The Lions might never have won their first international trophy in 1998, if R. Sasikumar had not known “good fortune” during his national service (NS).
The former international defender’s “Shoulder Blade of God” goal saw the Lions defeat hosts Vietnam 1-0 to cap a fairytale race to the AFF championship.
Sasikumar, who had finished NS the previous year, had been assigned to the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (Safsa) to train full-time after completing his basic military training.
“At the time, I was very close to making the national team,” said the 46-year-old. “Imagine if I had to be away for two years, it’s over for me.”
Although the balance between NS duties and sporting commitments remains possible today, it is a challenge, said Sasikumar and others in the football and sport community at large.
The issue of national athletes and NS resurfaced after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) said on Monday it was working with the Ministry of Defense on NS support for footballers .
Sport Singapore Managing Director Lim Teck Yin told a press conference yesterday that this would mean working under existing initiatives to allow very specific athletes to train and perform during the NS .
Some current avenues include early enlistment, time off and time off, and opportunities to continue training and playing at the highest level while fulfilling NS obligations.
These were referenced in 2018 by Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, who then said NS’s duties and athletic excellence should not necessarily be mutually exclusive.
He cited footballers Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi, sons of Singaporean icon Fandi Ahmad, among the early enlisters who became talents spotted overseas after finishing NS.
SACRIFICE FOR SPORT
Ikhsan, 21, told the Straits Times that early enlistment was the best option at the time, which meant he could finish NS earlier and then fully focus on his professional career.
But the striker, who now plies his trade with Norwegian team FK Jerv, admitted that in NS the priority is NS and not football.
“If you really want this to work you have to sacrifice a few days off and rest to go to football training… Taking care of your body for peak performance (will be) difficult,” said Ikhsan, who turned out for the S-League. Home United (now Lion City Sailors) and Young Lions clubs as an infantry soldier from 2016 to 2018.
Fellow international Adam Swandi also recalled that his NS unit from 2015 to 2017 allowed him to be released earlier to attend training sessions – first with Young Lions, then Home United.
Adam, who now plays for the Sailors, said: “As an athlete you have to focus 100%. If you have anything else that is a higher priority… you won’t be at your best.”
While swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen have been granted a long-term suspension from Nova Scotia in order to be able to train and compete in the Olympics, some observers like Sasikumar believe other options could. be considered for sports such as football.
He referred to South Korea’s approach, where those who are part of a national team who do well in international competition will have their stints cut short.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min was exempted from the full two years after helping Korea win gold at the 2018 Asian Games, and completed a mandatory three-week stay last May.
ATHLETES ‘SERVE S’PORE’
Former UK sprinter Shyam set the current national 100-meter record of 10.37 seconds in 2001, shortly after serving his NS from 1998 to 2000.
The 44-year-old said he could have run even faster, had it not been for the difficulty of training regularly during his stint. Although he noted that support for athletes in NS has since evolved, Shyam stressed that athletes who criticize their provisions in NS should not be seen as “anti-NS”.
Representing Singapore in sport is like national service and an expression of patriotism, he added.
“It is a special honor to run or swim for your country at the highest level and devote your whole life to it,” he said. “We can’t say that these athletes don’t want to serve Singapore. They are doing it – just in a different and meaningful way.”