Return of the 'Singapore Beckham'
Forget Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka. For long-time Singapore fans, their favourite all-time Australian player could only be one man: Abbas Saad.
'Abbas who?' you might ask. Well, he's a relatively obscure attacking midfielder and forward, who never played in Europe, but strikes the deepest chord within the island's footballing fraternity, courtesy of a golden spell in the early to mid-1990s.
The Lebanese-born, Sydney-raised Saad is remembered as one of the Singapore heroes when they won the Premier League and Malaysia Cup double in the days before the S-League when a united Singaporean team, consisting of locals and imports, played against Malaysian state sides.
He scored a hat-trick as Singapore crushed Pahang 4-0 in the 1994 Malaysia Cup final.
"Abbas was a glamour boy, the Beckham of Singapore," said former Singapore international R. Sasikumar, of sports marketing company The Red Card. "He was one of the best players we ever had and a loveable character off the field."
But, in 1995, Saad would go from hero to villain after being convicted of match-fixing. He denied the charges and said that he never received any money. But after being found guilty of helping teammate Michael Vana fix games in the FAM Premier League, he was banned and fined S$50,000.
By agreeing to score goals to help Singapore win, Saad says he was unwittingly implicated in the scandal. His global suspension was lifted the following year and he would leave Singapore to resume his career in Australia's National Soccer League (NSL). But it was only a couple of months ago that Saad's 14-year Singapore ban was finally revoked. Now, at the age of 41, he's making an emotional return to the island state to play in an exhibition match.
This Sunday, May 31st, Saad will join former teammates including Singapore legends Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy in an All-Star side, which will play a curtain raiser to a game involving S-League side, Tampines Rovers and visiting A-League outfit, North Queensland Fury - whose star import is ex-Liverpool striker, Robbie Fowler.
For Saad - whose varied football roles include coaching director for New South Wales state league club, Sydney Olympic, as well as coach of Deaf Football Australia - the visit is part nostalgia, part healing, part redemption.
During his latest trip to Singapore, he's also completing his 'A' coaching license. With a ban no longer hanging over him, Saad is free to pursue managerial positions in Singapore's S-League or in Malaysia where he won the League and Cup double with Johor in 1991.
Malaysia-based former Socceroo Scott Ollerenshaw, who played against Saad in the Malaysia Cup in the mid-1990s, described his former rival as "technically one of the best players I have ever seen" and "a superstar" in the region.
"He played in the days before ESPN and the local market wasn't saturated with English football as it is today," Ollerenshaw said. "He was a big star in Singapore and even owned his own nightclub but then he had to go back to Australia where he had to get used to being a normal person again."
Post-Asia, Saad played in the old NSL with Sydney Olympic, Sydney United and Northern Spirit. He also made more Socceroo appearances - he won four full caps in all - when Terry Venables called him into the national team in 1998.
But his years in Southeast Asia - from 1990 to 1995 - are still remembered as the highpoint of his colourful career. Back on Singapore soil, the charismatic Saad - "he's still a showman", says R.Sasikumar - sat down with ESPNsoccernet ahead of his trip down memory lane.
Q: Abbas, what's it like to be back in Singapore and preparing for your first game here in 14 years?
A: It's great to step up and play with '94 Malaysia Cup team, especially the players with whom I have a very common bond for all those years and, of course, the fans who have given me wonderful support during and after football duties.
Q: How much do you think your conviction for match-fixing affected your reputation here?
A: Well, to be honest it never bothered me or any Singapore fan that I have run into over the past 14 years. Overall, as always, the fans and people's judgment of the incident and their reactions speak volumes of how they felt for me.
Q: Why do you think Singaporeans remember you so fondly?
A: The football fraternity of Singapore are second to none with their support for the team and especially for me. I think we connected due to the fact that they loved the way I played and the attitude I played with. That's why they still recognise my achievements and embrace me as one of their own.
Q: You've always maintained your innocence from the match-fixing charges but what did you learn from the whole episode?
A: Yes, until today my feelings are the same. It has taught me the hard way I suppose to never ever put too much trust in people and never talk without reservation on certain topics which others will misinterpret in a sinister way which can come back to bite you.
Q: How hard was it to resume your career after the worldwide suspension and what does it mean to you to finally have the Singapore ban lifted after 14 years?
A: The satisfaction and relief have followed all the adversity that has dogged me for 14 years. It will enable me to pursue my love of coaching to another level which I'm hoping will attract clubs and countries of football to me. I know the ban had limitations for me but now it's all systems go and I hope someone will take me for my experience and knowledge of Asian football, which is second to none.
Q: So how might your experience playing in Asia help Australian football integrate into the region?
A: I was the first Aussie to play in Asia and be successful in the region for a long period which ultimately paved the way to the influx of players from Australia. Obviously, these events have opened the relationship and a more mutual respect towards the respective federations that have been missing over the last 20 odd years, into a reality.
Q: What are your favourite football memories - and your remaining ambitions in the game?
A: Firstly, playing for my country was the ultimate goal of achievements. Winning the Aussie championships with my first clubs - Sydney City and Sydney Olympic - as a pro player was awesome. Then, obviously my experience in the Malaysia Cup with Johor, winning the double and Golden Boot was incredible. But overall, I cherish the Malaysia Cup win with Singapore and playing with the best player I have ever played with in Fandi Ahmad which was the ultimate dream.
I hope all these happy and successful memories will rub off onto my coaching career and help develop and inspire all footballers playing their trade in the Asia Pacific.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster, corporate host and media trainer.