Old but still gold, S-League veteran Zahid Ahmad laments the new age restrictions

Zahid Ahmad talks about being affected by S-league's new age restriction policy. The 36-year-old journeyman left-back played for Tanjong Pagar United this season but with the club sitting out of the S-League next year, he will need to look for a new
Zahid Ahmad talks about being affected by S-league's new age restriction policy. The 36-year-old journeyman left-back played for Tanjong Pagar United this season but with the club sitting out of the S-League next year, he will need to look for a new team. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK 

Last week, S-League CEO Lim Chin rolled out a controversial new policy to refresh the football competition.

From next season onwards, Singaporean clubs can only sign five local outfield players above the age of 30. This will mean that more than 40 players will be scrambling to look for 30 jobs available in the six local clubs.

Journeyman left-back Zahid Ahmad, 36, is one such player affected by the new policy. He played for Tanjong Pagar United this season but with the club sitting out of the S-League next year, he is looking for a new team.

Feeling not too optimistic about finding employment, Zahid spoke to The Straits Times to express his feelings.

My body tells me there's another two years of professional football left in my legs.

But somebody is telling me that at the age of 36, I am too old for the S-League.

This was not supposed to be the way my career came to an end.

I have been a loyal and humble servant to Singapore's first and only professional league, which has seen more downs than ups in recent years.

The three S-League titles I won with Tampines Rovers, Geylang United and Singapore Armed Forces FC will rank among my life highlights, along with the birth of my two children.

Now, I am being told that I can't do the only job I have known since quitting school after my 'O' Level examinations.

My last club, Tanjong Pagar United, have abruptly closed shop. I have spoken to a handful of teams about joining them next season, but they all said that their hands are tied by the age ruling.

How did it come to this?

I'm not one of those players who were late for training or did not look after his health.

Need proof?

My 2.4km fitness test timing this year was 8min 25sec, easily clearing the 10min passing mark and putting some younger players to shame.

Even during the off-season, I look after myself, whether it's getting enough sleep, avoiding fried food or going for 30-minute runs on most evenings.

I may not appear in the media much. When you Google my name, you find other Zahid Ahmads instead. I am low-profile but the fraternity knows me as one of the fittest players around and a honest, hardworking professional.

Wedding anniversaries, birthdays and holidays all took a backseat to the S-League. And not once did I complain because I love football, love playing in front of crowds (no matter how small), love the feeling of being in a dressing room.

I find joy that even at my age, I am fitter than some young players and still doing a good job for my club. Tanjong Pagar would not have signed me if they did not believe in me.

How can an administrator decide if I am not capable of lacing up my boots and playing with youngsters and foreigners in stadiums across Singapore?

It should be for the coach, who sees me at training every day, to decide whether I deserve a contract or not.

If my speed or first touch is gone, he will drop me. Then it is up to me to re-invent myself as a different player that can be of use to the team.

Yes, the S-League has deep-rooted issues in attracting crowds and sponsors, but casting aside the so-called oldies will not solve the problem.

If young players are the way to go to fill the stands and improve the standard of play, then tell me why the Courts Young Lions don't draw big crowds? Or why Harimau Muda, essentially Malaysia's Under-21 side, finished rock-bottom?

The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) can use statistics to support their ruling, but I have some numbers too.

Aleksandar Duric, Ismadi Mukhtar, Hafiz Rahim, Daniel Bennett are all aged over 30 - and all played key roles for their respective teams this season.

This is not about the money, there isn't much anyway. After 17 years, I can only describe my last-drawn monthly salary as 'average'.

This is about respect and recognition for the men who helped build up this competition.

The FAS and S-League have yet to offer any help in finding another job so freelance coaching may be the only way forward since I obtained my 'B' license.

My wife is a civil servant, but I have to do my part to support my five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

I will find a way, as I have always done. But I leave the game with a heavy heart.

Only a footballer should call time on his career, not some misguided rule.

About Zahid Ahmad

The 36-year-old started his S-League career in 1997 with Tiong Bahru United (now called Tanjong Pagar United). The left-back has played for Home United, Geylang United, Singapore Armed Forces FC, Woodlands Wellington and Tampines Rovers, winning three S-League championships (2000, 2001, 2011) and one League Cup (2007) title.