By Jawharilal Rajendran
AS A young man, former Singapore coach Poravankara Narayanan Nair Sivaji chased footballs at the expense of life's other pursuits.
Soon, word was discreetly sent through the usual channels that there was an eligible bachelor in the house and, before long, a middleman came knocking on the door with a marriage proposal in hand.
Sivaji, a tough defender accustomed to setting the offside trap, was well and truly cornered. But being a filial son, he dutifully accompanied his parents to see his prospective bride: Susheela, a midwife. And after the customary small talk, the shy Sivaji surprised everyone by asking for a private moment with her.
Now, you'd have thought he had wanted to compliment her about her sari or her dress sense, but no. An honest man to the core, Sivaji laid bare his soul then and there, confessing to the bewildered woman that his first love was, ahem, football.
He was quick to add that he would not neglect her and the family, no matter what.
Now such statements can be dangerous if said to the wrong woman and might have resulted in instant eviction (read red card), but Susheela kept her cool. She somehow knew he was the right man, even if his priorities were, to say the least, a little wonky.
"We fell in love after the wedding. Now I can't imagine a life without her," says the soft-spoken Sivaji, 57. Their union has spanned 31 years and produced two daughters - Nithya, 29, married to an Australian and living in Melbourne, and Nisha, 24, a second year criminology and psychology student at Griffiths University in Brisbane.
Sivaji's obsession with football began as a boy growing up in Naval Base in Sembawang where he used to watch the British Navy teams in action. He was soon playing for his primary school and, while a teenager at Raffles Institution, broke into the Singapore B team. He played for clubs like Burnley, Safsa, Sembawang and Singapore Indians, but his game was hampered by his poor eyesight.
"I used to play with contact lenses but quite often I'd lose them while heading the ball. They were hard lenses and not cheap in those days. Once I even played with only one lens on. It was getting expensive and my eyesight was getting worse. I knew I could not continue as a footballer."
Although disheartened, he set his sights on a career in coaching. In a country where there was hardly any professional football to speak of, Sivaji was like the intrepid salmon swimming defiantly upstream while everyone else was going with the flow. He recollects: "A lot of people told me I was wasting my time. It was a huge risk and the only thing that kept me going was my passion.
"Today, I say with all humility that I've arrived as a coach. I've coached at all levels and have been the national coach and the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) technical director. I've been to countries which I would otherwise not have gone to, met some fantastic people and experienced different cultures. Football has been good to me.
"I urge young people not to rule out a career in football as a player, a coach or an administrator. There are far more opportunities now than when I started out. Football is now an industry in Singapore."
One of the highlights of Sivaji's career came in 1993 when, as Singapore coach, he steered the Lions to the prestigious Malaysia Cup final, only to lose 2-0 to Kedah.
It was also one of the most difficult periods in his life. Being in the hot seat meant that he was fair game for every Ahmad, Ah Seng and Arumugam who thought he knew better.
"Everywhere I went, people had something to say about what went wrong, what tactics I should have used, who should have played and who should have been axed. I was in the depths of despair. My face was in the papers practically every other day.
"I didn't mind listening to other coaches or former players but a lot of the comments came from people who had hardly kicked a football in their lives. It was hard to take. Susheela was able to tell my mood by the look on my face. She and the girls were always there for me."
Singapore was in the grip of Malaysia Cup fever and Sivaji understood that the brickbats came with the turf. If he needed reminding, there was always his elder brother, veteran journalist P.N. Balji, the then editor of The New Paper which sold on its hard-hitting and controversial football coverage.
Disillusioned after the loss to Kedah, Sivaji quit to pursue the International A Licence in Germany, one of the highest coaching certificates in professional football.
He returned to coach Tiong Bahru and spent four years as FAS Technical Director before returning to club football last year with Home United, leading them to third place in the S-League.
"I was lucky that a professional league was introduced in 1996. People like me had something to turn to. Before that I worked in various jobs, including selling life insurance, to survive. My only regret is that I have not been able to coach overseas.
There have been offers, the most recent being one from Maldivian club side Victory FC, but the deal fell through."
Sivaji laments the lack of Indian footballers in today's Singapore team. In the past, the community had produced stalwarts like S. Rajagopal, M. Kumar, T. Pathmanathan, R. Suriamurthi, V. Sundramoorthy and more recently S. Subramani, Sivaji's captain at Home. "Indian youths are into dancing these days. It's very sad because there was so much talent at one time. We have to do something," he says.
He feels that the Foreign Talent scheme, where foreign footballers are given Singapore citizenship to play for the country, has taken the game to new heights. But this is only a temporary phase and, eventually, Singapore will have to fall back on home-grown talent.
A diehard Manchester United fan, Sivaji visited Old Trafford some years ago as part of the AFC/Uefa Professional Coaching Diploma, the highest coaching qualification in Asia, but never got to meet his coaching idol, Sir Alex Ferguson: "Sir Alex's passion for football knows no boundaries. He has blazed a trail." The same can be said of Mr P.N. Sivaji.