Last December, Singapore's cerebral palsy football team captured the hearts of Singaporeans with their bronze-medal finish at the Asean Para Games (APG) - with the team's fighting spirit and skipper Khairul Anwar's five long-range goals being the highlights.
Seven months on, coach Mohamed Zainudeen's warriors have regrouped to play their first game since the APG. The inaugural Cerebral Palsy Football Invitational, organised by the Singapore Disability Sports Council, will see Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia compete against each other in a triangular from today to Sunday.
The team will play the opener against Thailand at Queenstown Stadium this morning (9.30am).
Khairul insists life has not changed much for him as the players went back to their regular lives. He focused on his studies at Republic Polytechnic but he did itch for action during the seven-month lull.
"We've had a long break, and the tempo dropped since most of us went back to school or to work," said Khairul, 30, who is completing his last year in health management and promotion diploma studies.
IMPORTANCE OF OUTREACH
Hopefully we'll have many more games at home - the more games we have at home, the more awareness we can raise.
'' KHAIRUL ANWAR, captain of Singapore's cerebral palsy football team, welcoming the country's hosting of the Cerebral Palsy Football Invitational.
"But as the preparations for the invitational kicked in, we were back to training twice or thrice a week, even during the fasting month.
"It's given us a better sense of direction as a team."
For coach Zainudeen, 47, the break was necessary for his players to recover what they had sacrificed for the APG.
"The boys had to give up a lot," the coach revealed. "They sacrificed school, national service, work - one of them even lost his job - and it was important that we helped them settle down so that life could return to normal."
The team gained newfound recognition after their APG success but, more importantly, their success opened up many avenues that inspired greater awareness of cerebral palsy football.
Superstar David Beckham, who was in town during the Games, sprung a surprise visit on Khairul and praised the defender for his blockbuster strikes, a story published in The Straits Times that gained the team even more recognition.
Zainudeen has been approached not just by new sponsors, but also by players seeking to join the team - and that has helped alleviate the problem of a small talent pool. The team previously turned up at tournaments a player or two short compared to their opponents, who field 14-strong squads.
Khairul echoed his coach's sentiments, emphasising the importance of outreach in spreading awareness.
He said: "It's good that Singapore is hosting such events. They attract so much attention - the crowd at the APG had more than 5,000 people.
"I'm looking forward to more friendlies and competitions.
"Hopefully we'll have many more games at home - the more games we have at home, the more awareness we can raise."