Only two turn up (The Sunday Times, 08 Feb 2009)

By Leonard Lim


Only two members of the national 4x100m women’s relay squad showed up at Gombak Stadium yesterday.


The relay squad had been scheduled to meet Singapore Athletic Association-appointed coach Tang Ngai Kin.


But only Amanda Choo and Balpreet Kaur were present for the briefing by their new coach, as they were informed of weekly Saturday training to help them gear up for December’s South-east Asia Games in Laos.


The squad’s three other members – Ann Siao Mei, Wong Ze Teng and Lee Yan Lin – said they were sick and did not show up.


The team have expressed reservations after the SAA appointed Tang to take over Loh Chan Pew, who had been coaching the girls since 2003.


But Tang insisted yesterday: ‘I’m not here to steal anyone’s athletes or to take the limelight. The girls can still train under Chan Pew on other days.’


Under Loh, Choo, Ann, Wong and Lee – all 22 – broke the 34-year-old 4x100m national record in 2007.


Choo and Ann are also personally coached by Loh. In 2007, Choo broke the national 100m mark that Prema Govinden had held since 1989.


Despite Loh’s good results, the SAA said it wanted new blood.


Also, the 63-year-old Loh did not have the association’s minimum coaching qualification – an International Association of Athletics Federations Level 3 certificate.


Loh attended a joint International Olympic Committee/IAAF course in the 1980s.


The SAA’s new panel of relay coaches comprises Tang, 56, Hamkah Afik, 37, Muhamad Hosni, 37, and Alfred Sim, 28.


Tang and Hosni have Level 5 qualifications. Sim and Hamkah have Level 2 certificates but, under a newly implemented system, they are automatically upgraded to Level 4.

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Loh axed in revamp (The Straits Times, 6 Feb 2009)

By Leonard Lim


THE coach behind the recent success of Singapore’s women sprinters has been given the axe.

Loh Chan Pew, who coached the national 4x100m women’s team to a national record in 2007, will no longer be in charge of the team he helped to build.

In an e-mail to members of the squad, Singapore Athletic Association technical director C. Veeramani announced that a new coach – Tang Ngai Kin – had been appointed.

Tang is scheduled to meet the team for the first time tomorrow.

Loh had worked with the quartet of Amanda Choo, Lee Yan Lin, Ann Siao Mei and Wong Ze Teng since 2003.

Under his guidance, Choo broke the national 100m record in 2007. It had stood for 18 years before that.

The team also rewrote the 34-year-old national 4x100m mark that same year.

The SAA insists Loh, 63, is being replaced because it wants new blood. It also adds that he has not attained the association’s minimum coaching qualification standard.

Loh was disappointed by the move, which came to light in Veeramani’s e-mail sent late last year, but declined further comment.

However, insiders believe the veteran – with nearly 30 years of coaching experience – has been forced out because he does not see eye to eye with the current SAA administration.

Tang, 56, is a former national men’s and women’s relay coach and was in charge at the 1997 Jakarta South-east Asia Games, where the women’s team took bronze.

Former national sprinters Hamkah Afik, 37, Muhamad Hosni, 37, and Alfred Sim, 28, will be assisting Tang in addition to coaching the men’s relay squads.

Veeramani insisted the change would be for the better, saying: ‘We want new blood.

‘Also, we want those with Level 3 and Level 4 International Association of Athletics Federations coaching certificates, instead of the previous minimum of Level 2.

‘Chan Pew is only at Level 2.’

The Level 1 course is an overview of coaching, while Level 2 covers a general multi-event syllabus. Level 3 and above delve more into specific events such as sprints.

Tang and Hosni hold the maximum Level 5 qualification, but Hamkah and Sim have only Level 2 certificates.

The SAA typically nominates one candidate per course. Lasting one to two weeks and conducted internationally, the courses are held about once every two years.

Asked why Loh had not been nominated previously, Veeramani replied: ‘We’ll work on it.’

Said Tang, a five-time SEA Games silver medallist in decathlon, sprint and relay events: ‘Veeramani wants a revamp, and he appointed me for the women’s team. I’m just doing my job.’

The change in coaches has left the women’s team puzzled.

They had not been consulted about the move and had been looking forward to working with Loh for the Laos SEA Games in December.

Said Choo: ‘We asked why he was dropped but the SAA would only say that it was part of its new plans, without elaborating.’

Choo, Ann, Wong and Lee, all aged 22, had progressed well under Loh. In 2005 and 2006, they broke the national 4x100m junior records.

They then rewrote the senior record set in 1973 by Heather Marican, Gan Bee Wah, Glory Barnabas and Sheila Fernando in September 2007, and bettered it at the SEA Games in December.

They have also cut their relay time from over 48 seconds five years ago to 46.68sec, the current national record.

Choo broke Prema Govindan’s 18-year-old 100m mark in September 2007.

She then lowered it at that year’s SEA Games, clocking 12.12 en route to becoming the first Singaporean to qualify for the final since 1973, when Eng Chiew Guay won gold in the then-South-east Asian Peninsular Games.

Lamented Ann: ‘The familiarity, chemistry and trust that we have with Mr Loh, and the team spirit built up over the years helped us break those long-standing records.

‘Ours is a partnership which works. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?’

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Lion Tamer (The Sunday Times, 25 Jan 2009)

Avramovic’s charges have fallen from grace and the national coach is ready to wield the axe

By Wang Meng Meng

One month can be a very long time in football.

Just ask Raddy Avramovic.

Back in December, the national football team were on a high and gunning for an unprecedented hat-trick of consecutive regional triumphs. They had also gone 19 matches unbeaten in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup under the Serb, a run that stretched back to 2004.

But match No. 20 did them in.

Master tactician Raddy Avramovic gets ready to usher in a new generation of Lions (Picture taken from

Master tactician Raddy Avramovic gets ready to usher in a new generation of Lions (Picture taken from

On that fateful night of Dec 21, Vietnam stunned the Lions by scoring from their one and only shot of the game, and in the process sowed the seeds of doubt among fans, players and officials.

In Singapore’s next competitive game, a 2011 Asian Cup qualifier against Iran’s second stringers on Jan 14, Avramovic’s men were stuffed 0-6 – the second biggest defeat of his six-year reign as national coach after a 0-7 trouncing by Oman in a World Cup qualifier five years ago.

The Serb was still annoyed with the abysmal displays of his charges when he met The Sunday Times team last Friday at his Tanjong Rhu apartment, home to the Avramovics since he arrived in 2003.

His wife of 34 years, Bratislava, has kept the three-bedroom abode spick-and-span. Their unit is served by a private lift and overlooks a swimming pool.

The couple’s passion for Asian antiques and art is evident. He collects exquisite handcrafted chess sets, a game which he loves as ‘it can be applied to football, the concept of forcing your opponent into making mistakes’.

A Balinese painting hangs on the wall behind the settee, Chinese tea-pots sit on a bookcase and a golden Buddha is outside the study where Singapore’s reigning Coach of the Year stashes away volumes of football books and videos. Indiana Jones would have been proud.

But the quaint, serene setting is momentarily broken by the now infamous Avramovic scowl. ‘Some players have forgotten that it was hard work that brought them into the national team in the first place,’ he lamented as his mind wandered back to that 0-6 humbling.

‘They have become too big for their boots.’

Over coffee – black – the 59-year-old tactician spoke in his usual mumble, but his warning is loud and clear – the axe has been brandished and it is about to fall on the Lions.

‘These players think they are too good for the team, preferring to show off their individual skill rather than stick to team-work,’ he said between puffing on his cigarette.

‘But they don’t have the quality to beat their markers in one-versus-one situations.”

He declined to name names, insisting that it is not his style ‘to crucify players in public’.

Atonement could be on the horizon as the Lions host Jordan at the National Stadium on Wednesday to salvage the Asian Cup debacle.

