Football: I just get on with life, says ex-Lion Abbas Saad, as he recounts the ups and downs

Abbas Saad is in town to take the Asian Football Confederation Pro Licence course. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - To many Singaporeans, Abbas Saad will always be their suave Malaysia Cup hero, a stylish striker who scored a hat-trick in the 1994 final to beat Pahang 4-0 and help the Lions break a 13-year drought.

To others, he is a convicted match-fixer who was fined $50,000 by the Singapore courts in 1995 and received a global football ban, including a lifetime suspension from football-related activities in the Republic, until it was overturned later.

But the 53-year-old, who has always maintained his innocence, is at peace and unfazed.

The Australian is in town to take the Asian Football Confederation Pro Licence course, and The Straits Times caught up with him over lunch on Friday (May 14), the second day of Hari Raya.

Incidentally, it was the Ramadan period exactly 26 years ago when he was hauled up for a 48-hour interrogation, and he said: "Of course, I was angry and shocked. I didn't know what hit me. The authorities were doing their duty but I didn't do anything wrong.

"I was 27 and in my prime, and lost a couple of crucial playing years and opportunities in Europe and the (Australian) national team before the global ban was overturned, but I pulled through because of my faith. I forgive, but I don't forget and I just get on with my life."

To appreciate his mental toughness and outlook, one has to understand he was just eight when he lost his eldest brother Hussein, then 17, to an explosion when civil war broke out in Lebanon.

Abbas, the fourth of seven siblings, and his family barely had time to mourn when they had to take a boat to Cyprus en route to relocating to Sydney, where his eldest sister Namat had married and settled down.

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To many Singaporeans, Abbas Saad will always be their suave Malaysia Cup hero, a stylish striker who scored a hat-trick in the 1994 final. Sports correspondent David Lee caught up with Saad to discuss his past and his return to Singapore to coach.

"It was really tough," said Abbas. "Many of my friends and relatives who stayed behind died.

"It also made me stronger, it made me bulletproof for the challenges ahead. How can anything else that would happen later on compare to bullets flying over our heads? It made me appreciate life, family and friends, and I try to be nice and humble."

In Lebanon, he used to speak only Arabic and French, and had to learn English when he arrived in Australia. But he let his football do the talking and his talent led to him being picked up by the Sydney City and Sydney Olympic clubs in the 1980s.

He subsequently signed for the Lions in 1990.

Known as a deadly attacker who worked hard for the team, Abbas also played for Johor in 1991, when he won the M-League and Malaysia Cup double. This was sandwiched by the 1990 and 1993 Malaysia Cup final defeats by Kedah in Singapore colours, before the memorable 1994 triumph was followed by the shocking arrest.

At the height of his popularity here in the early 1990s, more then 50,000 thronged the National Stadium to watch him star for the Dream Team. There were platoons of fans waiting at training sessions to shower him with hugs, kisses, flowers, cards, chocolates and scrapbooks of his photos.

After his global ban ended in 1996, Abbas returned to Australia to play for the likes of Sydney Olympic and Sydney United and even earned his fourth and final cap for the Socceroos against South Korea under Terry Venables in 1998.

Abbas Saad is in town to take the Asian Football Confederation Pro Licence course. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Savouring his spinach omelette, he said: "I won team and personal accolades - I won the league with every team I played and was top scorer everywhere I went. Okay, maybe I should have played more for Australia, but apart from that, God gave me many opportunities."

As with most clinical targetmen, he was "kicked from pillar to post", and while he still looks fit - he does not drink or smoke, and he stopped clubbing after marrying Rania in 2000, which leaves a sweet tooth as his only weakness - Abbas finally retired from playing in 2003 after six operations on his right knee.

In between, the father of two sons and one daughter ventured into business, and even set up a night club and restaurant in Singapore, although he has since sold both his shares.

But his first love remains football and in 2007, Abbas made his first venture into senior coaching when he took over New South Wales Premier League side Penrith Nepean United. The following year, he became the Deaf Football Australia's national coach before being appointed technical youth director at Sydney Olympic, where he is a Hall-of-Famer, in 2009.

That year was also poignant as his Singapore ban was finally rescinded in March, and two months later, he was back in the Republic to take his AFC A licence course.

A smiling Abbas said: "My mother's name is Fandie and I named my second son Malek after my good friend (former Singapore international) Malek Awab. Maybe Singapore and I are destined for each other.

"I can't blame the country or people for what happened. I enjoyed my football here, I have many friends here, and Singaporeans have treated me like one of their own. Singapore will always be special to me and that feeling won't change whether the ban was lifted or not."

From 2010 to 2017, he had stints in Singapore and Malaysia as a football pundit, but 2011 stood out because it was when he finally met fugitive and former Lions team-mate Michal Vana, who fled the Republic in 1994 as he was facing charges for his part in the same match-fixing case.

Again, there was no resentment when the duo met in the Czech Republic for a documentary.

Abbas said: "The one thing he did wrong was to bet on his own team to win, but he didn't fix games. I'm not angry and I don't hate him. I did the documentary because I wanted people to hear the truth from those who were supposed to be involved."

Does it bother him that his 1994 final victory and hat-trick could be tainted by corruption?

Assertively, he asked: "Watch the game and tell me where it was tainted? My goals? Did the goalkeeper have any chance to save my goals? Come on, give me a break."

Abbas returned to Sydney Olympic in 2018, when he won the Australian National Premier League New South Wales Premier League and cup double and was named Coach of the Year. The semi-professional league is the third tier of Australian soccer.

After the club finished fifth the following season, he took time off to care for his ailing mother, who died of cancer last year.

Abbas is now focused on becoming a top football coach, with ambitions of leading the national teams of Singapore, Malaysia, Australia or Lebanon in his sights.

Looking back at his drama-filled life, a reflective and grateful Abbas said: "There are so many people going through so much hardship - wars, living on the streets, families with no food on the table. These are hard.

"Yes, there was stress as a footballer to perform, and there is stress now as a coach to get results. But I still get the opportunities to do what I love, so I'm like my God, shut your mouth and just do it, do not complain.

"I thank God for every day for everything I have. What God's written for me, I'm ready for the challenge. I love a challenge."

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