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UTR! Diaries: A Father’s Day special on the story of Irsalina and her dad

Eight promising Singapore youth footballers were awarded the inaugural Unleash The Roar! Overseas Scholarship in August 2023 to further their football development in either Spain or the United States. The talented male and female footballers, who are between the ages of 15 and 17, have been training hard at the IMG Academy in Florida and the ESC LaLiga & NBA in Madrid. In this series, we hear from these athletes on how they are coping with life overseas. 

Irsalina Irwan, 17, IMG Academy

I’m thankful for the training programme here, which has equipped me to play against stronger and bigger international players. Here’s a snippet of me playing for the Tampa Bay Super Cup in December last year.

I feel very grateful for my life in IMG Academy. But I hadn’t always known I wanted to be a footballer. 

In fact, I used to be in Malay dance. Going from smooth-flowing movements to a physical sport was a huge transition. Looking back, my father played a big part in getting me to where I am now. 

My love for football started when I was nine. He would take my brothers and me to West Coast Park for kickabouts, and the rest is history. When it comes to the beautiful game, I just love defending and making hard tackles. The feeling of making a good tackle is unreal. I definitely got my defending skills from my dad, who has spent a lot of time coaching us. 

He taught us that football is more than just a physical game. It’s about strengthening the mind. Since moving to Florida, I’ve realised how important this lesson is. Even now, I’m still constantly working on my mentality, especially so during difficult seasons.  

When I was 8 years old and my brothers Harith and Haziq were 7 and 4 years old respectively, my father (right) took us to the neighbourhood park for our first few kickabout sessions. 

Curing homesickness with sambal and amazing teammates

Being very close to my family, and with this being the longest I’ve been away from home, it was tough when I first started at IMG Academy. I was missing my family terribly and had to adjust to a packed school and training schedule at the same time.

Mum would send me sambal packets so I could reminisce and feel connected to home through local flavours that cannot be found here. I would call home four times a week to chat with my family, making sure we didn’t miss out on anything in each other’s lives.

Having such wonderful teammates has also made a huge difference in my life here. Everyone is really communicative and encouraging, working together to help the team get back on their feet and regain confidence even after making mistakes on the pitch. This positive and welcoming attitude really stuck with me and I hope to bring this warmth and openness back to Singapore.

Training with different cultures has also been an eye-opening experience. Coming from different backgrounds means we get to celebrate a variety of holidays together. Just the other day, we had a mini get-together in the courtyard! Thanks to them and the support I am receiving back home, I have found a routine I am comfortable with - juggling life, school, and football. 

Hard work paying off

Dad may be far away, but he is still my anchor and steady source of motivation. Whether it’s during our training sessions when I was back in Singapore or our video chats now, he has always helped me to see the light at the end of the tunnel on difficult days. I still remember feeling quite demoralised at first for not being selected as the team’s starting 11 here at IMG Academy. Talking to him and my mum instantly comforted me as their unwavering support was a bright reminder that I am very loved, no matter what.

Ultimately, my long-term goal is to play professionally and make it to Division 1. However, to get there, I know there will be unexpected adversity along the way, like when I recently sustained a knee injury that forced me to put off my training altogether. At that time, my father’s words of encouragement really uplifted me. He has always taught us the importance of staying disciplined, so I was determined to focus on my recovery. For the entire week, I completed my rehabilitation dutifully before pushing myself to excel back on the field. 

The result was one of the most memorable events so far in my life at IMG Academy! We ended up winning the State Cup trophy. The best part was - we hadn’t won the State Cup in ten years, so history was made in that moment. I am so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to and be a part of such a groundbreaking milestone, and I am definitely looking forward to training and competing in more matches here.

Winning the State Cup for the first time in ten years was a truly surreal experience. I am so grateful to be a part of the team and to have helped achieve this momentous milestone!

A strong support system

As a student-athlete, I know that it’s important to strike a balance between chasing my football passion and doing well in my studies. Luckily, the curriculum at IMG Academy is designed to suit our needs and achieve our goals. We attend school three hours a day before our daily training and are required to take regular quizzes and end-of-year tests, ensuring that we make consistent progress. 

I have learnt to become more efficient at time management! I also think it’s great that there is a team of passionate academic advisors available to help students who are struggling in school.

On top of that, I love that there are mental coaches who check in on us regularly as well. I feel that this is important, especially for international students like myself because due to the time difference, I may not be able to talk to my friends or family whenever I need to. 

The mental coaches make time for us and help us get through the challenges that we face. I find it very easy to confide in them as they have always welcomed me with open arms and made me feel very comfortable. If I had the chance to say a few words to a fellow student who is struggling, I would tell them not to be afraid to ask for help.

Dad, my first coach

Out of all the lessons my father has taught me thus far, the one that stands out most is this: With struggle and sacrifice, we can do anything. I have experienced this firsthand in the way that he devotes himself to us. He cares about our wellbeing and works really hard to make sure we achieve our full potential in life. 

My dad has been my constant, faithful supporter throughout my football journey. It has been tough being so far away from him, but I know he’ll always be there whenever I need him. 

When my dad first coached my brothers and me, it started off as a casual family activity. We would go to the park to play football as a family and have fun. But he did such a great job that my brothers, Harith, 16, and Haziq, 13, are both steadily progressing in their own football journeys, training with SPL clubs today.

Being so far away from home now makes me all the more thankful for all the training we had together. That’s how our family bonded. As a coach, he is really fierce. But his criticisms are constructive and he picks out areas in which you can improve to become a better football player. 

More importantly, he has taught me to be a better person. Discipline, patience, resilience. These are crucial qualities he has repeatedly emphasised. Football can be quite frustrating at times, especially when you mess up on the field or do not execute a movement perfectly. I’m a rather hot-tempered person, so my dad is like the ice to my heat. I have to say that his support (and my mum’s!) means the world to me, and has helped me to deal with the setbacks in my life.  

A Father’s Love: Hearing from Dad and Irsalina’s brothers

Waking up at 5.30 am and ending the day late has become the norm for Irwan Isnin, who not only works a full-time job, but also ferries his kids to and fro their different schools and football trainings - sometimes cross-island and by public transport. “I want them to feel the same passion and adrenaline rush that I love about football. I want them to understand the sacrifices I am making for them, in hopes that it will motivate them to work even harder to achieve their dreams,” said Irwan. 

The father of five shares a close bond with his children and enjoys being a part of “their journey, their tears and sadness, their success.” Even though Irsalina lives in the United States now, he continues to keep in close contact with her. Irwan said: “We communicate daily. I will check in on her training and studies. As long as she’s not sad, I’m happy.”

I am very close to my siblings, especially Harith and Haziq. I like how our family is always full of encouragement and how we are all very supportive of each other. 

Part of the Lion City Sailors U-21 squad, Harith has learnt to be extremely disciplined from his father’s strict coaching sessions. This has helped him to maximise his time for the long days of school and training. He also wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps in the way he treats people. “He may be fierce as a coach to us, but I know it’s his way of protecting me. Outside of football, he is always kind and humble when talking to people. I’m grateful to learn so much from him.”

Haziq, who plays in the Lion City Sailors U-13 team, dreams of achieving the same lofty goals as his siblings. To get there, his father coaches the boys together whenever the opportunity arises. Haziq said: “He’s a great dad. Despite working all day, he still takes the time to train us and attend our trainings and matches. Thank you for being the best father and pushing me to reach my potential.”

The special bond shared by his three older kids are a sure testament to Irwan’s nurturing and openly communicative parenting style. 

“Thank you for protecting and guiding me. For coming to our games even though you may be tired. You’re loving, kind, supportive, and courageous. Without you, I wouldn’t have made it this far in football,” Irsalina affirmed. 

From the field to the future, the support and sacrifices of all the incredible dads out there fuel our young talents’ passion for the beautiful game. UTR! celebrates you, for every goal, every cheer, and every moment of dedication. Happy Father’s Day!

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