Avramovic noted: ‘Qualification is still possible with this team. But we must beat Jordan. It will be impossible to qualify if we lose.

‘This is the last big competition for this generation of players. This is the time for them to stand up and be counted.’

But win, lose or draw against the Jordanians, the national coach felt it is time to reset, reboot and refresh the Lions’ line-up.

Up to six seniors could be told to empty their lockers and their shirts handed to a new cohort of cubs. ‘Five or six young players will be introduced to the squad,” he revealed.

‘Even if we beat Jordan, it is still the right time to bring in the young faces and give them a feel of international football… to let them learn from the experienced players and understand the pressure international football brings.’

Insiders have tipped that Young Lions left-footed centre-back Afiq Yunos, tricky wide midfielder Gabriel Quak, all-action forward Eugene Luo and his strike partner, Khairul Nizam, are among the names pencilled in the six-man shortlist.

Avramovic is a a firm believer in giving hungry players a chance, after being inspired by his former Notts County manager Jimmy Sirrel, who brought in a new generation of players in the late 1970s, including Avramovic himself, to get the club promoted to the old First Division in 1981.

Avramovic has already done some culling before. Six years ago, he phased out senior players such as Zulkarnaen Zainal, Rezal Hassan and Rafi Ali. At least 12 youngsters were handed debuts, including Baihakki Khaizan, Khairul Amri, Ridhuan Muhammad and Shahril Ishak, who remain regulars in his first XI to this day.

The bold move paid dividends as the Lions ruled Asean football, played in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time last year. The Under-23s also broke a 12-year medal hoodoo at the 2007 South-east Asia Games where they won a bronze.

Yet, while his management style has delivered results, it has led to disagreement with players, even senior ones. Former skipper Aide Iskandar and defensive midfielder Goh Tat Chuan are two who hung up their boots following differences in opinion with the coach.

The Football Association of Singapore has ambitions for Singapore to be a top 10 nation in Asian football. Singapore is currently ranked 18th on the continent and 135th in the world. Under Avramovic, the Lions have shown they can match Asia’s best.

It all clicked on a night at Kallang when the team beat Iraq 2-0 in a 2007 Asian Cup qualifier, a performance Avramovic cited as the most satisfying of his tenure. That unexpected result against an Iraqi team that eventually won the tournament, served notice of Singapore’s intent to be a top-10 team. But he has a different assessment.

‘Assuming everything is right, the team play to their full potential and the players are disciplined in their lifestyles, this squad cannot go higher than the top 15 in Asia. I wish the players could be more dedicated to the professional life they had chosen.”

He is aware that some players keep late nights and do not observe proper diets when they are back with their S-League clubs.

His ethos of hard work can be traced back to his days with Notts County. He joined them in 1979 for a then-club record of £200,000.

‘It was training, proper diet, early rest and nothing else,” said the native of Cacak, a town 140km outside Belgrade, who gave up his law studies two years into university to pursue a playing career with his hometown club FK Borac Cacak.

Then, he earned £400 a week, an amount which he said was ‘very, very good money’ in those days and made 149 league appearances for the team. Not bad for someone who started as a centre-back but moved between the sticks because he hated heading the ball.

His safe hands helped the team to promotion to the old First Division in 1981.

He still cited former Magpies manager Sirrel as a big influence on his coaching career. ‘He was a special character who had a big knowledge of the game and he was incredibly experienced,’ Avramovic said.

Before Sirrel died on Sept 25 last year, aged 86, he told The Guardian that his former goalkeeper is, without doubt, the best player he had managed at Meadow Lane.

Sirrel said: ‘In my opinion, the goalkeeper is the number one man in your team. You start with a point, and if he doesn’t lose a goal, you get that. So if you score one, you’ve won.’

Before Avramovic and this reporter knew it, it has been more than two hours of coffee, chocolate, walnuts and talking football while Bratislava was ever the kind host, keeping the cups and bowls filled.

