Untold Stories, Southeast Asian Clubs: Balestier Khalsa

Southeast Asia has a rich football history, with some big-name clubs intertwined with some notable, yet lesser-known outfits. In the fifth edition of our new series, FourFourTwo learned the history of one of Singapore football’s great survivors…

When FourFourTwo sat down to interview Balestier Khalsa chairman S Thavaneson, who has been at the helm of the S.League club for well over three decades, we posed the question what has given him his greatest satisfaction from his time at one of Singapore’s more unfashionable clubs.

“We changed the face of football in Singapore,” was his frank reply from the club’s Toa Payoh base.

“Prior to the formation of the S.League in 1996, we had a semi-professional league for seven years and in 1988 we became the first club in Singapore to bring in foreign players.

BALESTIER KHALSA

FOUNDED In 1898 as Fathul Kharib. The club merged with Clementi Khalsa in 2002 to form Balestier Khalsa

LEADING FIGURES Thavaneson Selvaratnam Long-serving owner and chairman who has been involved with the club for almost 40 years; is a chartered accountant and Umbro representative in Singapore

Cheng Tim Nee General manager who is in charge of much of the day-to-day affairs of a club he has been with for almost two decades

Marko Kraljevic Returned in 2014 to coach the club he played with for three seasons in the late 1990s

COLOURS Red and Blue

MOST SUCCESSFUL COACH

Marko Kraljevic – S.League coach of the year in his first season with the club in 2014 and runner-up in the same award last year as he led the Tigers to a 4th placed league finish and knockout round appearances in both cups

HOME GROUND Toa Payoh Stadium

CAPACITY 4,000

“The two players, Josko Spanjic and Boris Lucic, were from Yugoslavia and that time was in many ways the height of popularity for football in Singapore.

“These days most clubs are lucky to pull in 500 or 1,000 fans, but back then we had to regularly delay kick-off and call in the police to help deal with the crowds because the place was packed full,” he remembers.

Walking around the stadium and indeed the region from which the club draws its name, that seems scarcely believable.

A DISTRICT IN TRANSITION

The Balestier district, one of the island’s oldest, has long been associated with Burmese migrants and functional industry based around lighting. But the old wooden houses and shop-fronts are being torn down and replaced with a series of high-rise developments as the area seeks to shrug off its downtown feel and cater to an increase in young families.

Families that, even if they have an interest in football, would struggle to comprehend the beginnings, the rise and then the fall of a club that in many ways mirrors that of football in Singapore itself.

Tracing their origins all the way back to 1898 – around the time that Sun Yat Sen was visiting the district which still maintains one of his villas as a local attraction – they were formed as Fathul Karib and based in Farrer Park.

One of the highlights over the following half century, before the side was renamed Balestier United Recreation Club in the 1970s, was providing nine players to the Singapore side which competed in the 1958 Asian Games, losing 2-1 to both continental heavyweights South Korea and Israel.

Members of the Balestier squad warm-up at the club's modest facility

That was the time of Majid Ariff, a player that Thavaneson calls one of the greatest the country has produced.

“For us, as a club, we’re proud of our history and being one of the oldest club sides in Southeast Asia – this is important.

“We’ve produced so many great players and had so many others come to this club, but the greatest of them all was Majid Ariff. He was a class above them all, but you see what happens is that people start to forget and only focus on young players.

“But this club has a rich history that we should all remember.”

This, remember, was a club that in addition to that ground-breaking move to sign a pair of eastern Europeans in the late 1980s, also had the likes of Dollah Kassim, Zainal Abidin and Khan Hung Meng grace their Toa Payoh home.

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