Football: Dream of Singapore Under-23 team's kit man lives on with daughter's liver donation

Kit man Zainol Abidin Omar, 56, and his daughter Nurul Jannah, 25, with the national Under-23 team. Mr Zainol was diagnosed with liver cancer last year but Ms Nurul donated 70 per cent of her liver to him. Now, he is back in action.
Kit man Zainol Abidin Omar, 56, and his daughter Nurul Jannah, 25, with the national Under-23 team. Mr Zainol was diagnosed with liver cancer last year but Ms Nurul donated 70 per cent of her liver to him. Now, he is back in action.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

For more than a decade, Mr Zainol Abidin Omar's life was one of routine, repetition and respect for Singapore football.

As a kit man, or equipment manager, first at the Singapore Sports School, then for the national Under-23 team, he looked after the jerseys, set up the training equipment and offered fatherly advice to the likes of Shahfiq Ghani, Shakir Hamzah and Al-Qaasimy Rahman.

A constant but often unnoticed presence on the touchlines, "Encik Zainol" - as the players called him - watched them grow from wide-eyed kids to full internationals. It was close to a dream job for the 56-year-old former semi-professional player.

Then tragedy struck in February last year. He had frequent spells of vomiting blood and dizziness, but was afraid to tell anyone - even his wife of 32 years, Roswati.

His health worsened and, in June, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Doctors gave him six months to live.

"My liver was gone but my heart broke as well - I don't drink, I don't smoke, I felt I didn't deserve this," an emotional Mr Zainol, who has five children and three grandchildren, told The Sunday Times.

"The first thing on my mind was 'Who would take care of my family?'. My second thought was 'I'm not going to be able to see the Under-23s play at the SEA Games'."

He lost 10kg as he underwent chemotherapy. Too weak to even walk at times, he was forced to step away from football and his part-time transport business.

To keep his spirits up, he would look through three thick photo albums of past Young Lions matches and overseas trips.

Then he got his life back again. Ms Nurul Jannah, 25, one of his four daughters, was found to be a suitable organ donor and readily agreed to give 70 per cent of her liver to her ailing father.

"It was not a difficult decision. I would do anything to see him happy, just as he has done for us," said the administrative assistant.

The operation at National University Hospital in March went without a hitch, and Mr Zainol's cancer is now in remission. He was spurred on by bedside visits from former internationals, such as Fandi Ahmad and R. Suriamurthi, and the entire Young Lions squad.

"They said 'Encik, we know all you are thinking about is returning to football but, please, take care of yourself first'," he said with a smile.

He was discharged on his 56th birthday on March 18 - less than two weeks after the transplant. Within a month and against doctors' advice, he was back in the dressing room.

"It's a huge morale booster for the team to see Encik Zainol back and healthy," said Al-Qaasimy, captain of the Singapore U-23s, who are gunning for SEA Games gold next month. "With someone as passionate and committed as him around, we know we are in good hands."

Aside from the scar across his stomach, Mr Zainol shows little signs of his ordeal and has resumed light exercise. But he has to take 14 pills a day.

The best treatment, he said, arrives at 6pm each day on a football field when the team starts training.

"There was a time when I thought I would never be able to be part of the team again," he said. "Every day I live is a bonus."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg