Hands on with football
Fri, Dec 04, 2009

WHEN he walked away from football in 1992, former Singapore captain Thambiah Pathmanathan left behind an illustrious 14-year career which included the Player of the Year award that year. Little did he know there was extra time still to be played.

Football passion runs deep in Terry, as he is popularly known, and quitting was easier said than done.

The itch to play again returned with a vengeance and, four years later, when some of his former peers were grappling with early arthritis, he found himself lacing his boots for one final fling.

He was all of 40 when he played for Tampines Rovers in the inaugural S-League (1996), holding his own in defence against strikers half his age.

The speed and stamina had diminished but the old lion could still count on his experience and guile.

He retired for good at the end of that season and, in 2006, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) offered him a coaching job.

This year, he was put in charge of the Young Lions side in the S-League and the Singapore team for the SEA Games in Laos from Dec 9 to 18.

The SEA Games football competition is an under-23 event and his Laos-bound team is the youngest Singapore side since the Games began 50 years ago. Most of the players were drafted from the Young Lions.

Speaking about the Young Lions' credible eighth place finish in the 12-team S-League table, Terry says: "The average age of the team is 19. Many of them are students and they have to juggle football and studies, unlike the other pros. We lost a number of matches halfway through the season but we improved towards the end and even managed to beat some of the strong teams like Tampines, Geylang and Home."

Now, despite the Singapore under-23 side's inexperience at the international level, Terry is confident of their chances in Laos where they have been grouped with the home team, Indonesia and Myanmar. Favourites Thailand are in the other group with Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Timor Leste.

"Indonesia and Myanmar will not be easy and even Laos with their home crowd support cannot be taken for granted. We have worked hard in training and I believe we will see the results," says Terry who is assisted by another former international, the silky-skilled striker V. Sundramoorthy.

Both were from a generation when the local Indian community churned out a string of talented players. Sadly, there are only a handful of Indians in top flight football today despite the many opportunties to play professionally here and in the region.

Of the SEA Games squad of 20, two are Indians.

One is the talented midfielder Hariss Harun who turned 19 last month, a day after playing a key role in helping the senior Singapore side secure a vital 1-0 away win against Thailand in an Asian Cup qualifier.

The other is 18-year-old defender Madhu Mohan.

So why the shortage of talented Indian players?

"Many young Indians now prefer to join dance groups and they are doing very well in entertainment.They are also very fit, judging by the way they perform the dance sequences. Others prefer to concentrate on their studies. Although many young people play football on weekends, they are not interested in taking it seriously," laments Terry, who gets very animated when discussing football.

Still, he remains optimistic about the future, pointing to the National Football Academy set up to train budding talent and the serious attention given to building the national team: "The FAS is serious about taking football to the next level. All our World Cup qualifying matches are taken very seriously. Ultimately, everyone wants to go to the World Cup."

But before that, more needs to be done to develop the game at the grassroots level, he feels: "Youngsters train for two to three hours a week. In my time, we trained two to three hours a day. Kids these days have too many activities and distractions and not enough time for football."

Apart from his career in football, Terry has also worked for the air force, Singapore Pools and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

In fact, it was at SPH that he met his wife Yasotha, a personal assistant to an editor.

They have two children: Son Mithun is 13 and daughter Meera is six.

I ask for his thoughts on the World Cup.

But instead of picking his favourites, Terry opts to focus on the cheats and how television should expose them during World Cup 2010.

Was he thinking of the recent handball incident involving Thierry Henry which allowed France to squeeze through to the World Cup at the expense of Ireland?

"Not just that incident with Henry. Football today is full of cheats and slow motion replays are exposing them. You can actually see clearly how they do it - diving in the penalty box, pulling and kicking opponents and trying to fool the referee. It's win at all costs. I just hope young players don't pick up all these bad habits." he says.

Singapore's young guns know they have to play hard but fair in Laos.

Anything less, and there will be some explaining to do to the man in charge.

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Multimedia: Shahirah