Dream Team 1994: The one who almost didn't make it – Rafi Ali

Just over two decades ago, the Singapore FA team completed a now legendary cup and league double to sign off in style from the Malaysian leagues. Weixiang Lim talks to one of the youngest members of the team at that time – Rafi Ali...

“Time really flies, I am already 43 this year,” Rafi exclaims as we take our seats on the couch in the living room of his Pasir Ris HDB Flat. Indeed, 21 years have passed in a flash since FFT was a wide-eyed 12-year-old boy watching Singapore lift the Malaysia Cup, dreaming that one day I would be like my heroes in that most special of Singapore teams. But the memories remain vivid.

So Rafi, what have you been doing for the past 21 years?

After Singapore pulled out from the Malaysia Cup, I went on to play in the S.League with numerous clubs and retired in 2008. I also continued to play for the national team after 1994 and we won the Tiger Cup in 1998.

I am now married with two daughters and I am currently a youth coach with S.League club Tampines Rovers. 

You were one of the youngest players in the 'Dream Team'. What was it like being a young player then?

Sometimes, the senior players would test us, to see how much mental strength we had. They would throw their boots and get us to pick them up

I was 22 when I broke into the national team in 1992. Before that from 1989 to 1992 I was playing for the under-23 team under Jita Singh. The under-23 team trained at the Christchurch Secondary School field next to Jalan Besar Stadium and sometimes the national coach would come to watch us train. If we did well we would be invited to train with the main Malaysia Cup team with all the big names at that time – players like Sudiat Dali, Ishak Saad, Abdul Malek. Fandi wasn’t around then because he was playing overseas. We really looked up to these senior players and tried to learn as much as we could from them.  

Before training started, we had tasks to do, like carry the balls out from the store, prepare the team refreshments. If it was a morning training session, there would be the flag raising ceremony where we had to stand at attention. When training ended, we had to retrieve all the balls and keep them.

Sometimes, the senior players would test us to see how much mental strength we had. They would throw their boots and get us to pick them up. It’s not that they are bad people, they are actually very nice people, but it was something they did to keep the younger players like us humble and to see if we were mentally strong.

As for the 1994 Dream Team, I almost did not make the team because of National Service. We had started preparing for the new season under Ken Worden, but I left midway through pre-season to enlist in the army. Then Douglas Moore took over, they started the season without me, and I thought that was it because I had never met Douglas Moore personally. He didn’t know me, he had never seen me play. But then halfway through my BMT, while we were at the rifle range, I was told to report to my CO (Commanding Officer). The Military Police picked me up and brought me back to camp. I marched into the CO’s office and the CO says, “OK book out”. A letter had arrived from FAS (Football Association of Singapore). Permission was granted for me to travel to Penang to help the team out with its injury crisis.

So did you play in that game?

Yes. It came as a real surprise that I was named in the starting line-up! I hadn’t kicked a ball in weeks, I had been doing nothing but army training, so I thought I was there to make up the numbers or at best come on from the bench. But the first time I met Douglas, he smiled, shook my hand and said “How are you? I need you to play in defence because Jang Jung is out.” I couldn’t believe it. I said “Coach, first eleven?” He replied, “Yah. Fandi and Malek told me you can do the job here.”

After the briefing was over, I went to Fandi and told him I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t been training and I didn’t want to jeopardise the team’s chances. So Fandi goes to speak to Douglas and Douglas comes back to me and says: “I wrote so many letters to get you out of the army. And now you tell me you can’t play?”

I told him it’s not that I didn’t want to play, but I was not mentally prepared to be in the starting eleven. So I started on the bench and 20 minutes in we had another injury and I had to take to the field. We lost that game. But after the game Douglas came to me and said, “I need you to get yourself fit, I am counting on you for the rest of the season.”

When a coach comes up to a young player and says something like that, it really gives you a lot of confidence and I was determined to play even better to repay his faith. That was Douglas for you.

What was your best memory of playing for the 1994 Dream Team? (Fan Question)

I think the best memory for me was a game against Kedah in the Darul Aman Stadium. I played as a midfielder and it was the best game I played the whole season. After the game, Douglas Moore gave me a big hug and said, “This was your best game ever, I am so proud of you.” He did not go to Fandi, he did not go to Malek, he came to me and it's really a moment that I treasure until today.

After that hug, all the players started to tease me by saying “Douglas is your father, Douglas is your father.”