Hariss Harun aims to be better than Fandi Ahmad

Push, curl, bend. The push-up is boring, the crunch is tedious, the squat is monotonous. No one is watching anyway, no peering TV camera, no cheering fan, so if you did one less, who cares? Push, curl, bend. No trainer is driving you, this is just you, at home, alone, so why not sleep? Push, curl, bend. You're injured, your body is being rebuilt through constant pain, and maybe it would be easier to just quit?

Push, curl, bend.

Footballer Hariss Harun is in his room. It is 2008 and his anterior cruciate ligament, crucial to the athlete's knee, has been reconstructed.

Twice a day he goes to rehab and this slow healing of the body, fibre by fibre, cell by cell, it's uninspiring and uninteresting and it hurts. Yet even after rehab, as night falls like a lonely curtain, he keeps going.

Push, curl, bend.

"I could have said two sessions (a day) was enough," says Hariss, "but I kept going at night till the body said stop. It brought the fighter out." Through the pain, and through this dull, repetitive, mindless routine that is training, he was discovering himself.

The footballer's life is often as drab as the coffee shop into which Hariss unassumingly slips. Former coach Raddy Avramovic once said "for his age and talent, there's no other player like him in Singapore", yet he sidesteps fanfare as neatly as he does a defender. His voice is as gentle as he is strong and he presents his view as matter of factly as an accountant might fill a ledger. "Staying motivated," he says can be the hardest thing.

The footballer's life is constantly imagined as an exotic adventure involving Ferraris in a stadium parking lot and models on speed dial.

Alas, not if your stadium is in Jalan Besar. Here life as a footballer is quieter. "We're not playing for big money," Hariss says and men like him, from less celebrated nations, keep football breathing. They do it for some money and a lot of love.

Hariss never allows himself to forget he is privileged just to be able to play for a living. "Not everyone can play football at a professional level, so I have to be humble, grateful and work hard." But he also has to drive himself because football - away from the cheering - can be drudgery.

The football game, at its finest, has a flow to it, men riding on a fast current of talent. It has a music and the players are the instruments in this booted orchestra. But football practice is unmusical, it is possession drills, set pieces and slalom runs where these instruments are mercilessly polished.

Practice is football's version of homework, problems worked on till they are solved. It is full of start and stop movements where, he says, "if you're out of position by two steps, you start again". Footballers want to just play a game, but Hariss the pro appreciates the purpose of practice.

Football isn't sexy, it is labour. It is a life of "breakfast, gym, lunch, nap, training, dinner". Same thing, every day, where your closest friends are the alarm clock and an ache. Football is travel away from the family, sleepless in hotel rooms, dissecting the game on tired nights with team-mates and lifting a player who's had a lousy day.

Football is "working hard and having an off day and being criticised".

It is newspapers doing ratings and "giving you 5/10 even though you've given up your position for another player". It is being injured and waiting and hoping no one, please, takes your place.

Hariss is not complaining, not for a single, sweaty second, just laying out the challenges to motivation and telling you the footballer's life. He'll also tell you "there's no excuse ever not to give my best".

Hariss always finds motivation because he has many powerful reasons to play. He plays for his father, a logistics officer, who found a way to send him by taxi to rehab every day. He plays for his mother, a part-time canteen helper, who took time off to help him. He plays for team-mates "who made me feel wanted" when he was injured and he plays for his fitness trainer who "killed me in the gym".

He plays because he's found success and relishes its taste. "I want to win big stuff because people only remember champions." He offered a smaller contribution in the 2012 Suzuki Cup victory, but was a strong vice-captain during the 2013 Malaysian Super League triumph.

At 16, he first wore a Singapore shirt and now, at 22, he is eyeing a place alongside the very men in whose honour he first kicked a ball.

"The newspapers are always talking about the Lions of the old days and their illustrious history and making comparisons. It is how I grew up, hearing about Fandi (Ahmad) and V. Sundramoorthy. I want to be like them. Even better than them." Football in Singapore has been good to Hariss and he has been good for football in this nation.

The game is his pleasure, his honour and a route to feed his family.

"It's what gives me my bread and butter." And so, it doesn't really matter how many times he must push, curl, bend, he remains an athlete who is always hungry.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.