Reunited with ‘Fantastic Four’ duo, Ridhuan plans to keep going
That was his first step towards stardom as he duly made it into the National Football Academy (NFA) age-group squads and forged lifelong friendships with batch mates like Baihakki Khaizan, Shahril Ishak and Hassan Sunny.
The quartet was even dubbed as the “NFA Gang of Four”, due to their similar career journeys.
It was the reporters that always called us the Fantastic Four or something like that!
“It was the reporters that always called us the Fantastic Four or something like that!” reminisced Ridhuan.
“We first knew each other from the Milo Soccer School at the age of 11, travelled together to a few countries together due to football commitments and subsequently played for the Young Lions together, before going on to separate careers with clubs.”
“We also played for the national team together and won the ASEAN Championship (the current Suzuki Cup) two times. That’s why on and off the pitch, we’re like brothers and have a fantastic bond.”
“Looking back, the Milo Soccer School was great in our development. The format was divided into the North, South, East and West zones and there were competitive games for us to look forward to every weekend.
“As young players back then, we were always looking to compete at a higher level and test our abilities against the best youths in the country.”
Ridhuan duly made it into the national team setup, making 65 appearances and scoring three goals. He was part of the 2004 and 2007 Suzuki Cup winning squads, playing a key role in the second triumph.
Having attained a facial injury that required 12 stitches above his eyebrow in a 1-1 semi-final first leg draw away against Malaysia, he braved through the pain barrier to play in the return leg at the old Kallang Stadium.
Sporting a bandaged head, he scored a late equaliser in front of a sold-out crowd to force the tie into a penalty shootout, in which the Lions eventually triumphed to reach the final – making him a cult hero of sorts.
Sporting a bandaged head, he scored a late equaliser in front of a sold-out crowd to force the tie into a penalty shootout, in which the Lions eventually triumphed to reach the final – making him a cult hero of sorts
“That got to be the most memorable moment of my career,” said Ridhuan. “It wasn’t the most beautiful goal I scored, but it’s definitely the most important one – coming in such a crucial game for the country.
“The wound was still raw because I got the cut in the first leg days earlier, but I was so pumped up in front of 55,000 fans that I didn’t feel the pain during the game.
“I felt it only after scoring, because my teammate Ah Long (Noh Alam Shah) actually shook my head during the celebration and it started bleeding again!”
Ridhuan subsequently joined Tampines Rovers and played for three seasons there from 2007 to 2009, with his consistent performances not going unnoticed as he soon secured a big move to play for Arema Malang in the Indonesia Super League along with Alam Shah.
He then spent a total of four years in Indonesia, three and a half which was spent with Arema and half a season at Putra Samarinda on loan.
Ridhuan duly established himself as a key player in their 2009/10 title-winning campaign and was a fans’ favourite, not least because of his good looks.
He was often referred as “R6” — a nickname coined from Cristiano Ronaldo’s CR7 — by the Arema faithful and his popularity rose to the extent that he could not walk around in Malang without being mobbed.
Visits to the shopping malls inadvertently became opportunities for the fans to take photos and he had to resort to disguising himself with shades or caps to avoid the attention.
In an interview with local media back in 2010, he even mentioned that there were fans who stalked him till the doorstep of his home and there were ‘more than 1,000 friend requests’ on his personal Facebook account.
They looked up to me as a foreign player and I felt obliged to give my 200 per cent in games to repay their faith and make them smile
“It was just like a fantasy life there lah,” quipped Ridhuan. “The culture over there is totally different from Singapore and it’s not fair to compare both.
“The lifestyle there is more laidback, unlike Singapore where everyone is busy working and building their careers. The people there are just crazy and passionate about football. Even when the weather’s too hot or raining heavily, they are always there to support us which made us feel really appreciated.
“They looked up to me as a foreign player and I felt obliged to give my 200 percent in games to repay their faith and make them smile.”
However, Indonesia football soon declined and there were many uncertainties regarding players’ futures due to a row between the government and the PSSI (Football Association of Indonesia).
With a FIFA ban looming then, Ridhuan made the decision to return to Singapore as he joined Geylang for the 2014 season.
From strutting his stuff in front of almost 90,000 fans at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium to playing in front of hundreds at the Bedok Stadium, the contrast could not be starker.
Nonetheless, he was grateful to be able to continue what he loved doing the most.
“With all those problems, there was no reason for me to stay there and I knew I had to come back,” explained Ridhuan. “Once I came back here, I knew it was always going to be reality.
As local footballers, we cannot make excuses and we still need to play our hearts out for those fans who turn up to watch our matches. At least I still have a ‘rice bowl’ and the opportunity to continue playing professional football
“Times were different and the S.League is obviously not as strong as 10 over years ago economically. There were the LionsXII (participating in Malaysian competitions) during that time so the attention was naturally taken away from our league.
“But as local footballers, we cannot make excuses and we still need to play our hearts out for those fans who turn up to watch our matches. At least I still have a ‘rice bowl’ and the opportunity to continue playing professional football.”
Ridhuan then re-joined Tampines in 2015, went to Warriors for 2016 and will continue with the uniformed outfit for 2017.
This upcoming season gives the experienced campaigner extra impetus as he is reunited with long-time buddies Baihakki and Shahril in the same club again since they ‘graduated’ from the Young Lions a decade ago.
The duo both joined the Warriors after being released by Malaysia Premier League side Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) II at the end of last season.
“To be back with old friends whom I’ve played together since my childhood days after so long gives me something to look forward for this new season,” said Ridhuan.
It’s just a pity that Hassan went to Home United; if not all four of us will be reunited together again
“It’s just a pity that Hassan went to Home United; if not all four of us will be reunited together again. Definitely the dressing room will be much more lively and chaotic this year, with this bunch of jokers around.”
He is also looking to set the record straight when it comes to the league championship.
“I’ve played almost 10 years in the S.League now, but I’ve never won the title,” lamented Ridhuan. “But this year I have a good feeling because we have a good squad with a number of experienced players.
“Hopefully this will be a great year ahead after such a tough 2016 season. To win my first S.League title and to help Warriors win their 10th will be perfect.”
Due to his age factor, the inevitable question comes – how long more can he go? The man himself believes he can still survive a few more years at the highest level.
“I’m turning 33 this year and I’ll probably say five more years,” revealed Ridhuan. “I still have the passion and fire to succeed in professional football.
The most important thing for me is to finish on a high and I want to achieve something before I retire; I don’t want to go out because I’m old and struggling to keep up on the pitch
“For now, I just want to keep my fitness and limit my injuries to a minimum. The most important thing for me is to finish on a high and I want to achieve something before I retire; I don’t want to go out because I’m old and struggling to keep up on the pitch.”
While he will eventually hang up his boots, the veteran is looking to stay in the sports industry and has already taken baby steps towards that objective.
“I had wanted to go into the oil and gas industry in 2015, but the industry is now a bit shaky,” he shared.
“Currently I’m taking a part-time diploma in sports science at the PSB Academy for my personal upgrading.
“So definitely I’m looking to become a sports trainer in the future and I feel that I can have a bit to offer, given my background in professional football.”
Photos: S.League (Unless stated otherwise)