Only ability, fitness and attitude matter

For over 17 years, he has witnessed plenty of change in the S-League - from the introduction of foreign clubs and mandatory fitness tests, to the various local teams that have come and gone.

Through it all, Zahid Ahmad remained loyal to Singapore's professional football league, a stoic servant appreciated for his dedication and still regarded as one of the fittest players in the scene.

But the 36-year-old is now staring at life away from the game, as he is caught off guard by the latest change - a new league policy that restricts the local clubs to signing just five outfield players above the age of 30 next season.

"All my life I've been doing everything to keep myself fit to serve the team. The life of a professional footballer is more than just training. We have to keep the engine running all the time," said Zahid, a father of two.

"Suddenly I'm forced to retire, and it's not even the management or coach's decision. I've been planning for life after football for some time, but I never thought this would be the way I begin it."

The new policy, announced on Nov 3 by its chief executive officer Lim Chin, came about in a bid to inject more young talent into the league for a more entertaining brand of football.

However, the policy was met with unhappiness in many quarters, as veteran players saw their employment opportunities suddenly slashed, especially as two local clubs - Tanjong Pagar United sitting out and Woodlands Wellington merging with Hougang United - will not feature next season.

It has also raised eyebrows at the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep), who will discuss the issue with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) this week.

A spokesman for the anti-discrimination watchdog told The Sunday Times: "Tafep will be engaging FAS to understand and clarify the issue."

The new policy will affect more than 40 Singaporean footballers, who are now scrambling to secure just 30 slots for senior local players.

Among those affected are former Singapore captain Indra Sahdan Daud, Tanjong Pagar star Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin (both 35) and journeyman professionals like Zahid, Hafiz Osman (30) and Sazali Salleh (34).

Admittedly, some veterans had continued to hold places in the S-League squads even though they struggled with fitness issues.

For instance, Ahmad Latiff failed the 2.4km test several times before meeting the league's 10-minute passing time. Sazali also passed the test only on his third attempt, although he was recovering from a broken leg.

The average age of local players who started for the league's top three clubs - Warriors FC, Tampines Rovers and Home United - is 30, which could suggest a lack of top-level action for the league's youngsters.

However, there are plenty of sympathisers for the uncertain future of these veterans.

Balestier Khalsa Prime League team manager R. Vengadasalam said: "There should be a more tactful way to improve the S-League. It should be the coaches and management who should decide if the players are good enough."

Warriors FC coach Alex Weaver, for one, relied on the efforts of veterans like Daniel Bennett (36) and Hafiz Rahim (31) to clinch the S-League crown this season.

He said: "With older players, they are more comfortable with themselves, more mature, and thus more willing to pass on what they know to the younger players. You need to get the mix right in a squad, which is what I thought we had with the Warriors this year.

"In Singapore, players tend to develop at a later age because of national service and the emphasis on education. With this (age cap) policy you are essentially reducing the shelf life of player, it's disappointing and unfortunate.

"I don't see how it's helpful."

Home United chief executive Azrulnizam Shah Sohaimi pointed to Indra as an example of how veterans cannot be summarily discarded.

He said: "Indra retired (in 2012) to play in the amateur NFL (National Football League) but our head coach assessed him to be a valuable player who could still contribute.

"Not only did Indra revive his professional career but he also gained a recall to the national squad until a leg fracture in 2013. "Undeterred, Indra revived his career again at Home and played again professionally for the club this season."

Even fans are unconvinced that the new policy can improve the quality of the S-League.

Said Alex Yeo, a Tampines Rovers fan: "Footballers should be given contracts based on ability, fitness and attitude.

"The logic that younger players can improve the league is flawed. Look at the Courts Young Lions, they are getting bullied by the more experienced teams."

The Young Lions, essentially the national Under-21 squad, finished 10th in the 12-team league while Harimau Muda B, Malaysia's Under-20 side, are bottom.

In contrast, Tampines, with eight players over 30 this season, came in third.

Geylang International fan Tan Hwee Heng is also concerned that this latest policy will only shrink Singapore football's talent pool.

He said: "With each of the six local clubs allowed to sign up to five foreigners and the foreign clubs already here (Albirex Niigata, Brunei DPMM and Harimau Muda), almost half the footballers in the S-League are foreigners.

"That will make it very hard for both young and older Singaporean players to find a place."

With the policy kicking in when the next S-League starts early next year, many veterans are struggling to come to terms with the prospect of not being able to play football professionally any more.

Thirty-year-old Hafiz Osman, a former national right-back who won the 2007 ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup with the Lions, lamented: "Two years ago, I ruptured the Achilles tendon in my left leg twice.

"The doctors gave me a slim chance to come back but I didn't believe them. I worked my socks off to get back to full fitness and now, this has happened. It is hard to take this blow."

This article was first published on Nov 16, 2014.
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