Dream Team 1994: The one who was the youngest – Zakaria Awang

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 most exciting prospects in the team at that time – Zakaria Awang...

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What have you been up to in the last 21 years since that memorable season?

After Singapore pulled out from the Malaysia Cup, I went to play in the S.League for a few seasons before I was forced to retire due to injury. These days, I am married and I work as a Senior Financial Services Consultant with AIA.

You were one of the most exciting young players in the '90s, but how did you get your break in football?

I was part of the Milo School age-group teams when I was in secondary school, but I stopped playing for a while after my O’Levels. While waiting for my O’Level results, I found a part-time job at dairy company Asia Dairies and I put on a lot of weight! Because we had a free flow of milk and ice cream, it was a good life. [laughs]

My football coach at Jintai Secondary, Mr Sies Senan, got a shock when he saw me and said: “You'd better come down to train with us.” So that was how I returned to football .   

In 1992, I started playing for Redhill Rangers in the then semi-professional Premier League. My coach from Bukit Merah ITE, Mr Eric Loh, was the one who brought me in to play for them. I was 16 years old and the youngest player in the league and Milous Kvacek, Singapore's first foreign national coach, spotted me and called me up to train with the senior national team.

But you made your debut for the senior national team at only 18 years old?

Yes. I was training with the senior national team for a while but did not play in any competitive games. Then there was a tug-of-war between the Singapore Schools Sports Council and the national team for me. In the end, I was asked to join the Singapore Schools Sports Council Squad that would compete in the ASEAN Schools Championships in Bangkok. After I returned from that tournament, I was asked to train with the national 'B' team under P.N Sivaji. It was only in 1994 when Ken Worden took over that I was recalled to the senior national team.

Even then you were still the youngest player on the 1994 team...

Yes. I was 18 – actually the same age as Lee Man Hon, but his birthday is a few months earlier. So yes, technically I was the youngest.

What was it like playing football at the highest level at such a young age?

Back then the stadium was different, the stands were elevated, so it was possible not to see the crowd if I just looked straight ahead

It could be scary at times. I remember the first time I took the field at the old National Stadium in Kallang. We were playing Sabah. It was a full house, 60,000 crowd. It was deafening. Standing on the touchline and waiting to take to the field, I was trembling. It was frightening, to be honest. I did not dare to look up at the crowd. Back then the stadium was different, the stands were elevated, so it was possible not to see the crowd if I just looked straight ahead. So when I finally got on the field, I made sure to keep my gaze at eye level. In my mind, I told myself, my first touch, it has to be good.

So my first few touches, they were all simple passes for me to get my confidence. It was the same even for the more experienced players. The first few touches, they were very important. If you made a mistake, the whole stadium would react to it and you would lose your confidence very quickly.

That Sabah game is the ‘memory one’ for me. It was a fantastic debut. I made a few good runs down the line and sent in a few good crosses, one of which resulted in a goal for Michael Vana.

What was it like being in the 1994 team?

We were very well taken care of. The senior players like Fandi, Malek, together with the manager Omar Ibrahim, they made sure the team was well taken care of. The team bonded very well. It was a very good balance of experience and youth and the foreigners like Abbas and Jang Jung integrated themselves very well with the team. We were a very close bunch, because we saw each other every day. We had trainings in the morning, before everyone went to work, and then training in the evenings after work. Even on weekends we saw each other when we had Saturday games and when we were travelling back on Sundays. We saw each other more than our families and girlfriends.

I was serving my National Service at that time, so the away trips were something I really looked forward to, because it meant I was allowed to book out from camp.

Did you get to play a lot?

I wasn’t a starter. They were so many good players in the team, it was very hard to get into the first 11. But I made a lot of substitute appearances as a left winger, usually coming onto the field in the last 20 minutes.