Interviews

S.League Old Boys: Gabriel Obatola, the one who gave up Europe for a shot at Singapore citizenship

S.League fans of the past decade would remember this classy Nigerian forward who has pace, power and precision. FFT caught up with the 30-year-old, who is now playing for SGFC Eagles Maryland in America after a few years in Thailand… 

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He had just come off an excellent 2009 season, when he plundered 24 goals to finish second top-scorer behind Aleksandar Duric and helped Gombak United to their highest league position of third.

I was told that my EP could not be renewed and I had to leave Singapore within a week or two

- Gabriel Obatola

That earned him a coveted shot at Europe and he was set to sign for Israeli top-flight club Hapoel Acre the following season, but Obatola turned the opportunity down in favour of a chance at Singapore citizenship.

It proved an ill-advised decision as he only played three games in the 2010 campaign, before being denied an extension to his work Employment Pass (EP) by the Ministry of Manpower and forced to leave the country where he’d plied his trade for four years.

“I was very, very close to signing for Hapoel Acre in Israel,” Obatola revealed to FourFourTwo.

“I had already gone through the trials and done the medical check-up, but (Gombak chairman) John Yap called me up after meeting with FAS (Football Association of Singapore).

“He wanted me to stay one more year and get citizenship, just like what Agu (Casmir) and Precious (Emuejeraye) did. I thought ‘why not?’ because I can play for the Singapore national team.

“That’s why I rejected the offer in Europe to come back for another year and that was a mistake. But soon I was told that my EP could not be renewed and I had to leave Singapore within a week or two.“

The manner of the departure left a bitter taste in Obatola’s mouth and he is eternally grateful to then-Bulls coach Darren Stewart, who helped him land a contract with US second-tier side Portland Timbers thereafter.

Celebrating a goal for Gombak against Albirex. Photo: Jakarta Casual

“I’m sorry to say this but they (the authorities) do not respect talent in Singapore,” he said unabashedly. “If other countries behave like this, nobody’s going to shine.

“I’d been there for four years contributing my service and did not cause any problems so there’s no reason for them not to extend my EP.

“Coach Darren hooked me up with an agent who got me a deal in the US. If not, I would have been stuck and not sure where to go. I may even have had to start all over again in Nigeria or stop football, if not for him. That’s why I respect him so much till today.”

That marked the end of a memorable Singapore adventure, leaving as a Gombak legend with a tally of 73 goals in 124 appearances for the club.

How it all started

Obatola first came to local shores at the tender age of 18 in 2006 to try his luck and may not have even landed a contract if fate had taken a different turn.

“This is a story which I never shared with anybody and it was crazy,” he said.

This guy walked up to me and asked if I wanted to try playing in the Singapore league where there is potential

“I’d been playing for NPA FC (now called Warri Wolves) for two years back home in Nigeria, there was this guy who walked up to me and asked if I wanted to try playing in the Singapore league where there is potential.

“He was a coach in Singapore, who has now passed on. I thought ‘why not?’ so I came to Singapore by tourist visa. I was there for almost two weeks and there were around six days left to go back, in fact the return ticket has already been confirmed.

“That was when the guy who brought me in suddenly told there was a trial going on at Gombak. I came on as a substitute in a friendly game against Balestier (Khalsa) to score one and assist one in 15 minutes.

“Luckily for me (chairman) John Yap was there and he wanted to keep me. That was their last game of the pre-season. Everything happened so quickly and I guess I had God’s grace on my side then.”

Obatola scored his debut goal in a 2-2 draw with Albirex Niigata that April and never looked back, his arrival coinciding with Gombak’s gradual rise. 

Photo: Dave Williamson Photography

The Bulls finished a respectable eighth out of 11 teams in their first season back in the S.League – after sitting out from 2003-2005 due to financial difficulties – before ending up fourth out of 12 teams in 2007, the first of three seasons when he was the club’s top-scorer.

Acclimatising to Singapore on and off the field could be hard for foreign players, but not for “OJ”.

Goalscoring is my hobby, something which I love to do, so I had no problems doing it here in Singapore

“Everything was fine, the food was good and I was staying in an apartment with (fellow Africans) Obadin (Aikhena) and Kingsley (Njoku),” he shared. “I speak English back home, so there was no problem communicating on the field.

“I learned a bit of Mandarin and Malay because I listened to the players speaking every day. For example, I know how to say ‘ni hao ma’ (Mandarin for ‘how are you?’). Those terms are still in my head and it sounds so funny to me now.

“Goalscoring is my hobby, something which I love to do, so I had no problems doing it here in Singapore.”

The powerful 1.83m left-footed attacker went from strength to strength, playing an integral role in their 2008 League Cup-winning campaign.

[NEXT: Forced to end his close Singaporean ties]