This was published in The New Paper on 6 December 2008:
Mustafic Creates History (The New Paper, 6 Dec 2008)
By Gary Lim in Jakarta
AS SINGAPORE opened their Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup campaign with a 5-0 trouncing of Cambodia yesterday, a player wrote his name into the record books.
For Mustafic Fahrudin, he began the day thinking that it would be business as usual.
Little would he have imagined that he would later lead the team out of the players’ tunnel, wearing the Singapore captain’s armband.
According to team manager Eugene Loo, Mustafic is the first naturalised Singaporean to skipper the national team in a competitive match.
As it turned out, the 27-year-old Serbia-born player was all pumped up, and even scored from the penalty spot to mark the occasion.
When the match ended, Mustafic was finally able to let the emotions sink in.
Said the defensive midfielder, who collected his Singapore passport in 2005: ‘It was only before the game that the team manager Eugene told me that I would be made captain of the team.
‘It’s a great feeling, you know. As a footballer, it is always a dream to captain your country. I’m proud to be the captain.
‘Of course, as a professional footballer, you have to play each game the same way you always do. Now, as captain, you have more responsibilities.
‘It felt good though, and I think I can be happy with my performance.’
The appointment of Mustafic as captain came as a surprise to many. Striker Indra Sahdan is usually the first-choice to lead the team, but he was missing from the starting line-up last night.
Many were also under the impression that goalkeeper Lionel Lewis was next in line for the captain’s role. But Lewis said that coach Raddy Avramovic had pulled him aside before the match to explain to him the decision.
Said Lewis: ‘The coach told me that he wanted Mustafic as captain because he wanted him to avoid collecting a yellow card.
‘Because as captain, he can speak up to the referee, and that will reduce his chances of getting booked. That’s no problem for me. We’re all part of a team. As long as the team wins, I’m happy.’
Baihakki Khaizan, who had a comfortable outing in defence, was relieved that the team got off to an opening win.
He added: ‘The coach has his own views about captaincy. Whoever is captain, I don’t mind. This team plays for one another.’
There have been several occasions when a naturalised Singaporean captained the national team, although those games involved were all friendly matches.
During last month’s warm-up game against Vietnam, Mustafic led the side in the second half, after Indra was substituted.
Defender Daniel Bennett is another who has worn the armband before.
With Mustafic Fahrudin being given the skipper’s armband, we now have two national teams that are led by foreign talents.
Last month, Chris Gilbert, whom if I am not mistaken, is from England, led the Singapore Reds to promotion in the Division One competition of the Asian Rugby Championships.
And now, we have Serbian-born Mustafic, who got his Singapore citizenship in 2005, leading the Lions in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.
I am sure the leadership appointments of these two foreign talents would have raised many eyebrows in the local sporting fraternity. And I am equally sure that there will also be people criticising these appointments, preferring to see Singaporeans being given the skipper’s armband instead.
Although I am a proponent and a big fan of local talent, I am quite neutral about this, to be honest.
At the end of the day, I am not too bothered about Gilbert and Mustafic’s captaincies simply because rugby and football are team sports and also because the balance between local and foreign talents in both teams has not tilted dangerously towards the foreign talent end.
The Singapore rugby and football teams are unlike the national table tennis and badminton teams of recent years where token Singapore representation seems to be the order of the day. That, in turn, was the result of the flagrant and shameless abuse of the Foreign Talent Scheme by the previous management regimes at the Singapore Badminton Association and the Singapore Table Tennis Association.
Hopefully, now that new presidents and management regimes have been installed at the SBA and STTA, we will get to see more talented local shuttlers and paddlers being given the opportunity to represent Singapore on the international stage. The signs, promisingly, are pointing in that direction.
Back to Mustafic and Gilbert.
As far as I am concerned, if the two chaps are good enough to lead their respective teams, and bring qualities to the table that can help to raise the standards of their teams to new levels, then bring it on, I say.
Gilbert took over the captaincy from Rong Jingxiang and I think he has, so far, proven to be a very good leadership choice.
I say this based on the way the Singapore Reds displayed a never-say-die fighting spirit and came storming back from the brink to snatch a 20-20 draw with Sri Lanka and a 23-22 win over Taiwan in the ARFU, results that enabled them to earn promotion to the Asian Five Nations competition next year.
Likewise, I have, to date, only read good things in the press about Mustafic in his role as defensive midfielder for the Lions.
I also like the way Mustafic has, over the years, perservered and bounced back from being just a dispensable availabe-for-loan player to the towering figure of influence that he has now become.
Remember: when he first joined Tampines Rovers a few years back, he was overshadowed by his more illustrious cousin, Sead Muratovic, who was Tampines’ midfield general and a former Yugoslav U-21 player.
In fact, Tampines even shipped Mustafic out to Sengkang Marine on loan during his second or third season in the S-League.
But over the years, Muratovic not only became a bloated and overweight shadow and parody of his former self but also gradually faded into obscurity. He was even sacked by Tampines this season after repeatedly failing the S-League’s mandatory fitness test.
Mustafic, on the other hand, has seen his star rising as he grew from strength to strength.
The fact that national coach Raddy Avramovic chose to bench him for Singapore’s final group game against Indonesia because he did not want him to pick up another yellow card (which would have caused him to miss the Dec 17 semi-final against Vietnam), is simply testament to how far Mustafic has come.
And by all accounts, Mustafic is like Aleksandar Duric: a foreign-born talent who has shown a willingness to assimilate into his new country and make it a part of his future.
That, to me, is what differentiates him from most of the foreign-born talents who are in our national badminton and table-tennis teams, who seem to either take off for elsewhere when the going gets tough or return to their countries of origin upon retirement.
So here’s wishing Gilbert and Mustafic all the best in their roles as national skippers. May you two help to lead our Reds and Lions to new heights of success and glory in rugby and football.
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan