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Heartland Academies: The OG of Youth Academies in Singapore, Malek and Venga

On a bright sunny Sunday morning, a group of almost 50 kids and youths were at a football field near Blk 716, Bedok Reservoir Road. With their parents watching these players aged 4 to 16, begin their training sessions under the watchful eyes of former Singapore football international midfielder, Malek Awab.

Kids and youths training at Kaki Bukit Sports Club Academy (along Bedok Reservoir Road). Photo Credit: Sport Singapore

The 62-year-old is a coach with Kaki Bukit Sports Club Academy. The setup, which had the services of the late football legend Majid Ariff, is linked to its parent entity, Kaki Bukit Sports Club – which features weekly against other domestic teams in Singapore Football League 2. Over the last 10 years, Malek has been providing coaching services to youths who approach him in person. There’s little to zero publicity of his training services on any social media platform, as new trainees show up at his weekly sessions, mainly through word of mouth.

Coach Malek Awab overseeing his trainees in a ball-dribbling exercise. Photo Credit: Sport Singapore

Said Malek: “For the last 10 years, I’ve been coaching kids from as young as 4 years old! It’s only $30 per month and this fee goes mainly towards paying my team of qualified coaches, the field and other minor expenses. I’m not in this venture to make money or profit. I had a successful football playing career and this is my way of giving back to Singaporeans. There are times when some kids are unable to pay the monthly fees and I don’t chase them for it. I coach for the passion and love of the game, and Singapore football has given so much to me.”

It was a footballing career which began with an appearance at the King’s Cup in October 1980 in Bangkok. Fast forward 121 international caps with the national team and four Malaysia Cup titles to his name, Malek’s final match was with the Lions in the 1996 Tiger Cup campaign. His appearances in the new S.League (now rebranded as Singapore Premier League), included Tampines Rovers in 1996, followed by Home United a year later before wrapping up his football career with a season-long campaign with Woodlands Wellington in 1998. The football legend has also been working for Pacific Sports Pte Ltd for close to 40 years, distributing sports equipment brands like Molten, Patrick, Topper, and Ashaway.

During the course of his 10-year old Academy, Malek has coached youngsters who have even gone on to feature in the current Singapore Premier League (SPL), including the national team. 17-year-old Ariesa Zahran binte Junaidi is now with the national Under-19 squad, which recently featured in the AFF U19 Women’s Championships in Indonesia. The up-and-coming defender spent eight years under Malek’s tutelage.

Said Ariesa, a student at Temasek Polytechnic: “I was honoured to be given the opportunity to be coached by Malek Awab at such a young age. He was one of the coaches who had taught me the fundamentals of football like passing and dribbling. A passionate and supportive coach who believes in each and every player he trains. He made learning football fun and wouldn't get upset when mistakes were made. He would pull me aside to work on my weaknesses. With his guidance, my development improved significantly and was able to compete against boys my age back then. It was definitely one of my core memories of football. I will always remember the two-sided games he held during training. He would end the game with a draw despite having a winner and finish off with a penalty shootout. With this style, he doesn’t want the players to end their training with disappointment. Besides that, he also emphasised on mastering the basics because those are the essentials to become better players in the future.”

Coach Malek Awab with 10-year-old Ariesa Junaidi at a training session in 2016. Photo Credit: Ariesa Junaidi

Said Malek: “I feel extra proud when I see some of my trainees going on to bigger journeys in football. To see them grow and play in the SPL, the Women’s Premier League and the national team…it’s a big relief for me to see them achieve their dreams. And I hope with more kids joining Kaki Bukit SC Academy, I can continue to discover more talented youth players and help in Singapore’s dream to play in the World Cup one day. For now though, my task is to look for a new training venue, with a well-maintained and even level playing grass surface. And I hope to secure a place with a School field in Tampines very soon.”

Youths training at Woodlands Lions FC Academy. Photo Credit: Woodlands Lions FC Facebook

From the east to the northern part of Singapore, another football luminary has also been busy with the discovery of talented players since the 1980s. As the former General Manager of ex-SPL club Woodlands Wellington FC, R Vengadasalam is well known in the local football community as a man “who wears his heart on his sleeve” and his passion for the ‘beautiful game’ is extremely high.

In 2017, he decided to start a team known as Woodlands Lions FC. This youth team comprises players who could not make the cut in their respective school teams, or their schools didn’t offer football as a CCA. Venga’s talent discovery process is mainly based in the north, as he’s been accustomed to the Sembawang area for years, both as a player and as a resident. With former ex-national stars like Quah Kim Song, V Sundram Moorthy, M Kumar, Nazri Nasir etc, hailing from the north in their earlier playing days, that has provided a key inspiration to the 62-year-old scouting veteran to maintain his talent focus in that area.