In his own words, he has ‘no life’ in Singapore apart from football, football and more football.

The rest of his day was spent at the National Stadium where the Lions played the Young Lions in a sparring match.

He burned the midnight oil to dissect Jordan’s tactics, thanks to DVDs of the kingdom’s recent matches supplied by his contacts in the Middle East.

But this man with the craggy face is not as hard-hearted as his features suggest.

Hushing his voice, Avramovic, who has a 32-year-old son, Ivan, expressed his regret for not spending more quality time with his wife.

When the Lions returned from Jakarta after a successful group stage campaign in the Suzuki Cup in December, he shed a tear when he saw his then nine-month-old grandson, Dusan, at the airport.

Bratislava said: ‘When I watch Singapore play on television, the commentator will always say that Raddy is stern-faced, or frowning or something similar.”

Then she turned to her man, holding his hand and egging him on to smile for the camera.

With interview and photoshoot done, it is back to work for the Serbian football guru. Avramovic knows the team that he painstakingly built has reached a crossroads.

Some tough decisions will have to be made – and he is not about to shy away from them.

On his desk at his FAS office is a simple cardboard sign that reads: ‘The mind is like a parachute – it will only work when it is open.’

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Paddler Tan turns to coaching (The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2008)

By Lin Xinyi


She has trained at the Singapore Table Tennis Association’s  hall on countless occasions.


But yesterday’s two-hour training session was different for her.


Tan Paey Fern went into the hall at Toa Payoh knowing that it would mark her last session as a national paddler.


The world No 103 has called an end to her playing career, after 18 years with the national team, and has taken on the role of national youth team assistant coach.


“I couldn’t bear to leave,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve developed feelings for this hall – a lot of memories came flowing back. I cherished the session and gave it my everything. It was a good ending.”


Starting today, the 34-year-old will help national youth team head coach Xu Xiangdong prepare a team for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.


“It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make because I still enjoy playing the sport,” said Tan.


But the multiple-national champion has seen her on-court chances limited since the start of the year.


She played in only three International Table Tennis Federation Pro Tour events this year.


Her biggest regret was missing out on this year’s world team championship, where Singapore finished second.


She had featured regularly in the event over the past few years.


She had always wanted to groom local talent, and was convinced by Singapore Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah to become a coach.


Lee said: “This is a great opportunity for her to learn under the very experienced coach Xu. This is part of building our local talent, including coaches in the long run.”


For the past 15 years, Tan has been the most dominant Singapore-born player. And she wants more Singaporean paddlers to prove their mettle.


She said: “It isn’t healthy for the sport. We need more competition among the players. Without that, there is no improvement.”


Through coaching, she hopes to make an impact on young paddlers. “It’s a fresh challenge,” she said. “I hope to impart what I’ve learnt and experienced to them.”


When asked what was the highlight of her playing career, Tan singled out her 2004 Athens Olympics appearance. Then, she and doubles partner Zhang Xueling finished in the top 16.


Although they did not return with a medal, that experience was sweeter than podium finishes at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and South-east Asia Games.


“To qualify for the Olympics wasn’t easy as we had to compete with the top teams from Asia,” she said. “Often, I think about that moment.”


Team player

Tan Paey Fern’s career highlights


1991: First SEA Games medal (team bronze)

1999: Wins first of five consecutive SEA Games golds (team)

2002: Commonwealth Games (team gold, singles bronze, doubles bronze)

2004: Olympic Games (doubles top 16)

2005: ITTF Pro Tour Korea Open (doubles gold)

2006: Commonwealth Games (team gold, doubles silver, mixed doubles bronze), Asian Games (team silver)

2007: Commonwealth Championships (team gold)

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STTA chief’s new style (The Straits Times, 18 Oct 2008)

After Beijing Olympics debacle, Lee now takes different work approach


By Lin Xinyi


THE start of her tenure as Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) president might have got off on the wrong foot during the Beijing Olympics, but Lee Bee Wah has now adopted a new working style.


