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Youth Olympic Games stars Illyas Lee, Ammirul Emmran still yearning for a football chance with dreams unfulfilled

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Once expected to be the future of Singapore football, the pair find themselves out of the scene at an age when they should be hitting their peak.

August 2020 marked the 10th year anniversary of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG), which was held in Singapore in 2010.

Highlights of the Games included thrilling performances put on by the Singapore Under-15 football team en route to their bronze medal finish in front of sell-out crowds at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

A decade on, that remains a special moment in the Singapore football landscape.

"I'm so glad that we brought the crowds in, made people dream and believe in Singapore football even though it was momentary," said defender Illyas Lee, one of 18 players in the squad.

Midfielder Ammirul Emmran, who scored a memorable first-minute goal against Zimbabwe, added: "I guessed Singaporeans saw how much effort we put in, thus the massive support that came in.

"Even though it was just a bronze medal and not gold, we're happy with what we achieved at that tournament. It was pure hard work and dedication from every player, as well as the great coaching staff behind the team."

The team was dubbed the future of Singapore football then. It was expected most, if not all, of the players would go on to enjoy a successful professional career. However, that could not be further away from reality.

At 25 years old this year, they should be hitting their peaks. But like many of their YOG teammates, Illyas and Ammirul find themselves out of the sport that they love dearly.

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The YOG team in 2010 that Ammirul and Ilyas were a part of.
PHOTO CREDIT: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE

The duo were left in limbo after Warriors FC were forced to sit out of the 2020 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season - due to financial irregularities - just a couple of months before the start of the season in March. By then, most of the other clubs had filled out their playing rosters.

Illyas had "verbally agreed" to sign for the club after his release from Balestier Khalsa in 2019, while Ammirul had been on their books for the past two seasons. The way things turned out left a bad taste in their mouth and both expressed their disappointment in separate interviews with Youth.SG.

"We knew what was happening (at Warriors), but we were told there will be investors coming in and there shouldn't be a problem," Illyas shared, adding that while there were interests in his services from home and abroad, the offers did not materialise.

Ammirul added: "Obviously I'm still finding it hard to accept this. We've produced performances and efforts in 2019, but due to certain mishaps, my career is ruined overnight. I've to delve into my own savings due to unpaid salaries and I've never expected to find myself in such a situation."

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It was not the best of endings for Ammirul's stint at Warriors FC.
PHOTO CREDIT: WARRIORS FC

Unrealised potential

Suffice to say, both had not expected their career to take such a path after starring in the 2010 YOG football tournament when they were just 15.

Ammirul even won the inaugural Dollah Kassim Award - an annual accolade which recognises young Singaporean football talent aged 18 and below – in 2010 and went on a two-week training stint with English Premier League club Newcastle United the following year.

He was also one of the first few among his peers to earn a professional contract with the Young Lions in 2014, before joining Warriors in 2018. In six seasons, he has made almost 90 SPL appearances.

Illyas, on the other hand, earned a reputation for being one of the most hardworking and versatile players in the league since making his bow in 2017.

Both had captained the Singapore Under-22 side on numerous occasions too, although they've yet to make the step up to the senior national team. But the notoriously cut-throat nature of the Singapore football industry means that a footballer's career can be rather fragile.

It also hasn't helped that the SPL has been suspended since March because of COVID-19. That meant clubs weren't really looking to sign players, although a couple of clubs did so in between July and August.

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Illyas had verbally agreed to join Warriors at the start of this year, before the club was forced to sit out the 2020 season.
PHOTO CREDIT: BALESTIER KHALSA FOOTBALL CLUB

Embarking on different career paths 

Both Illyas and Ammirul are sad that they might have to give up their childhood dreams of becoming a star with the Singapore national team. But they are prepared to move on, even if it's not by choice.

While Illyas is registered to amateur outfit Tiong Bahru FC as he retains hope of making a return into professional football, he is not putting all his eggs in one basket.

Already, he has vested interests outside of the sport for a couple of years. He is a managing director at Ektar Electrical with former YOG teammate Sunny Ng - who never signed professional terms - and also co-founded bakery business Miss Van Dough with his girlfriend.

"[Having back-up plans] definitely started for me when I was very young," said Illyas, who is also a third-year Bachelor of Electrical Engineering student at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was once dropped from the 2009 Asian Youth Games squad, which helped him realise early on that he can't possibly stake everything on just his football dreams.

"It's a bit sad if my football career has to end now because there are still some unfinished things that I want to achieve. But sometimes life works in mysterious ways. If this door needs to close, there's no point staying in this industry and perhaps this is just not where I will make my name. I've to be realistic at this age and try to do better in other areas," Illyas said.

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Miss Van Dough, which Ilyas runs with his girlfriend, has been featured on websites such as Eatbook.sg, Honeycombers and Timeout.
PHOTO CREDIT: ILLYAS LEE

Ammirul is not as prepared to give up his biggest love just yet, as he believes he still has plenty to offer on the football pitch.

"Football is my top career choice and will always be," said Ammirul, who admitted that he has lost sleep over the uncertainties surrounding his career. He's currently on a six-month attachment with the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) Football Science & Medicine department and training with the Young Lions - one of the ways FAS has been providing support to players from Warriors FC.

But he has also learnt never to take things for granted.

"I'm also learning to accept that maybe it's (professional football) not meant for me," said Ammirul, whose highest level of education is Higher Nitec in Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

"Previously I never thought so much apart from playing football, but now I have to think of something else and I admit I haven't been prepared for it.

"Living by yearly or two-year contracts in Singapore football, we really need to plan ahead and upgrade yourself to prepare yourself for such situations where you don't have a club.

"Now I'm doing a part-time Sports Science and Wellness diploma course in SUSS (Singapore University of Social Sciences) and is about to complete the one-year course. I'm also helping to run errands for my girlfriend's clothing business which she started about two months ago.

"In the long run, I'm looking to go into the food business industry, as well as coaching."

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Ammirul during his two-week training stint at English Premier League club Newcastle United in 2011.
PHOTO CREDIT: ALCHETRON

Regrets

It isn't easy to just give up on something that you love and did for the longest time, of course. Illyas and Ammirul admitted to missing the dressing room banter and friendships from their time in football.

Their football careers may be coming to a premature end, but the pair is not about to cry over spilt milk and hope that their stories can provide some good lessons for any budding footballers who are looking to make it big.

Ammirul knows that had he spent more time and effort honing his craft, he would have realised his potential - however cliché it may sound.

"If I could turn back time, I would probably put in more hours to do extra training, study the game and improvise the way that I play. Maybe I didn't work as hard as I could have. Every footballer has their own set of targets and obviously it's disappointing I never made it to the senior national team," he said. 

Meanwhile, Illyas reiterated on the importance of having a back-up plan.

"Bear in mind that at times, things just don't work out," he said. "So you need to take care of yourself and always be prepared for any scenario.

"For myself, I don't have any regrets on not working hard enough. I've always given my best, tried to be a positive influence amongst the others and be caring to others. For me, I believe what you do is not as important as who you are."

BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: AMMIRUL EMMRAN, ILLYAS LEE