He's a 14-year S.League veteran and Tanjong Pagar midfield linchpin. FourFourTwo's Weixiang Lim speaks to Sazali Salleh just days after the announcement that the Jaguars will be sitting out next season...
It has been 20 years since we first played together on the same neighborhood football team in Macpherson Estate, but Sazali Salleh can still recognize me and greets me with a wide smile and a firm handshake when we meet for lunch at D'Rubinah Restaurant, along Sembawang Road.
Name: Sazali Salleh
Club: Tanjong Pagar United
The halal restaurant serves a fusion of Indian, Thai and Western food is just 10 minutes away from Sazali's Admiralty flat, which is why he frequents the joint with his family.
"I don't usually eat out", he tells me. "Maybe once a month, I will bring my family here on a weekend. I don't have a car, so this is a very convenient place for the family."
We reminisce and laugh about our childhood but when the conversation shifts to the topic of Sazali's outgoing S.League club Tanjong Pagar, the mood turns sombre, and he wears a worried expression on his face.
It has been confirmed that Tanjong Pagar will not be participating in next year's competition. Where does that leave you now?
I was on a one year contract which means if I want to continue playing I will have to find a new club. But at the moment I think it's a very slim chance because of the new age restrictions (which will see teams limited to a maximum of 5 players aged 30 and above). Most of the clubs will probably give precedence to the players who have played for them this season to fill the quota. I have to think about finding a job away from football. It is hard to be saying goodbye after so many years.
What is your view of the new age restrictions?
It's a double whammy for players like me. Already, two clubs are gone, which means fewer spaces on the teams. With this new ruling, it means many players above 30 will have to retire from football. I have spent 16 years in the S.League and when we started, it wasn't easy. I started at Geylang when I was 14. We had to go through the COE (Centre of Excellence) system, I played in the under-14, U-16 and U-18 teams, moving on to the Reserve League (Prime League). And then after that if we were good enough, we moved on to play for the S.League team.
Now it's like, after you cut down the number of senior players, it becomes a lot easier, it's like walking into the S.League. They just need to step up from the Prime League. You want to produce young talents, that should be done in the Prime League. You need to have a strong Prime League competition to allow the young players to develop and learn, and not forcing it, pushing them up into the S.League before they are ready.
So retirement was never on your mind before this?
Through good times and bad times, [the Jaguars fans] were always there. I really appreciate them taking their time off and coming down to support the team.
Not really, no. We all know our body, whether we can take it or not, and I still have confidence in my body that I can still compete at the top level for at least another two years. Put it this way, there are certain standards of fitness that all S.League players, regardless of age, have to attain, be it the Beep Test in the past, or the 2.4 km test now. We are doing the same thing as the younger players, we don't get a discount just because we are over 30. It's not like we are sitting on the bench and taking easy money. We still play regularly, even though we are above 30.
Even after I returned from breaking my foot, after five months of not kicking a ball, I could still manage a timing of 10.15 for my 2.4 km test, which wasn't that far off the passing mark. I really hope the S.League will review the new regulations because I know I can still contribute to local football and there are many other players too who have so much experience to impart to the younger players.
How do you feel about your club sitting out?
To be honest, I have always felt blessed and thankful to the S.League for giving aspiring footballers like me the chance to pursue their dreams and make a living from it. Even now, I don't blame the league. I understand the reason why the club has to sit out but I wished they had given us more notice, so we could have more time to plan for the future.
You have played for seven clubs throughout your career. Geylang, Home United, Balestier, Tanjong Pagar, Woodlands, Hougang and Tampines. Which stint was the most memorable?
In my career, I have to thank three clubs.
Geylang, for bringing me up, developing me as a player.
Tanjong Pagar, which I joined after my NS stint with Home United. My career had sort of stalled during my time in NS because it was really hard to get into the Home United team. I really needed to get regular playing time and Richard Woon, the GM gave me the opportunity and that allowed me to make the breakthrough in my career and I received my first call-up for the senior National Team while I was at Tanjong Pagar.
Woodlands Wellington I need to thank because that was where I spent most of my senior career, eight years at the club.
But you won the league at Tampines!
Yes, I played for them in 2012 and I won my only S.League title with them. I also got to play in the AFC Cup which was a really great experience.
Who is the best player you have played with in your career?
For me, the best local player I have played with is Kadir Yahaya, who was in the same Geylang team as me in 1999.
If you are really forced into retirement at the end of the season, what would be the biggest regret of your career?
I think one of the toughest spells in my career was when I was with Woodland Wellington, in 2007, after the walkout in the game against Tampines Rovers. We were really unhappy with the referee (P. Pandian) but looking back now, it was very silly. We were fined heavily and we lost our main sponsor Sembcorp. After that, all the players had to take a pay-cut and that was when my career hit a snag.
The other big regret would be not being able to win the League Cup. I have won the S.League as well as the Singapore Cup but the League Cup has eluded me despite being in four finals.
What would you like to say to Tanjong Pagar fans?
Thank you for your support in the past two years. Through good times and bad times, they were always there. I really appreciate them taking their time off and coming down to support the team. Very sorry the results weren't better this season as we struggled with injuries. We gave our best and I am really sorry about what has happened. The fans deserve better.