Why Gabriel Quak flies the flag for Chinese players

The LionsXII winger's success is a blow for kiasu folk who won't let the majority race play, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Quak's recent consistency exemplifies his commitment. The boy stood up to last season’s criticism like a man and became an integral member of Fandi Ahmad’s first team.

- Neil Humphreys

Almost 15 years ago, a controversial book suggested Singapore football would never succeed unless its majority race viewed the sport as a viable career. The rhetoric, the national projects, the developmental squads, the LionsXII, the Young Lions, the Sports Hub stemmed the bleeding, but offered no cure.

Without Chinese participation, professional football would end up a well-dressed corpse hidden behind a branded jersey.

The book was mine. It was written at a time when Lim Tong Hai, Steven Tan, Lee Man Hon and Goh Tat Chuan were still playing in the S-League. They were a paradox; the majority race making up the minority of a national sport. They were quirky anomalies back then. They seem like the last of the Mohicans now.

Thank god then for Gabriel Quak.

He is everything the game needs him to be and probably nothing he wishes to be.

The 23-year-old Lions XII winger has rediscovered his youthful promise in recent weeks.

Inspired by the brutal assessment of his former coach and mentor Kadir Yahaya, Quak vowed to do better. He promised to deliver for the man who’d nurtured him at the National Football Academy. He owed it to Kadir. He owed it to himself. He found his game and now chases silverware. The Lions XII are a two-legged semi-final away from the Malaysia FA Cup Final.

If Quak makes a date at the Bukit Jalil Stadium on May 23, he carries the hopes of both the idealists and the pragmatists. He is burdened by his birth certificate. Quak is Chinese.

He is Chinese in a country that makes no sense to the outside sporting world. He is Chinese on a tiny island where 75 per cent of its population shares his race, but not his career choice. He is the lone Chinese representative at senior level.

Through no fault of his own, he demonstrates all that is right with Singapore’s pragmatic economy and workforce and all that is wrong with its sporting culture. The Football Association of Singapore is always a convenient punching bag, but its staff cannot compete with an entrenched ideology. How do administrators compete with kiasuism?

If the England Football Association suddenly found itself deprived of Caucasians in its developmental squads and senior sides, the national game would obviously implode, not because white footballers are in any way superior, but because they make up more than 85 per cent of the talent pool.

The majority race of any nation must contribute to its sporting culture, to increase the talent pool, to establish a cultural connection between footballer and fan and to inspire others to take a similar career path.

Of course, Quak probably wants to hear none of this. He just wants to play football. And the good news is he isn’t required to do anything else. The only responsibility of a beacon of hope is to shine. And he’s illuminating Jalan Besar.

His skin tone and ethnicity shouldn’t matter. But it does. Of course it does. Barack Obama doesn’t want to be known as a “black president” anymore than Alexandar Duric wanted to be categorised as the “ang moh footballer”. Skin colour isn’t a prerequisite for a job or an indicator of one’s performance anymore than ethnicity should be a barometer for one’s sporting potential.

But Quak’s influence isn’t so much racial as it is cultural. He’s not overcoming the prejudice of Singapore’s other races, but the inherent prejudice of his own. The Chinese do not take football seriously as a professional career. Football doesn’t pay the bills. Football doesn’t impress the aunties at reunion dinners. Football loses face.

The cultural narrative is familiar to millions. School-age competitions are blessed with budding Chinese talents, striving, excelling and delivering, in all positions, on football fields across the nation. And then the real season comes along – after he receives his diploma and/or degree – and all those naïve, prepubescent sporting dreams are scrubbed away by the wire brush of hardheaded thinking.

We are proud to put our lives in the hands of our trained doctors and honoured to travel on the roads built by our experienced engineers. Just don’t talk about our football team.

Thankfully, gloriously, Quak is the current antidote to such a cynical, myopic approach. Quak is the exception who rules. His recent consistency exemplifies his commitment. The boy stood up to last season’s criticism like a man and became an integral member of Fandi Ahmad’s first team.

In a year of bitter disappointment for Singapore football, Quak is a quiet cause for optimism. More importantly, he’s a counterargument, a readymade retort to the tedious claim that the Singapore-Chinese cannot play professional football. He’s a torchbearer, a role he presumably neither needs nor craves. But Quak is a name to throw in the face of parental opposition, a potential navigator to guide promising Chinese kids around those cultural obstacles.

Right now, he is proof that a Singapore-Chinese footballer can succeed. If others follow, then the majority race gives the game a sporting chance.

Then Quak will lose the label. He will no longer be a Chinese footballer. He’ll just be a footballer.