Lee, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said yesterday: “Now I want to do things with two Qs – quickly and quietly.”


In August, she was in the eye of the “Gao Ning incident” storm after the paddler, who played without a coach, crashed out in the third-round singles.


Then, she revealed that team manager Antony Lee’s services were no longer needed, and that head coach Liu Guodong’s fate would be decided by a coaching committee. Antony eventually apologised and no disciplinary action was taken.


She said her priorities now include the nurturing of local talents.


Speaking at the start of the three-day STTA selection trial for Youth Olympic Games (YOG) candidates at the Singapore Sports School, Lee said: “The YOG is part of a process, not the final destination.


“We hope that the Games will spur interest among local talents. After the Games, we would like to groom them into national players.”


Ultimately, she aims to have a good mix of local and foreign talent in the national team, and hopes to see locals playing professionally within the next five to seven years.


In preparation for the YOG, the STTA has come up with a 22-month training plan for the selected paddlers.


It includes local and overseas training, and overseas competitions such as the International Table Tennis Federation Junior Circuit.


Lee declined to reveal any figures when asked how much funding was needed to prepare for the inaugural Games.


She would only say that a proposed budget has been sent to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports and the Singapore Sports Council.


In addition to overseas training and competitions, Lee has also budgeted for a tutor to travel with the paddlers when they go for overseas competitions.


“We hope to recruit a school teacher who can double up as the team manager when we go overseas,” she said.


The teacher will provide maths and science tuition for the youth paddlers and help to allay the fears of parents who feel their children might need to catch up on their studies due to the rigorous training programme, added Lee.


Players selected to represent Singapore at the YOG need to go through 30 hours of training each week.


They will train under newly appointed national youth team coach Xu Xiangdong. The 49-year-old, who arrived on Monday, was headhunted to front the Republic’s YOG efforts.


Yesterday, Xu watched from the sidelines of the selection trial, which featured 33 paddlers aged 12 to 14.


The former China national team player said: “The overall standard of play here is much lower than that of the world’s best youths. But there are one or two players who showed promise.


“Although this is below my expectations, this is the reality and now it’s all about bringing out the best in them.”


Xu, who has over two decades of coaching experience, added that his immediate task is to enhance the paddlers’ technical abilities and to build their physical strength.

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End of the road (The Straits Times, 14 October 2008)

Coach Liu turns down new contact with table tennis association


By Terrence Voon


THE man who helped deliver Singapore’s first Olympic medal in 48 years is set to quit as coach of the historic women’s national team.


Liu Guodong – whose contract expires at the end of the year – has turned down a new two-year deal offered to him by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), calling it ‘insulting and insincere’.


Speaking to The Straits Times in a telephone interview yesterday, the 34-year-old insisted that the salary he was being offered did not match his expectations.


Though he declined to reveal details, he said he knew of coaching consultants in Singapore who were paid at least $9,000 a month.


But he maintained that it was not about the money, saying: ‘It’s about recognition and respect for the contributions I have made to Singapore.


‘I have helped to win an Olympic medal for the country, and they can’t even match my salary to that of a consultant.’


Liu claimed that the STTA gave him no room for negotiation when they met last month to discuss the deal.


‘They told me to take it or leave it. I refuse to be bullied by this kind of attitude any more,’ he said.


‘What they have put on the table is simply insulting and insincere. They are forcing me to leave.’


According to Liu, the new deal would also take away many of the decision-making powers that a head coach should have.


‘Under the new contract, the STTA would have overall control over the direction of the team,’ said Liu, who is now on a short break in South Korea.


‘If I don’t have any say, I can’t deliver results. And if I can’t deliver results, there is no point in me staying on.’


Liu’s plans had been in doubt since he led the Republic’s women paddlers to a historic silver medal at the Beijing Olympics in August.


He was held responsible by STTA president Lee Bee Wah for the Gao Ning incident – in which Singapore’s No. 1 men’s player found himself with no coach for his Olympic third-round singles match and crashed out to a lower-ranked Croatian.


