Singapore football is at a turning point.
A role model on and off the pitch, National team captain, Hariss is determined to lift Singapore football to greater heights. Photo: Football Association of Singapore (FAS)
Hariss Harun is one of Singapore’s most decorated footballers. His professional career began when he joined the Young Lions as a 16-year-old in 2007. After winning the Malaysian Super League (MSL) with LionsXII in 2013, he joined Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) the subsequent year. The Malaysians made him the highest-earning Singaporean footballer in 2015. After seven trophy-laden seasons with the Malaysian champions, Hariss, 31, is home and ready to restore glory to Singapore football. The Lions skipper pens his thoughts on his homecoming with the Lion City Sailors (LCS), helping the Sailors become the first local club to win the Singapore Premier League (SPL) in six seasons, and why the future is bright for the beautiful game in Singapore.
When the Lion City Sailors won the Singapore Premier League on October 10, I thought to myself: It's about time after six seasons of foreign domination!
I don't have a problem with Albirex Niigata. They have added quality to the league through good scouting of players from the lower leagues and universities in Japan. They are also developing young local players.
But Sailors winning the league is important on a few levels for Singapore football, on top of restoring national pride. After winning four titles in five seasons, Albirex have that psychological edge and it is good we have broken that mental barrier.
Need to maintain the excitement levels in the local game
I also believe local fans have been getting restless, and it is crucial to cultivate interest among local fans for the local league and local clubs. We can all see and feel the excitement returning and I feel this can be a turning point for the league, to grow in quality and intensity.
Hariss celebrating his first domestic win with Lion City Sailors after they became the first local side to win the Singapore Premier League since 2014. Photo: Lion City Sailors
Obviously, the Sailors have had an injection of resources to build success on and off the field. We are setting the bar for others to follow, and I hope more local clubs can follow in our footsteps.
Of course, not every club will have the same resources, but we can all still have the heart to invest whatever we can in the right things.
Improvement is going to take time, but I hope we will eventually see the league expand, featuring more clubs and in doing so, providing more competition for teams and strengthening the local league.
I remember when I first played in the SPL in 2007, we had quality imports in the league with the likes of Therdsak Chaiman (Thailand), Peres de Oliveira (Brazil) and Hamed Kone (Ivory Coast). Later on, we would also have Frederic Mendy (France) who moved from Home United to play in the Portuguese league.
I think the quality has gone down a bit since then, before picking up again this season. I hope we can maintain the upward curve. I'm happy to be at a growing club that matches my ambitions. I want to win as many trophies as possible.
Playing in the AFC Champions League with LCS next season is a dream because to be among the big boys in a big stadium in front of a big crowd is the best feeling for a footballer.
It was a special feeling to beat defending champions Kashima Antlers with Johor Darul Ta’zim in 2019, and play against the likes of Shandong Luneng, who had Marouane Fellaini and Graziano Pelle. It was an important self-relisation point when we were able to match them; for us to know that we can compete against the best.
That was a real high in my career and a proud moment because playing at the highest level and testing myself against world-class players has always been an ambition of mine. I hope we can do the same at LCS.
Regrets and unfinished business
But playing with the top players also gave me mixed feelings because the older I get, I realise the window to play at the highest level is closing. It is a regret not to have been able to play in Europe, but I am more than happy with how my career has panned out overall.
On a personal level, I'm happy to continue to win titles but I am still only 31, and I still have a good few years and some unfinished business. This includes winning the AFF Suzuki Cup again with the Lions and qualifying for the Asian Cup.
I think the national team have been in transition for way too long. After we last won the 2012 Suzuki Cup, and we didn't really know where we were heading. We had good senior players back then and then coach Bernd Stange came in and wanted to use young players. That was not necessarily a bad thing, but I felt we threw many of them into the deep end too soon.
A more gradual approach would have been more beneficial as the likes of Mustafic Fahrudin and Daniel Bennett could still contribute. But we didn't really build on the 2012 success.
Hariss acknowledges there is still room for improvement for Singapore football, but it is also still possible for local players to succeed. Photo: Football Association of Singapore (FAS)
Looking back, when I was first trying to break into the national team, I didn't get into the starting 11 for two to three years as I had the likes of Fahrudin, John Wilkinson, Shi Jiayi and Isa Halim ahead of me. But I learnt a lot from them while working hard to prove I deserved to play.
Now, with Coach Tatsuma Yoshida at the helm, I think we are on to something good. We have been playing some confident attacking football but the pandemic halted our progress.
I feel we have a good group of players now. Sure, teams like Vietnam and Thailand have a bigger pool of strong individual players in South-east Asia, but one of our strengths has always been that we are stronger than the sum of our parts.
Never give up on your dreams
But for most parts, I have been fortunate in my career although you also have to make your own luck and I had to work hard on and off the pitch.
Some people may think that it is not worth chasing a football dream in Singapore, but I beg to differ. Sure, there is still room for improvement for Singapore football, but it is possible for local players to succeed while preparing for life after football. There are also more opportunities than before to play in the region and beyond.
I want to encourage young footballers and their parents to look at the bigger picture and understand that there are skills and values from playing football and the pursuit of professional football that can be applied in life.
As with many things in life, there will be ups and downs, but few things are as fulfilling as making a career out of your passion.
We are again hosting the Suzuki Cup next month. It will be nice playing in front of a home crowd. It will not be an easy campaign for sure, but I'm confident of our abilities to put up a good fight.
After breaking my leg in the group stage of the 2012 edition, I am itching to play in this campaign and lead the Lions to victory. But we need you, the fans to be behind us.
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