04 September 2017
It was a December afternoon unlike any other. Singapore's cerebral palsy (CP) footballers were facing fierce competition from their Malaysian counterparts in a hotly contested 2015 ASEAN Para Games (APG) bronze medal match. Both teams were equally matched in deftness and skill, and before the 20th minute, both teams had scored a goal each.
Our TeamSG CP Football Bronze medallists at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games.
The match continued to be at a stalemate until an opening was created by a swift-footed Muhammad Mubarak. Running past two Malaysian defenders, he went straight towards the goalkeeper and fired a right-footed stunner to seal the decisive second goal for Singapore. The next 18 gruelling minutes of the game were hard-fought – Singapore had to defend the two goals and hang on with all their might to maintain their lead until the final whistle. The responsibility of leading a rock-solid defence that night rested on the shoulders of then-skipper and defender Khairul Anwar.
“Playing the backline after the second goal was scored was a crazy experience. Whenever someone passed, it was scary,” he recalls.
The team fought valiantly to hang on, employing every tactic in their arsenal to defend the score. A little after the 61st minute, the referee blew the whistle thrice, signalling the end of the match and much-needed relief for the Singapore players. A rapturous roar from the home crowd erupted in the stands at the same time. A teary-eyed Khairul dropped to his knees at the whistle, unable to contain his emotions any longer. The extreme pressure of having exams at the same time, being hospitalised prior to the Games due to mounting stress, and living up to expectations from loved ones and football fans were over, at least for that moment.
Most importantly, his team had scored a victory much larger than a medal that day – they had scored an incredible win for people with cerebral palsy in Singapore. Says Khairul, “When 2015 happened, it was really a big change in support. It was a good result of our efforts to create awareness of CP football.”
“The fans really helped us to believe in ourselves. Everyone played a big part.”
Fuelled by a lifelong love for the beautiful game
“When you want something, you really got to go for it.”
– Khairul Anwar
Way back when Khairul was a teenager, he spoke to a friend about a dream that he had – a dream to represent Singapore in football. Khairul spent his growing up years watching local legend Fandi Ahmad on TV, and that nurtured the love for football in him. He was so passionate about the sport, that back then, he did not notice that he moved around differently.
“When I was young, I didn't see that I was different. I chose to mix around and play football with everyone. Some of them noticed a difference in my movements, but I kept participating anyway,” says Khairul. He continued to play, sometimes to the detriment of his studies, and went on to represent his secondary school and a football club in an amateur league. His determination helped him push through his mental and physical barriers, bringing him hope that one day, he might just realise his dreams.
But his early days were often fraught with obstacles.
“I wasn't a regular, I was on the bench most of the time,” says the defender. “I told myself that I have to get the experience of playing, otherwise I will not learn to play football better. You don't learn much just by watching.”
Khairul also readily admits his love for football has put him hot soup many times. He would neglect his studies, not sleep well because of matches the following day, and leave the house many times without permission. His parents naturally became opposed to the idea of Khairul playing football. And instead of being dissuaded, it actually spurred him on to reach for greater heights.
“I wanted to prove them wrong. And when they were at the National Stadium in 2015 taking photos with me, seeing their happy faces was one of the most memorable things in my life. My father even told me to lose more weight and train harder for football,” quips the 31-year-old.
There was also a benefit outside of football that that came with the rigourous training. “By doing sports, it improved my running and walking. Football really helped me a lot.”
During the first edition of the ASEAN Para Games in 2001, Khairul put his running to good use when he got his big break as a national para-sprinter. He proudly donned the colours of Singapore, representing the country diligently in track and field as the national CP football team not yet formed.
Sprinting for the 100m and 200m events, Khairul had opportunities to travel around the world to compete at international tournaments. On a fateful day in 2003, he stumbled across a CP Football game in London. From then onwards, he knew that his future lay in that sport.
The encounter inspired me to start taking up CP football in Singapore the moment I came back. I was under the AWWA Teach Me Association for 4 years where its CP football team won quite a number of medals.”
