SINGAPORE - Having his lifetime football ban lifted after 26 years, former Singapore striker K. Kannan feels relieved but a tinge of regret remains.
He told The Straits Times: "Of course, I still love football. The good thing about having the ban lifted is the relief and the freedom to join any football committee; the sad thing is I'm 60 now and I'm slower and no longer the same player. My best years have gone."
On March 18, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced the reprieve for Kannan, who was sanctioned in 1995 after he was convicted of conspiring with Ong Kheng Hock and Rajendran R. Kurusamy to bribe Singapore goalkeeper David Lee in a Malaysia League match against Perlis in 1994.
In announcing the reprieve, FAS president Lim Kia Tong maintained that "this decision... does not represent a softening stance on football corruption by the FAS. We remain steadfast in our unwavering stand that the scourge of corruption has no place in football and will not be tolerated in any form".
Before the scandal, Kannan's career was an inspirational tale of persistence.
When he was 16, a benefactor bought him a pair of Adidas La Plata boots. Once he was finally equipped properly, he was able to play club football and it saw him join Changi United. That year, he was also a last-minute inclusion for the 1978 Lion City Cup when Singapore had to field a C team after Thailand pulled out. His team made the semi-finals and he played well enough to leave a good impression.
He was then called up by national coach Jita Singh for the 1980 pre-Olympic tournament, and trained with Samad Allapitchay, Quah Kim Song and Mohammad Noh.
Later on, he played in the 1981 and 1983 SEA Games. At club level, he won the M-League in 1986 and Malaysia Cup in 1987 and 1989 with Kuala Lumpur. He was also the Malaysia Cup's top scorer in 1987.
Kannan said: "To play for the national team is the ultimate honour for every footballer. For Singapore, it means you are one of 20 players selected to represent a population of about four million at that time, so it's a great feeling and honour."
He retired from the national team and M-League football in 1992 and became a successful insurance salesman, before his fateful encounter with Rajendran two years later.
While Kannan maintained he did not participate in any match-fixing activity, he accepted his involvement in the conspiracy and that he had received a sum of money from Rajendran.
Kannan was jailed for 14 months and described his time in prison as peaceful but lonely.
"Regret is something I do have even today, that's something we can't take away," he said. "Prison life was lonely. The thing you lack most is freedom. You will only know what freedom means after you come out of prison. My daughters were very young at that time and I missed out on 14 months of their growing up.
"Thank God there were no problems and prison life was peaceful. I was totally fit because I was doing push-ups and sit-ups nearly every day. But loneliness and missing my family and all the regret were there."
After his release, Kannan retained his love for football and made four unsuccessful appeals to the FAS and Asian Football Confederation from 1999 to 2002 to overturn his football ban, as he had hoped to play in the National Football League or in local or foreign veterans' leagues.
He stopped appealing as he had felt it was a pointless exercise following the dismissals of his previous attempts.
Despite being banned "from participating in any football activity for life", Kannan admitted that he had been playing, coaching and helping to run tournaments with the Indian Association (IA) since 1998.
He said: "I played in veterans' leagues and social leagues not sanctioned by the FAS. I believe I have the right to play in these tournaments as they were not sanctioned by the FAS."
He added that IA's former vice-president V.P. Jothi, current president Vishnu Pillai and its convenor Ranjit Singh had allowed him to run and coach the teams as the association is not affiliated to the FAS and that "we ran some fantastic tournaments for the community".
But the ban was still a burden and in came his old friend, former journalist and ex-opposition politician Jose Raymond.
"He told me I cannot bring this ban to my grave and encouraged me to go for another appeal. He convinced me that I deserved a pardon after 26 years, and assembled the legal team for me," said Kannan.
Now running a cleaning and trophy-selling businesses, Kannan is not about to go for his coaching badges and is content to be involved in football in his own little ways with the IA.
He hopes to groom players and add to the diversity in the national team, noting that Singapore can "benefit from that... because we are a multi-racial society".