Representing the country a dream come true for Singapore's cerebral palsy footballers

It has been almost two years since Singapore's cerebral palsy (CP) footballers captured a bronze medal with a spirited display at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games (APG). FourFourTwo's Deepanraj Ganesan checks in on their preparation for the 2017 APG, which kicks off next week. 

The sun blazes down after a brief spell of heavy rain had lashed the Queenstown Stadium pitch.

But the players out on the field aren't vexed one bit - despite the unwelcoming combination of a soggy surface and stifling heat.

We see it as another chance for us to live a dream and play football while being with family

These men train four times a week, often in such conditions. For Singapore's CP  football team, there will be no sleep-in on Saturday.

“All of us, we come to training but we don’t see it as a session, we see it as another chance for us to live a dream and play football while being with family," said 28-year-old team member Muhammad Shahidil.

“We are a small group but the bond is so strong and the camaraderie makes this a real family. For me, it is a blessing in disguise that although I am born this way, and I can’t play football at the professional level, I have come here to find a second family.

“Here, I feel free when I come for training and if there is no football for us, what else can we be doing? We learn a lot from each other on and off the pitch.

Khairul Anwar, one of the team's standout performers in 2015

“Despite our limitations, it is a way for us to express ourselves and you can say we are living the dream.”

The enthusiasm from the players is clearly evident as they jump into the various drills dished out by head coach Mohamed Zainudeen.

While it was out of luck that they noticed me, it has been a dream come true for me ever since

Shahidil's teammate Suhaimi Sudar, a 27-year-old shopping assistant, explains why.

“We all feel really happy because representing the country and wearing the national flag on our chest is a feeling not everyone can get to experience,” he said.

“We all have full-time jobs and yes it is a struggle to cope sometimes, but we won’t give it up because it is an avenue for us to be as normal and at the same time we get to represent the country.”

Syafiq Sulaiman, 26, a full-time barista at Starbucks, is happy to share his story of how he joined the team. 

“I was walking at Woodlands interchange after work and two guys approached me and they asked if I have CP because they noticed that I walked with a limp, “he said.

Members of the team ahead of their trip to KL

“I had heard about them from reading the papers and what they achieved in the last Para Games so of course I was quite excited when they approached me and I realised who they were.

“We traded numbers and they told me to come for training and while it was out of luck that they noticed me, it has been a dream come true for me ever since.”

We won’t give it up because it is an avenue for us to be as normal and at the same time we get to represent the country

The conversation never gets to their personal targets for the upcoming games although Shahidil and Suhaimi admitted the 2015 APG bronze exploits were the "best moment" in their lives, especially since it was done in front of a home crowd.

In the 2015 Games, the team's dogged performances stole the stage as they beat Malaysia to clinch bronze.

CP football is a seven-a-side game, with players classifed from FT5 to 8, based on their disability.

This time around, coach Zainudeen will be bringing along a squad of 14 players with four of them - Ismail Kadir, Pranav C Balu, Magesvaran Sangily and Syafiq set to make their debuts in Malaysia.

Singapore have been drawn together with debutants Cambodia and hosts Malaysia in Group B, while Thailand and Myanmar, the finalists at the last edition of the Games, make up Group A along with Indonesia.
 

Coach Zainudeen is targeting the semi-finals. Photo: Supplied

Despite what he admits are “less than ideal preparations” going into the games, Zainudeen is expecting his charges to qualify from the group and make the semi-finals at least.

“The only wish I would have is for the boys to get more warm-up games. Before the last games, we had a very good preparation but this time we couldn’t,” he lamented.

You can see their passion when you look at them so I know I can expect their 100 per cent (effort) each time.

“Since the 2015 games, plenty has changed and most of the boys have other priorities like work which affects training attendance, but this is something we have to work around because it is their primary and only source of income at the end of the day and we cannot stop them from going to work.

“But these boys, they work really hard and you can see their passion when you look at them so I know I can expect their 100 per cent (effort) each time."

The Singapore CP football team kick-off their campaign on September 18 against hosts Malaysia.

Photos: Singapore CP team unless stated