Exclusive: One on One with R. Sasikumar

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There is no denying the fact that when it comes to South East Asia, R. Sasikumar is one of the most well-entrenched figures in the football scene. Formerly a Singapore international, Sasi famously scored the winning goal at the 1998 Tiger Cup final, allowing Singapore to impeccably lift the trophy. But since then, he has already retired from professional football, though Sasi continues to be actively involved in sports, via his Sports Marketing company, Red Card Group. With the AFF Suzuki Cup edging ever closer and the fact that the S.League continues to face serious concerns over its sustainability, Fourth Official caught up with the man himself for a quick chat on footballing matters.

FO: Most footballers look at you as the ideal individual, of how to further transcend and build a career upon retirement. You’re currently breaking amazing boundaries with your Sports Marketing company. Was it pre-planned from the beginning?

RS: I’m glad that I can be a role model for ex pros. Very little is done for ex pros, especially when it comes to their 2nd careers. A lot of them are left to their own devices and many of them fade away, which is really unfair especially if they have dedicated their lives to the game. Many go into depression and never really recover. I was depressed for about 6 months when I finished. Football was all I knew. The banter with the team mates, the highs and lows of winning and losing, football politics etc. I did not end my career on my terms, my contract got cancelled at Tampines Rovers, not to my own doing. That was a bit bitter. But I have to thank Steve Darby who gave me a chance to set that right. He signed me for half a season (played for $300 a month!) but just to so I got the opportunity to end a decent career on my terms, especially at a club where I was successful winning trophies. Just at the end of that year I had an opportunity to move to Australia to work for a Sports Marketing agency, I jumped at the chance. I was always involved in business in some form while I was playing and had a huge passion for the business side of sports and working in Australia gave me the insights. Its been almost 10 years and I’m still learning about business daily. I knew was never going to be a coach. I couldn’t live for the game like coaches do. I knew I will be involved in the game somehow though.

FO: What do you miss the most about your playing days?

RS: I miss playing for the national team. Lining up in front of a huge crowd and wearing the shirt with pride. My wife used to tease me on the way I would have my chest out singing the national anthem. I love my country and playing for the Lions was a life long dream. I took a lot of pride in being a representative of my country. Nothing could beat that feeling. Winning gave me a huge buzz, I miss that about football. The banter with the boys as well. The team of 1999 at Home United was special. We were a tight bunch. That’s why we won the league.

FO: I’ve got to ask you about Everton. I know you’re a great fan of them, but they’ve been struggling of late. Thoughts on that?

RS: Everton are notorious for inconsistency in their form. Martinez is trying to fix that. A couple of players are not on form yet, perhaps even ageing. Hopefully they find their form before Christmas, then maybe Everton can have a strong finish to the season.

FO: Moving on to the local football scene, what are your general thoughts on the recently concluded S.League season

RS: Where do I start? What has happened over the years with the league is disappointing. I truly believe that Singapore is in a prime position to have a thriving league. Unfortunately, the powers that be, haven’t addressed the real fundamental issues. Instead of tackling the problem heads on we, have opted to sweep things under the carpet. I’m one for calling a spade a spade. In my life I have made many mistakes, but we are only human.

Same goes for the structure behind the league. If its not working, admit the mistakes and work with people who can fix the problem. The problem in Singapore is no one wants to lose face. No one admits they don’t know something. So they end up making mistakes that are glaring. The excellence we had in football is gone. Football cannot be run solely by administrators, I don’t say it in a disrespectful way, they are important in certain aspects of the game. Today its all about the money, if you are not commercial in the way you approach the business of football, you will fail to exist. I see that as a huge problem for the S-League.

I always sound like a naysayer! Actually I care about the local game that’s why I have an opinion. I look at the leagues around the region and go why can’t we be like that. I want to provide a solution, not just be an arm chair critic. Football is the people’s game, its our responsibility to provide that for the people of Singapore. Recent events in S-League have been appalling. Almost 100 people have gone out of a job and that’s not funny. There are guys with families to feed and overnight they find themselves with no income in the next 30 days. As a father of two I sincerely worry for them. No one thought about the players, because they are at the bottom of the value chain. I was really glad that Hassan Sunny spoke about the “victims” when he received the Player of the Year award. Big respect for the guy!

I think people have lost confidence in local football. Maybe its time to overhaul and reboot the system. After all the Germans did it in the early 2000s. Needless to say, look at what’s happened with their football.

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FO: Warriors FC won the league, edging narrowly over Brunei DPPM FC. Do you agree with certain fans, that it was also a symbolic victory for SG, considering that they prevented a foreign team from clinching the title. And are you also in favour of foreign teams competing in the local league.

RS: Well done to Warriors, they have won everything for a while now. They have a decent team and a decent manager.

But I’m not in favour of having foreign teams in the league. What value do they bring? Broadcast rights? Cross border sponsorships? Again, what was the thought process behind the decision? Nothing personal with the foreign clubs but I’m only interested in development of the S-League.

FO: Tanjong Pagar has opted to close shop and two other teams are considering the option of merging into one team. How do you think will this affect the league?

RS: From a sporting prospective I think they were decent last season but lost a few quality players and have never found the same form this campaign. From the fans perspective, its sad to see that some fans have lost their club. Woodlands is another club with rich history and strong fan base. I genuinely feel for the fans, their passion is infectious and that’s what we need for a solid league. I believe the merger and closure of the clubs must have an effect on stakeholder confidence.

FO: There are clear signs that the S. League dying and the frustration seems to be spreading amongst fans as well. But do you think the Singapore FA is doing enough to revive the local football scene. If not, what do you personally think, are the necessary steps to boost its stature?

RS: I made a living playing in the S-League and have a huge affinity to what goes on around it. A lot can be done to turn the S-League into an exciting and profitable sporting property. A brand new project has to be put together to revamp the league. Create value so that the league pulls in the resources to make it work. Many people have shared ideas about a new concept with me. I’m sure there are experts in the market that can help the authorities to make it work. I will need two days just to explain to you about how this can work. But in summary, it can be done. We need to believe it, at every level.

FO: LionsXII seem to be getting far more traction in Singapore, compared to the teams competing in the S.League. Why is that so?

RS: Its because the Malaysia Super League is exciting. The players make the league. There’s some value created. And especially when the LionsXII were winning, people were singing. This season hasn’t been the same. What was being done to retain the fan base? Any special programs put in place? It was no secret that the crowd at the matches this year dwindled. We live in a society where there are many options for entertainment. Sports/Football marketers have to stay ahead of the game to retain the money in sport.

FO: The Suzuki Cup is coming up and it will be played on Singaporean soil. Considering that the Lions are also the defending champions, do you think they will be able to replicate that achievement on home turf this time around?

ANS: The last Suzuki Cup I said I feared for the Lions, they went on to win the cup proving me wrong. I hope they do the same this time. There are some very good players in the team while there are some there only to make the numbers. The group looks hard to survive. I was in Vietnam couple of weeks ago and working on the Toyota Mekong Cup, Binh Doung who won the tournament had 6 national players and they looked sharp. Thailand have raced ahead of the pack in SE Asia due to their strong league structure which has produced players like Chanathip who might be the star of the tournament. My pick is Thailand to walk this tournament hands down!