Football: All my life, I've been an underdog, says Tanjong Pagar new signing Mirko Sugic

Mirko Sugic who already has two assists, arrived in the SPL as a relative unknown compared to other big name signings. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Two matches into the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, Tanjong Pagar United find themselves at the top of the table. The last time this happened, in 2001, there was no Facebook or iPhone.

The Jaguars have also got there the hard way, opening their campaign with a surprise 2-0 win over last year's runners-up Albirex Niigata before holding another title contender Hougang United to a 2-2 draw last weekend.

They next face Balestier Khalsa on Saturday (March 12) at the Toa Payoh Stadium and new signing Mirko Sugic was relishing another chance to prove doubters wrong.

The 1.9m central midfielder, who already has two assists, arrived in the SPL as a relative unknown compared to the big name signings of Maxime Lestienne, Kim Shin-wook (both at Lion City Sailors) and Hougang's Andre Moritz.

The Croat, who joined a Tanjong Pagar side that finished the 2020 season last of eight teams and fifth a year later, said: "All my life, I have been an underdog. Not many people believe in me. This is nothing new. Maybe I joined a team that was perfect for me."

He was recommended by Dragan Talajic, who was a goalkeeper for Tanjong Pagar from 1997-2001 and won the Singapore Cup in 1998.

Sugic, 27, was plying his trade in the Croatian second tier with NK Dubrava. He even contemplated quitting after moves to Poland and North Macedonia fell through late last year.

He said: "It was tough not being wanted and not being able to play football. When there is failure after failure, you do tend to think of moving on. But ever since I have come to Singapore, I feel at home."

He uses the gym and swimming pool daily at his condominium in Jurong East and can finally afford to buy supplements and "eat food that a footballer should".

Those in the Croatian second tier earn an average of between €500-€1,500 (S$744-S$2,234) a month.

While he declined to reveal his salary here, Sugic said: "There have been months in Croatia when payment does not even arrive on time. So you can't possibly plan to eat well and get the things you need as an athlete. I am so thankful to be here and I want to repay Dragan and Tanjong Pagar with what I do on the pitch."

Tanjong Pagar United FC’s new Croatian midfielder Mirko Sugic. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Head coach Hasrin Jailani noted: "People don't talk much about us. That's fine. We want to keep our heads down, work hard and show what we are made of.

"This season there are four rounds and there is a long way to go but the players are hungry and the desire to create upsets is strong within the team."

Their opponents are coming off a 6-0 hammering at the hands of Albirex and Balestier head coach Akbar Nawas wants a response. He said: "Most definitely we want to compete and not make up numbers. We need to defend better individually and players need to play without fear and be brave."

Hougang United vs Geylang International

After starting the season with a headline grabbing 1-0 win over defending champions Sailors, confidence is high in the Eagles' camp. They travel to the Hougang Stadium on Friday looking for back-to-back wins against a Cheetahs side with just a point so far.

Hougang will rely heavily on striker Amy Recha, who scored 12 goals for Geylang last season. The Singapore international has yet to open his account for his new employers.

Young Lions vs Albirex Niigata

The national developmental squad play their first game of the SPL season and face a formidable hurdle against the four-time champions on Saturday at the Jalan Besar Stadium. They have lost all 17 previous encounters against the Japanese side.

The Young Lions should not be rusty though. They competed at the 2022 Asean Football Federation Under-23 Championship in Phnom Penh last month where a string of Covid-19 cases left them depleted, suffering defeats to Thailand (3-1) and Vietnam (7-0).

Tampines Rovers vs Lion City Sailors

Big-spending Sailors will likely recall their foreign trio Diego Lopes, Kim and Lestienne for this clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (March 13) after coach Kim Do- hoon had given his fringe players some game time in the shock loss to Geylang.

That does not bode well for Tampines, who started the season with a 2-2 draw against Balestier. The Stages failed to win any of their three matches against the Sailors last term, conceding 13 goals.

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