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What made 2015 special for ST Athlete of the Year nominee Khairul Anwar

Never taking no for an answer

CP captain and team's determination to beat the odds wins hearts of fans at APG

The words "sorry" and "no" have become all too familiar to 29-year-old Khairul Anwar.

In primary school, it was the typical response whenever he asked to join in a football game with his peers. Last year, the same refrains were heard by the Singapore cerebral palsy football team he captains when they looked for sponsors.

It reached a stage in April - eight months before the country hosted the 2015 Asean Para Games (APG) - that the squad had had enough.

The same brand of jerseys which the able-bodied national team used were not being issued to the CP side. Opponents with similar disabilities could not be found for tune-up matches.

Balls, bibs and cones were worn out, and they had to train with normal-sized goals when the tournament itself would feature smaller posts used in seven-a-side games.

"We decided, 'OK, no point feeling sorry for ourselves, let's just go out on the field and show what we can do'," recalled Khairul. "The medal was not the top priority - winning over the hearts of the public was."

WHEN THE BODY DOESN'T LISTEN

My mind knows what I want to do, but my body holds me back sometimes in executing the pass or shot.''

KHAIRUL ANWAR, on how cerebral palsy affects him.

So, fired up but nervous, the team entered the National Stadium in December, in front of home fans increasingly disillusioned with the state of local football.

But where the Lions were once disjointed and defeated, the CP footballers were inspiring and indefatigable. With each match, starting with a last-gasp 1-0 win over Indonesia when Khairul, a midfielder, netted the first of five long-range strikes, the crowds grew along with the media coverage.

His exploits - including a looping effort from the halfway line against Myanmar - even drew the attention of a visiting superstar who once made howitzers an art form.

Former England captain David Beckham requested a meeting with Khairul at Marina Bay Sands, where they watched the goals that earned the Singaporean social media fame.

On paper, the team won a bronze but in truth, they won over a nation.

Khairul was the first local player to score a hat-trick at the new National Stadium, adding to his deserving nomination for The Straits Times' Athlete of the Year award.

Not bad for someone who once had to sneak out of the family flat in Bukit Panjang before sunrise to play football with more welcoming friends. Khairul's parents had banned him from playing during his secondary school days, afraid he was chasing a misguided dream at the expense of his studies.

After all, an S-League career was out of the question for the Manchester United die-hard fan, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy after falling down a flight of stairs on his first birthday.

Refusing to take "no" for an answer, Khairul finally convinced his parents to buy him a pair of boots. "Sorry" was also not an option as he went on to play against able-bodied opponents in social leagues.

"My mind knows what I want to do, but my body holds me back sometimes in executing the pass or shot," said the Republic Polytechnic student.

He found his calling six years ago when veteran coach Mohamed Zainudeen formed the CP football outfit, bringing together players who defied physical disabilities.

An unlikely silver was secured at the 2014 APG in Myanmar, but it was only on home soil last year that they shot to prominence.

Once anti-football, Khairul's parents watched him in action for the first time, and were swept up in the euphoria of their son shining in front of more than 5,000 fans.

Father Kasmani, a 66-year-old security guard, said: "I told him to lose some weight, and look up a bit more before he passed the ball."

Khairul added wryly: "It's still nicer to hear than 'If you play football one more time, you're grounded'."

Not that the threats ever worked.

Khairul, who has two older brothers, prefers nets and flicks over Netflix. Free time is spent at coffee shops with his team-mates, analysing every move from the APG. Next month, he begins an internship at the Singapore Sports Institute's coach development department.

The future looks bright for the CP team as well. With financial support more forthcoming these days, they hope to feature in more overseas competitions ahead of next year's APG in Kuala Lumpur.

Khairul said: "Now, when we ask for help or people see us in the street, we hear 'yes' and 'thank you'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'Never taking no for an answer'. Print Edition | Subscribe