S-League's axed age-restriction rule may not pave return for older players

Tanjong Pagar’s veteran forward Ahmad Latiff, 35 (above).
Tanjong Pagar’s veteran forward Ahmad Latiff, 35 (above).

The S-League may have decided to drop its controversial age-restriction rule but a number of affected footballers are still resigned to earlier retirement.

They were hit by the now-rescinded directive that limited local clubs to signing a maximum of five players over the age of 30.

Said former Tanjong Pagar United midfielder Sazali Salleh, 34: "The damage has already been done. It's been three weeks since the season ended and it's too late to find another club.

"I could ask around but honestly, deep down, I know my professional days are probably over."

Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin, 35, also formerly with Tanjong Pagar, joined the country's only professional league in 1997, a year after its inaugural season.

He has given up hope of being part of the 20th edition next year.

In a parting shot, he said: "As a goodwill gesture for the mess they created, the league should help the veterans who don't have a club because of this ruling.

"They can assign us to different clubs or expand the squad numbers, especially now that there's only 10 teams."

The S-League announced on Saturday that it would reverse its decision but, with only six local clubs in next season's 10-team league, opportunities are limited.

The thought of quitting after 15 years in the game has crossed Balestier Khalsa's vice-captain Jaslee Hatta's mind since the bombshell was dropped three weeks ago.

The 33-year-old, and others like him above 30, received letters last Tuesday from the S-League offering help under its Career After Football project. It offers positions with port operator PSA, SMRT, Courts and Great Eastern.

"None of them are really suitable for me. It's a totally different job scope," said Jaslee. "With our experience in football, it would probably make more sense to try and find something related, like coaching kids at an academy."

Former right-back Hafiz Osman, 30, who is now looking for a new club after leaving Tanjong Pagar, said: "The jobs that were offered are irrelevant. It's very different to what we are doing now, and I think most players will not take up the offers.

"Perhaps the league could have consulted the players to see what they were looking for.

"I believe many want to do something related to sports. After all, we've been doing that our whole lives."

Nevertheless, the change of heart by the S-League has given a potential new lease of life for footballers who were left on the scrap heap by the controversial rule.

Jeremy Chiang, who turns 30 next April, was released by Warriors FC and is facing the prospect of sitting out the 2015 campaign.

He said: "Thankfully, now even if I miss next season, the door is still open for me to return to football which has always been my passion."

The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (Tafep) co-chairman Bob Tan told The Straits Times yesterday: "We're heartened to note the S-League has decided not to implement the age-restriction rule.

"While this was set as part of the competition rules, the age restrictions would have strong influence on the clubs' decisions on hiring and management of players that might not be in compliance with the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices."

He reiterated Tafep's call to ensure employers base their selection criteria on merit and not age.

He added: "I would strongly urge clubs to consider the players' skills and abilities, as well as potential contributions, in their hiring decisions and management of players."

jonwong@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by  Chua Siang Yee and Sanjay Nair