One-on-one: Akbar Nawas, Singaporean blazing a trail across Southeast Asia
The global movement of football players has hardly left a corner of the planet untouched, Southeast Asia included.
We’ve seen players from Myanmar in the S.League, Timorese in Malaysia, Cambodians in Japan, Vietnamese in Korea, Thais in Laos and so on and so on.
Globally that’s also been the situation for a whole host of coaches, with the movement of South American and European tacticians in and out of their home bases an almost weekly occurrence.
I feel immense pride to be in this position because there have not been many Singaporean coaches that have moved abroad
For Southeast Asian coaches, however, it’s almost been an invisible barrier; even for those who succeed year on year in their own nation the opportunities to move abroad have been incredibly scarce.
One man who is ploughing that rarely trodden path is Akbar Nawas, a Singaporean who was offered the job earlier this year at one of the Philippines’ biggest clubs, Global Cebu, in the country’s brand new professional league.
Having suffered only one league defeat since he took over and piloting the club through to the semi-finals of the Singapore Cup, he also immediately dispelled the oft-heard retort that coaches from Southeast Asia are not good enough to have success abroad.
FourFourTwo caught up with the former Football Association of Singapore (FAS) staff coach and Tampines Rovers boss for an exclusive chat.
FOURFOURTWO: Thanks for speaking with FourFourTwo, Akbar. You’re in the almost unique situation of being a Southeast Asian coach who has ventured abroad to work elsewhere in the region – why did you decide to take on this challenge with Global Cebu?
AKBAR NAWAS: I first came as the Technical Consultant to the club and after doing that for about a month I signed a three-year contract as a head coach and that was the best move for me because the lure of coaching in another country is very challenging.
I feel immense pride to be in this position because there have not been many Singaporean coaches that have moved abroad, perhaps some go as directors or consultants, so I’m glad the owner saw enough in me to give me a longer tenure because you need that stability. That’s an issue in the ASEAN region where they don’t give coaches the time.
FFT: What have been the main challenges you’ve faced since the move and how much have you had to adjust and adapt your ideas to be successful in another country?
AN: The challenges are different, the culture is different and of course the conditions are different; for example over here in the Philippines sometimes you have to travel several hours by bus or a flight to another city, so you definitely have to make adjustments to your plans compared to say Singapore where you have to travel 30 minutes at most to go to another stadium.
There are signs the players are adapting to what I have implored for them ... but patience is the key
In the Philippines there are a lot of naturalised players; British-Filipino, Dutch-Filipino, Italian-Filipino and so on. There is a good mix of different kinds of players in the team, strong and vocal characters, which is a different kind of experience for me as I try to shape the team.
The assistant coaches and support staff are the most crucial at this stage as they are the ones that know the system and the players for the longest time and as a coach I have to note that and plan accordingly on and off the pitch.
I can’t just take every formula and method that I have used successfully in the past with other teams and take that to another country and expect that it will work because you have to look at what the specific team offers and the specific country offers and then make changes along the way.
Having said that there are changes that I have made, and a lot more that need to be made, but the crux of it is to make the changes step-by-step and not abruptly.
Football is an emotional game most of the time management and coaches make knee jerk decisions after a bad game which can be detrimental in the future.
FFT: What kind of specific things have you looked to change?
AN: The mental strength of the players over here is strong but needs to be channelled correctly, timely and effectively, because yes they don't give up when things go well for them but when the going gets tough and frustration sets in, that's where I'm trying to impart, improve them individually and as a team so that they don't buckle or get emotionally out of control.
It's a process and there is no magical pill for it and with all the different backgrounds of my players that's also a tall order, but it’s a challenge I'm relishing.
It's not going to happen overnight, especially when recovery is the focus with tight fixtures. There are signs the players are adapting to what I have implored for them but in spurts, thus patience is the key in creating a style of play and building a playing culture and that's what the owner is looking forward to seeing.
It's a work in progress because we want to go to the next level, in our play and discipline.