A Singaporean in Brunei: How Mike Wong is breaking new frontiers with the Wasps

Brunei will be taking part in a World Cup qualifying campaign for the first time since 2002, with a Singaporean coach at the helm. Gary Koh talks to Mike Wong about taking the reins...

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When Brunei Darussalam take on Chinese Taipei in the first leg of the opening qualifying round of the joint FIFA World Cup/AFC Asian Cup qualifiers in Kaohsiung on Thursday, their acting head coach Mike Wong Mun Heng will be making history on a number of fronts as he sits in the dugout.

As a national team, we must try to win every game we play at international level, but the level of performance is equally important for our future development

- Mike Wong

The 49-year-old Singaporean will be the first national coach to lead the Tebuan (the Wasps) into World Cup qualifying for the first time in more than a decade. He will also be the first Singaporean to lead an overseas senior national team for World Cup qualifying in the biggest international assignment of his coaching career.

Appointed in December, the technical director of the National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam (NFABD) shared with FourFourTwo his pride and satisfaction in helping Brunei football move up another level with the joint World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

“I am very excited and feel really proud and honoured to be leading Brunei, but at the moment I'm just thinking about how I would go about doing it,” he said. “The two games (against Chinese Taipei) are important to us not just to qualify, but also to showcase Brunei’s readiness to compete in the international arena. We are all looking forward in taking part in these qualifiers.”

Wong is no stranger to the international game, having served as assistant to former Singapore national coach Radojko Avramovic during the Lions’ AFF Suzuki Cup success in 2012 as well as guided various national age-group teams before that.

Since his appointment as Brunei head coach late last year, the former Geylang International tactician has been juggling a hectic daily schedule.

During the day, he maps and implements the direction of Brunei football inside the NFABD building as their technical director. When evening comes, he swaps his office wear for football gear as he hones the Tebuan on the finer points of the international game.

DPMM's Azwan Ali Rahman should prove a key player for Brunei. Photo: S.League

For this Chinese Taipei assignment, Wong has named 23 players out of an initial 40-man shortlist for the first leg in Kaohsiung on Thursday and the second leg at home on 17 March. Seven of them come from the sultanate’s sole professional club, Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM), with the remainder coming from the clubs in the domestic Brunei Super League.

With none of the player called up to the national team possessing more than 10 official international caps, the Singapore Cup-winning coach has been teaching most of them – excluding the DPMM players who only linked up with the Tebuan after their S.League commitments on Sunday – the finer points of the international game.

PN Sivaji and Robert Lim showed me how to scout and develop young players, Raddy's way of handling professional players was amazing and Seak Poh Leong’s man management was first-class

- Mike Wong

“The majority of the players are in the pre-season phase, so I have to work on their fitness and sharpness to prepare them for the international games,” Wong explained, as the Bruneians prepared for their first non-Southeast Asian assignment since 2008. “With the time period given, I have to help them in training with some decision makings, so that they can react faster in the game.”

Like their coach, the non-DPMM players also had to juggle training with full-time work commitments from various government ministries in the local civil service. Wong is grateful to their respective clubs and employers for supporting the international cause.

“It is not easy for the non-professional players due to their work commitments and NFABD is very thankful to the various Ministries, the employers and the clubs of the players for the release and support,” he said, while praising his charges for giving their all during training.

In addition to regular training sessions, the Tebuan have regular sparring matches with the national Under-23 side and local club sides to enhance the individual and team tactical awareness and reinforce the lessons taught during training.

Having been based in the Sultanate since October 2013, Wong is aware of the significance the Chinese Taipei qualifying tie could have on Bruneian football even though the fixture sees the Tebuan as underdogs against the East Asian side.

Mike Wong during his time as Singapore's assistant manager. Photo: Alfie Lee/FAS

“The first round of World Cup qualifying is a competition, so we must try our best to qualify for the next round,” he said. “As a national team, we must try to win every game we play at international level, but the level of performance is equally important for our future development. I am sure the people in Brunei will support the national team, so we have to give a good account of ourselves in these two games.”

Reflecting on the long road that has led to his current role shaping the direction of Brunei Football, Wong is thankful to his mentors for helping him become the coach he is today.

“I felt really privileged and lucky to have learnt from these gentlemen,” he said. “(Former national technical director) PN Sivaji and (ex-national assistant coach) Robert Lim showed me how to scout and develop young players. Raddy (Avramovic’s) way of handling professional players was amazing and (ex-national technical director) Seak Poh Leong’s man management was first-class.”

From his experience travelling around the continent conducting coaching courses, Wong believes there are many Singaporean coaches who have the ability and potential to follow in his footsteps if they are given opportunities to branch out overseas.

“I am very sure we have some very good young coaches, not forgetting the senior ones who are doing well in Asian football outside Singapore,” he concluded. “I have travelled to a number of footballing countries from my work with AFC, generally I would rate our (Singapore’s) local coaching standard and delivery of coaching methodology as above average. However, having said that the local coaches need to be given the opportunities and the exposure, so I hope the decision makers have a strong belief and faith in their abilities.”

Main Photo: Yee Chun Leong/Brunei Times