre midfield, who will then distribute the ball down to either wing.
With an emphasis on attacking from the flanks, the wingers play an integral role as they take various approaches to unlock opposing defences and feed the ball to the main target man inside the box.
Marko Kraljevic built his reputation in the region as a powerful centre midfielder with a penchant for attacking play. The Balestier job is his maiden role as a first-team head coach after he spent previous years working as a youth coach.
The Singapore permanent resident’s attacking instincts could be seen in his tactics as he encourages players to utilise their creative freedom in an organised manner when they reach the final third.
If Balestier are to have any hope of making the next leap into the next round, the performance of skipper Zaiful Nizam between the posts is crucial. He makes up for the lack in height with excellent agility and reflexes, and a strong command of his area.
On several occasions last season, it was his shot-stopping ability that frustrated opponents as they finished in the top half of the league table and emerged as champions of the Singapore Cup. His presence could be the difference in tight situations against tough Asian opponents.
The Toa Payoh Stadium has been Balestier’s home (although Jalan Besar Stadium will be used to for the AFC Cup due to stadium regulations) for more than three decades and is the central location of one of the most prominent and busiest heartland districts.
The two tall housing apartments near the ground were used as the athletes’ village for the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games in Singapore before they were leased for public purchase.
Their next-door sporting neighbours have a more illustrious international sporting heritage than the club as the world-class Singapore table tennis teams train at the next-door indoor sports complex facility.
Present club head of youth development Nasaruddin Jalil is a long-serving club employee at the Toa Payoh Stadium, first as a player before rising through the coaching ranks through his three decades of service with the club.
The younger brother of the late ex-Singapore and Terengganu key player “Crazy Horse” Nasir, he was noted for his delicate ball control and distribution as a midfielder for club and country, before developing a penchant for grooming young talents at various age-groups.
He made the step up as the first-team head coach when he was appointed in 2008. The first two seasons in his charge saw them struggle in the bottom before he and Salim Moin steered them into mid-table position in 2011.
Former Malaysia internationals Dollah Salleh, Zainal Abidin Hassan and Khan Hung Meng featured for Balestier briefly in the former Premier League as guest foreign signings in 1988.
Marko Kraljevic used to feature for Kelantan in the Malaysian league in 1993 and 1994, and assistant coach Tokijan Darisumvito was a familiar face for Singapore in his playing career in the Malaysia Cup in the 1980s.
(Pictures: Weixiang Lim)