The group soon grew and started to form small leagues which led to the team playing their first international competition in Abu Dhabi in 2012. They would then move their training base to Queenstown stadium and have sponsored boots and jerseys as part of their training kits. Organically, different associations and individuals came together to make up a more regular squad of players – forming the medal-winning Singapore CP football team that we know today.
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A vision for the next generation: Khairul Anwar
“I personally want to see the Singapore team grow. Not just for going to competitions, but to raise awareness and keep people turning their heads. Let's keep the dream alive.”
– Khairul Anwar
The rise of the bronze-winning cerebral palsy (CP) football team happened through a collective passion for the sport over a span of more than seven years, with efforts contributed by the team, coaches and supporters. A group of professionals also played a hidden, but fundamental, role in the fitness of the CP football team – the physiotherapists.
What most people may not see is that the players' mobility challenges while training for CP football places tremendous stress on their joints, and regular 40- to 60-minute match can easily pose numerous risks of injury. In Khairul's case, because of his cerebral palsy on the right side of his body, he has to wear insoles and frequently tape up his joints to prevent injuries as much as possible – an issue that almost made him give up CP football prior to the 2015 Games.
“I was injured after a trip to Osaka. The doctor told me not to play for three months, but APG was coming. At that point, I thought that 2015 would be my last Games, but after playing the first match, everything changed,” he says. “The support from the home crowd really helped us a lot.”
Another important pillar of strength behind the team was CP football coach Mohammed Zainudeen. His care for the players and attention to detail were the keys to unlocking his team's individual talents. According to Khairul, Coach Zai – as he affectionately calls him – was able to hone each individual's skills so that every player shone on the field. Since working with the Singapore Disability Sports Council in 2010, Coach Zai has been the team's rock and role model. His method of coaching led to inspire Khairul to see coaching as something he would do in the future.
Khairul also has a bigger vision for the future: a development squad for up-and-coming players. As finding CP footballers is difficult locally, as compared to larger countries like Malaysia and Indonesia having a larger pool of players, he feels it is necessary to understand what else can be done so that local CP football can go from strength to strength.
“As of now, we have the national squad, but not yet a development squad. There is still room for us to grow as we've seen the potential of the players. We have to spend more time to understand and figure out what to work on,” he explains.
With a fiery determination and a visionary goal for the sport that he calls his 'first love,' Khairul's tireless efforts bodes well for the future of local CP football.
“Atmospheric pressure” will be a challenge in KL
The Singapore CP football team is used to playing away games, and having played friendly matches in Indonesia and Malaysia, they know of what to expect when they head to KL.
“We know how the atmosphere is going to be – noisy and intimidating. 2015 was a different thing for us, so playing away this year will be a big challenge,” says Khairul, who will be stepping into a central midfielder role in 2017. It will be a leap from his usual central defender as midfielders need huge amounts of endurance and strategic know-how to dictate the play and feed the ball to players.
Khairul pragmatically expects his opponents to get better and stronger after 2015, as CP football has also gained support overseas. Same goes to the number of overseas supporters in the stands that will be cheering for his counterparts.
But he is optimistic of the support he'll get from local fans.
“After 2015, there were fans who added us on Facebook and told us that they'll see us in KL. Some fans also bumped into us on a bus and they told us that they're going to cheer for us at the Games.”
Buoyed by their previous Games' win and the unwavering support from Team Singapore, our CP football team is ready for their upcoming challenge in KL. Will YOU be ready turn into their 'eighth player' and cheer them on as #OneTeamSG? See below for a two easy ways to do so.
Applaud the Teamwork
Our team in red is all set to face some of the toughest opponents in Southeast Asia and it'll be a showdown of will and skill on the pitch! Be part of the CP Lions' roar this year and lend your cheers to our very own para-football heroes!
Stay tuned to TeamSingapore.sg and TeamSG Facebook for updates on our athletes at the ASEAN Para Games!