R Vengadasalam (Yellow Top) with some of his players at Woodlands Lions FC Academy. Photo Credit : Venga’s Facebook

Venga began with a handful of players in the 10-12 age-group and after six years, the Woodlands Lions FC Academy, now has more than 60 players. For a small fee of $25, the kids will train either on a Saturday or Sunday, with the age groups starting as young as six right up to the age of 21. As long as a player has attained a certain level of skills, he or she will be sent to compete in various events islandwide. With the support from Sport Singapore, these young kids have even tasted and experienced playing at major venues such as Jalan Besar Stadium (JBS). At the recent northern league-based Ho Peng Kee Cup, SportSG was supportive to allow for the Under-15 finals to take place at JBS.

Venga’s days as a Talent-scout dates back to when he was an 18-year-old teenager. Back in 1979, he saw a dejected and demoralised 14-year-old V Sundram Moorthy, who was not selected for training by his inter-constituency team. Venga, who’d seen Sundram’s potential, advised the latter to keep his spirits up and got the young striker to play for his club instead. And over the next 40-odd years, Venga says that he’s helped to launch the careers of up to 25 national players.

Venga with his former WWFC Players, at a club reunion friendly match at the Woodlands Stadium in 2017. Photo Credit : Venga’s Facebook

Said Venga: “Some of the players whom I discovered include ex-Singapore internationals Masreswan Masturi, Dalis Supait, Agu Cashmir, Itimi Dickson, John Wilkinson and SPL club stars like Jeykanth Jeyapal, Mohd Mardani etc. Back in 2001 when a few African players came here for a trial, I saw Agu’s game play for less than a minute and immediately told my WWFC club coach (M Karathu), to sign him for the Rams in the SPL. Similarly, when I discovered a young 18-year-old Masreswan who was a part-time delivery rider, I gave him a pay increase, got him away from his job and he came to play for WWFC. Mas didn’t even own a good pair of boots when I first met him. But I saw his raw potential on the football field, signed him and gave his debut in the 1999 S.League season.”

With more than four decades of managerial experience, it was only a matter of time that Venga decided to address the situation of the lack of talented youth players coming through the pipeline. He was frustrated at the lack of support, ideas or vision to move forward by certain individuals and clubs, which then compelled him to start the Woodlands Lions FC project on his own. But one needs to “have an eye for talent”, in order to succeed. Woodlands Lions was launched by Venga because he felt there was a need to establish a proper youth team.

Bernard Tan (President, Football Association of Singapore) is being introduced to the Woodlands Lions U15 squad, competing in the 2023 Ho Peng Kee Cup. Photo Credit: Venga’s Facebook

Added Venga: “Football Talent-scouting is an art-form! Most scouts only go down to the venue and watch the player perform. I go well and beyond that. For eg, I will see how the player uses his foot, whether he is comfortable with the ball, does he have the basic football skills, how he reads the game, the player’s dieting habits etc. I will also check their personal backgrounds to see if the player is not mentally distracted by financial or emotional stress and I will offer to help (within my means), if it allows the player to stay focused on his training and performing his best on the field. I still remember when our current national Vice-captain Shahdan Sulaiman had signed with Tampines Rovers in 2006. I was the Director of Ops back then and I brought a group of players who’d just featured in the Lion City Cup. Having watched 18-year-old Shahdan play, I urged Tampines Rovers’ Chairman Teo Hock Seng to sign the teenager. And due to the passing of the player’s mother, I also encouraged Mr Teo to increase his Prime League salary of $300, so that Shahdan wouldn’t have to worry about his finances. So we helped him and since then, Shahdan’s one of the top players of his generation.”

62-year-old Venga has no plans to stop his talent-discovery ways anytime soon. He is hoping and canvassing for his Woodlands Lions FC Team to be able to compete in the SPL in the near future. But if there’s 1 issue that’s been a bane in his discovery efforts – the idea of SPL clubs being able to lure and sign trained young players from Woodlands Lions FC, without any form of financial compensation. Venga intends to fight harder against this tactic of poaching youth players, especially when he’s invested his own time and money into grooming youth players. But in general, R Vengadasalam is truly a class act to follow in terms of his “eye for talent” and his boldness in taking risks on amateur players and turning them into stars!

Story by Raj Kumar

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