This article was first published in Hype & Stuff on 30 July 2018.
It takes grit to venture off the beaten track.
But for 25-year-old Singaporean Phoon Jia Hui, his decision to forgo pursuing his undergraduate studies and take up the role of a football manager at Geylang International Football Club required more than just grit; it required balls (pun most definitely intended).
In doing so, he defies the classic Singaporean narrative — one that places the ‘paper chase’ as a priority and emphasises the virtue of occupational success.
In a society where ageism lingers behind every corner, Jia Hui’s age did not pose a huge challenge. After all, his previous stints at various publishing houses as a freelance sports journalist made him no stranger to the local football scene.
Sitting down with Jia Hui at a local cafe, he gave me the lowdown and revealed the struggles of his job, shared some insights on the local football scene, and weighed in on the possibility of Singapore making an appearance in the World Cup.
Is there a difference between being a football manager in Singapore and being one overseas?
“Yes, there is. In Europe, the man behind tactical decisions is known as the manager. In Singapore, managers focus primarily on the administrative aspect.”
Besides handling the administrative part of things, what are your other contributions?
“It is also my job to maintain the discipline of the team and ensure players come for training. There were times when I also contributed my inputs on players’ placements and possible play strategies.
My past experience as a sports journalist definitely helped and my coaches would listen to me. The ultimate decision still remains with the head coach or assistant coach.”
What are some struggles you face as Geylang International Football Club’s manager?
“The beginning was the most daunting because I needed to earn the respect of the players, especially amongst the older guys, build rapport, and learn the ropes of managing them. And we all know respect is a two-way thing. Fortunately, the team was welcoming on my first day.
And considering how most of the guys have other commitments — such as school and day jobs — it can be tough balancing the accommodative and stringent persona.”
What were some of the sacrifices you had to make during the transition from a sports journalist to a manager?
“I don’t really have the time to hang out with my friends anymore. Previously, I had the time but I did not have money. Now, I have some money but no time. I do feel guilty for rejecting their calls because my schedule is not fixed.”
Are you content with the job? What is your pay like?
“Yeah. First, it is football and I like football. Second, people outside are taking up 8-5pm jobs and here I am doing something different. To me, being a football manager is a challenge and I enjoy a challenge.
I’m not allowed to reveal it but it is justifiable considering my level of experience.”
Like many Singaporean millennials whose dreams and ambitions are often subjected to sceptical quizzes from worried parents, Jia Hui’s unorthodox occupation as both a journalist then and a football manager now did raise a few brows.
The usual concerns of ‘not earning enough’ and ‘prospects not promising’ did surface. There were occasions when Jia Hui was unemployed, and his father would offer to call up his kaki to help Jia Hui get a job interview in the hospitality industry.
Knowing what it’s like in Singapore, how did you handle your family’s concern?
“I had to be frank with them. I told them I needed time and that I have been going for interviews but I hadn’t gotten any replies from them. I did appreciate their assistance but I wasn’t interested in any other fields besides sports.
Now that I am a full-time football manager, I contribute about S$2-300 and pay for my own bills. It’s not a lot but it’s enough to pay for the utilities.”
Over the course of a thrilling month, 64 matches, 169 goals and four red cards, the 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded with France emerging triumphant in a chaotic battle against Croatia.
In many ways, Russia 2018 was riveting and wholly spectacular. Amid the madness of it all, many records — oldest player to score a hat-trick, most own goals scored, smallest country (Iceland) to play in the World Cup, etc. — were shattered.
Eight years ago, Singapore once had the same dream. ‘Goal 2010’ as we called it never really happened. I took the opportunity to ask Jia Hui’s opinions on the things that could have gone wrong.
What happened to the glory days and the promise of getting to the World Cup?
“Well, to be honest, the football scene back then was pretty promising — at least from an outsiders’ point of view — and while far-fetched, with a little more help, we could have made it. We were able to beat teams in the region easily but sadly it has changed today, where teams from Malaysia and Thailand are overtaking us.”
Iceland, which has a population of 337k, was the smallest country to qualify for Russia 2018. Why did Singapore, which has a larger pool of people and equally scarce resources, fail to make the cut?
“The dynamics in Iceland and Singapore are indeed similar. In both countries, the footballers have day jobs. I don’t think it’s that we are not athletic. I think the real issue here is that the culture is not developed.
When we were younger, our parents would dismiss our dreams as some form of play, and we would grow out of it. And since young, children have been told to work hard academically. If there is a lack of serious support and earnest encouragement from both parents and institutions, talented individuals will never be able to refine their skills.”
Do you think Singapore will ever make it?
“The scene is changing, people are opening up to alternatives and are accepting to new options. I doubt we will see this change soon, or at least not in our lifetime. The greatest change has to start from the bottom, or in other words, grassroots.
Players are just content with playing the local leagues rather than at the World Cup qualifiers or even the Asian Cup. There is so much I can do, so hopefully, I can be the ripple that makes a wave.”