From M-League reject to S.League starlet

Balestier Khalsa midfielder Arlando Nicholas Atkinson talks to Gary Koh about his football wilderness experience in Malaysia.

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The one that got away? Regardless of that, Arlando Nicholas Atkinson is just glad to get his professional career started in earnest with Singapore professional league side Balestier Khalsa.

In just over a month into his half-year contract, the 19-year-old British-Japanese midfielder has already registered three senior appearances for the first team in the S.League and League Cup despite being signed into the feeder reserve side.

In a recent meeting with FFT right before a training session at his club’s home ground, the Toa Payoh Stadium, he expresses his pleasant surprise at the upward trajectory his budding football journey at senior-level football has gone.

“It happened pretty fast in Singapore after Balestier wanted me for a one-week trial. I came down [from Kuala Lumpur] and everything went smoothly from there,” says Atkinson.

Credit: Andrew Lim & Balestier Khalsa

The road taken to reach this far in his budding career had not been an easy one. Having aspired to be a footballer, his football education began with the Kuala Lumpur Youth Soccer Academy and was further enhanced through frequent trips to various overseas summer football camps, including the world-famous Bobby Charlton Soccer and Sports Academy.

When he was 15, he packed his bags and left for Spain in pursuit of an enriching experience that would enhance his game. Through the international football and education boarding school company EduKick, he spent the next three years with Spanish third-tier side AD Colmenar in the Under-18 league.

Following his return to Malaysia after his Spain sojourn in 2013, his father’s good friends, Astro SuperSport pundit Abbas Saad and former S.League player Peter de Krester, arranged for him to train with Malaysia Super League outfit Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM).

Atkinson impressed head coach B. Sathianathan that he was given a first-team contract with the Gladiators.

“Abbas and Peter recommended me to train with Sathia because he has a reputation of grooming young players and pushing them up into first team football,” he recalls.

“I was interested because I had heard of the fantastic things he did with Malaysian kids with his time in the national team and was doing the same at club level.”

However, his registration hit a major snag due to the regulations stipulated by the Football Association of Malaysia.

To play in the M-League, a local player has to be a Malaysian citizen, while an import has to have a prior track record of playing at least in the second-tier from another country as a professional.

Despite having lived in Malaysia for all his life, aside from his three-year stint in Spain, he is not a Malaysian citizen, which effectively rendered him ineligible to feature as a local.

In a similar case, Kelantan midfielder Brendan Gan was only cleared to play as a local in the Malaysia Super League midway this season after the former Sydney FC midfielder obtained a Malaysian passport. 

And even if Arlando were slightly older and played as a professional in the Colmenar first-team, the Spanish side would still need to feature at least in Liga Segunda for him to be considered as a foreigner under FAM league regulations.

The red-tape caught him by surprise as he was restricted to training with the first team and playing in unofficial friendly matches for the club.

“To be honest, I was pretty stunned and disappointed by the decision,” he laments. “ATM was really a big step for me, especially when I got to train and learn from seasoned professionals and pick up the finer points from imports like Marlon (Alex James) and Bruno (Martelotto).”

He and his family were hoping for a turnaround in fortunes, but after a futile wait for a year-and-a-half, it eventually prompted them to take action.

Credit: Weixiang Lim

Abbas and de Krester lent their hands again, helping him to land a trial with Balestier, where the coaches were instantly impressed and signed him for the remainder of the current S.League season.

The Singapore league regulations stipulate that outfield imports only need to pass a fitness test run of 2.4 kilometres under 10 minutes to qualify to play in domestic matches.

With his physical frame and game intelligence, he was eventually deemed good enough to be handed his professional debut against Steve Kean’s Brunei Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM) in a 2-2 draw in the League Cup last month.

Presently staying with de Krester’s mother-in-law, the young midfielder has praised the exposure and guidance he has been given under current club head coach and former Kelantan midfielder Marko Kraljevic.

“Marko has been excellent to me and has been giving me chances to play,” he says. “And my team-mates treat me as one of their own and I am enjoying every minute of my experience here so far.”

Although he is presently enjoying his time with Balestier, he is keeping his options open at the expiry of his current contract.

Despite the bureaucratic red tape denying him a professional career in Malaysia, his heart remains indebted to Sathianathan for giving him his first chance in professional football and he has not ruled out a return to ATM.

“Sathia has been one of the best football coaches I have ever worked with, and it is in my desire that I will one day go back and play for him," he concludes.