Yet, at a press conference just six weeks ago, it was revealed that Liu was negotiating a new deal with STTA. Ms Lee had also said that she was looking forward to working with the head coach until the 2012 London Olympics.


But, with Liu unhappy with the new contract and the STTA apparently unwilling to budge, it signalled the end of the coach’s reign.


According to STTA’s new chief executive Chew Soo Sheng, Liu informed Ms Lee two days ago that he had decided not to renew his contract.


‘We respect coach Liu’s decision and we thank him for his contributions to the sport over the last few years,’ said Chew.


‘We are now working on finding a replacement women’s head coach from China, and have already shortlisted six names for the job.’


Liu, who joined STTA in 2006, will now serve his last day on Dec 31.


He intends to take a break after that, before considering job offers which he said he has received from several countries in Asia, Europe and South America.


‘After spending almost three years in Singapore, I have deep feelings for the country and the players that I have helped to groom, like Feng Tianwei,’ he said.


‘It will be difficult to leave all that behind, but STTA has given me no choice.’

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Two more foreign-born players quit SBA (TODAY, 10 Oct 2008)

Singapore’s badminton future takes a hit as Gu and Zhang do a Li Li


By Low Lin Fhoong


NINE months ago, Singapore’s No 1 female shuttler Li Li sent shockwaves through the local badminton fraternity when she quit the sport, citing fatigue.


The 2002 Commonwealth Games gold medallist (women’s singles) was a member of Project 0812, a $7-million government initiative to help athletes achieve medal success at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and/or the 2012 London Games.


Since Li Li quit earlier this year, Singapore’s female shuttlers have failed to perform on the international stage.


At the Beijing Games in August, Xing Aiying crashed out of the women’s singles after losing 2-0 to Belarus’ Olga Konon in the round of 64, while Jiang Yanmei and Li Yujia were beaten 2-0 by Korea’s Lee Hyo Jung and Lee Kyung Won in their women’s doubles quarter-final.


Now, the women’s squad have taken another hit.


Today understands that shuttlers Zhang Beiwen and Gu Juan left the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) in April and July, respectively. The two players, who are both 18 years old, were part of the 10-member youth team — consisting of five boys and five girls — who beat Malaysia to win an historic bronze for Singapore at the 2007 World Junior Championships in New Zealand last October.


Gu was also a member of the silver-medal winning women’s team at last December’s SEA Games in Korat, Thailand.


According to sources, Gu has returned to China to further her studies, while Zhang’s whereabouts remain unknown.


Graduates of the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, the two players had received their citizenship in May last year, but quit the sport after disagreements with the women’s singles chief coach, Wang Junjie.


“The athletes felt the coach was only concentrating on Li Li and Aiying, and felt neglected,” an SBA source told Today.


The women’s team will defend their silver medal at the 2009 SEA Games in Laos next year, and reaching the SBA’s target of a finals spot in the 2012 Uber Cup could prove a challenge for the shuttlers.


“I think there will be a vacuum in the succession of players,” added the source.


“They will not be doing as well as the 2007 SEA Games … and unless SBA are able to bring in champions, there is no way they can succeed in both the women’s team and individual events.”


SBA president and Minister of State for Trade and Industry Lee Yi Shyan neither confirmed nor denied the departure of Gu and Zhang when contacted yesterday.


“It suffices to say that SBA attaches great importance to players’ training and development, and building up a pipeline for succession,” said Lee.

 “Whenever we are able to recruit strong players to the national team, our team get strengthened. Whenever we lose them or are not able to groom the younger ones in time to take over, our team would not be at the peak.


“Our immediate objective is to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, while taking seriously the SEA Games next year and other key tournaments between now and then to mature our team.”


Despite media reports that Li Li, 25, could return to the SBA at the end of the year, the association could not confirm the news when contacted, stating that it was not SBA’s policy to discuss individual players’ training and selection.

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