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NEXT-GEN STORIES: Below-block football; Hafiz Osman & sons' love affair with the beautiful game

They were once some of the top footballers of their time. But even though they may have retired, football remains in their blood. Meet these ex-internationals and their next generation of young footballers - sons and daughters of former national players who are keen to follow in the footsteps of mommy and daddy.

The HDB blocks in Bukit Batok were where Hafiz Osman got his first introduction to football when he was nine.

Rain or shine, a young Hafiz would join his friends and neighbours, recreating goals and matches they saw on television. On some days the open spaces beneath their blocks were the National Stadium. On others, it was Wembley. There were no limits to where the imagination of Hafiz and his friends would take them.

Hafiz (centre) and sons Dani Eshan (right) and Noah Elhan all started out playing football the same way - below-block football with neighbours and friends. Photo by Ng Chong Meng.

Said Hafiz: "Every moment (from my childhood) were great times - when we were carefree and happy to learn and execute our football skills. We didn't just play at the void deck. We also had a field and we made it our homeground, drawing the lines and making our own portable goalpost. Every weekend we would invite other neighbourhoods team to play Sunday football at the open field."

As fate would have it, this love affair with below-block football would find new life in his sons Dani Eshan, 11, and Noah Elhan, 7 - although it was almost by accident that the kids discovered the joys of neighbourhood matches in Toh Guan, where Hafiz and his family live.

“There was this one particular time when I had to kick the boys out of the house," said Hafiz, who is the fitness coach and assistant first-team coach for Singapore Premier League side Tanjong Pagar United:

“You see, my wife and I were deep into our work on our laptops, but the boys were having an indoor football carnival. They were so noisy and distracting that I had to send them down to play football.

“But from that day onwards, I can’t get them up. They’re all about void deck football with neighbours and friends. Now, if there's no formal training, 5pm marks the kickoff for their neighbourhood matches.”

Below-block football was what helped Hafiz hone his football skills which ultimately made a Lion, in a national team career that saw him win the 2007 Asean Football Federation Cup and a 2007 SEA Games bronze medal. The former defender is also a four-time winner of the S-League, now rebranded the Singapore Premier League, with Singapore Armed Forces FC.

Playing in confined spaces helps with close control and awareness and he sees the benefits of that in his kids.

Hafiz finds solace and joy in his sons' passion for football. It also helps that football helps them stay off their mobile gadgets. Photo by Ng Chrong Meng

“I've been pushing my boys to relive the old-school days of playing with friends under the block. That's their social time to bond with friends, better than being on their gadgets. Void deck football is also where imagination and skill collide. It's the ultimate enjoyment place - a place where kids can truly be themselves.”

But like all budding footballers, transitioning from below-block football to succeeding on the field is key and Hafiz and his wife Siti Rosiah have enrolled his sons at the Singapore Football Academy where former national team teammate Shahril Ishak is one of the coaches.

Although a coach himself, Hafiz decided against coaching his own kids for a simple reason: he just wants to be a football dad.

"To be honest, I do not coach my sons,” he said. “I just let them play and I would rather see them being coached by others. I just want to be a father and enjoy watching them play.

“Some people go to the beach to calm themselves. For me, watching them train calms me and makes me smile. Just being able to watch them in action - that’s my happy place.”

Hafiz find the most joy just watching his kids play football. He calls it his 'happy place'. Photo by Ng Chrong Meng

Dani is a great student of the game. He was only two years old when he first watched his dad professionally but already showed a keen interest in football.

Said Hafiz: “Even as a toddler, he would watch a full match on TV with me. Soon he started asking questions about the game and till today, he is hungry to learn and shows so much passion for football.”

For Ehsan, the love affair for football began in 2017. Like Dani, it was after watching his dad play. The match was a special one for Hafiz as it was his last appearance as a professional footballer. His club Warriors gave him the honour of walking on the field with both his sons.

Dani remembers that match well.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Dani who was five then.

“Till today, that’s the most memorable football experience I have with my dad.”

Both boys are grateful that they have Hafiz to rely on for advice and guidance as they chase their football dreams.

Said Ehsan: “We are thankful for the advice he gives us. He is always encouraging and reminds us to never give up.”

Although a coach with Singapore Premier League side Tanjong Pagar United, Hafiz has no interest in coaching his own kids as it would deprive him the joy of simply just watching his kids train. Photo by Ng Chrong Meng

Hafiz has one principle - Don't limit your challenge. Challenge your limits.

Said Hafiz: “It's a principle of hard work and unwavering desire, passed down from generation to generation, in both life and football.”

While he hopes for his sons to follow in his footsteps, he is aware not to put too much pressure on them and to ensure that they strike a fine balance between football and studies. He emphasises a balanced approach, places importance on their mental health and well-being, while encouraging them to also be independent allowing them to choose their paths and savour the journey of self-discovery.

As much as Hafiz loves football and wants his boys to play the game professionally, he is adamant that his boys must strike a fine balance between football and studies. Photo by Ng Chrong Meng

Said Hafiz: “Whether they go on to become a professional footballer or not, my advice to my boys is simple: humility and respect go a long way. Pour your heart into everything you do, whether it's chores, school, work, or football. Keep striving, never give up, and relentlessly chase those dreams!”

Story by: Mashidayat Maszeni

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