World Cup: Red and white in Rio

SINGAPORE - Singapore match officials will not fly the Republic's flag in Brazil as they have in the last three editions of the World Cup Finals.

No one in the current batch of referees got the nod to follow in the footsteps of George Suppiah (1974) K Visvanathan (2002), Shamsul Maidin (2006) and Jeffrey Goh (2010), but there is one Singaporean who will represent the country in Brazil - Mahathir Azeman.

The 18-year-old Boavista reserve team midfielder is playing a part in the world extravaganza, helping referees in their preparation for the tournament.

His team were selected to give referees preparing for the tournament some practice ahead of the group games and the former Siglap Secondary School player is relishing the occasion.

Speaking to The New Paper on Wednesday, Mahathir, who now lives in Rio de Janeiro, said: "It's great here, Brazil flags are being put up all over the neighbourhood I live in and it's getting more and more exciting for me."

He first went to Brazil in 2013 for a five-month stint with the Under-17 side of Rio-based Boavista, an opportunity crafted by his coach at the time, former S.League footballer Fabio da Silva.

Signed one-year contract

Mahathir not only managed to break into the first team, but also earned the right to wear the coveted No. 10 shirt.

Very quickly, the club offered a one-year contract extension to play in the first-team reserves and Mahathir signed it in early 2014.

"We have been training with the referees who are preparing for the World Cup for the last week or so and I got to meet all the referees, even the legendary Brazilian, Zico," he gushed.

Mahathir explained that the training is held at a facility owned by Zico and was lucky enough to run into the former Brazil No. 10 while in the company of Boavista club director Joao Silva.

Said Mahathir: "Zico seemed very pleased after Joao explained to him my presence in the team, and he told Joao that I'm doing 'a very good thing, being away from my family to pursue my dream. Not everyone can do it."

The former National Football Academy trainee also mingled with referees from Australia, Germany and England, including the easily recognisable Howard Webb.

Enjoying the experience

"Meeting Howard Webb was amazing. Watching him on television was different from meeting him, he's actually bigger than he seemed on Tv and very fit," said Mahathir.

"He was surprised to hear me speaking fluent English because he thought I was a Brazilian kid."

From the sublime surfaces at Zico's training facility which he claimed was the best grass he had ever played on, to meeting some of the biggest names in the game - Mahathir trained under the watchful gaze of Clarence Seedorf before the former Dutch international took the reins at AC Milan - the lad from Pasir Ris is lapping up his Rio experience.

It is a journey that has him now representing Singapore at the World Cup.

Grateful for the opportunity, Mahathir remains determined to make the most of his time in Brazil, especially in football.

"My Portuguese is improving day by day, I am understanding things easier now," he added.

"And that has made me more confident when meeting people - even Brazilian girls!"

This article was published on June 13 in The New Paper.

Get The New Paper for more stories.

shamiro@sph.com.sg