Football: Lions defender Baihakki leaves Thai club to play for free for Tampines Rovers

Singapore international Baihakki Khaizan with his family. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BAIHAKKI KHAIZAN

SINGAPORE - Facing a 50 per cent pay cut and uncertainty for the rest of the season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Singapore footballer Baihakki Khaizan decided to call time on his overseas playing career, parting ways with Thai League 1 (T1) side PT Prachuap in April.

He accepted compensation from the club via mutual understanding and headed home, prepared to write off the year.

But through mutual sponsors Mizuno and Ryudben Sports, the 36-year-old made a surprising move on Sunday (June 14), signing for Singapore Premier League (SPL) club Tampines Rovers. He will play for free if the season resumes, with an eye on a salaried contract next term.

Baihakki, who like most Asean players in the T1 was earning more than $10,000 a month, told The Straits Times: "These are not easy decisions because I'm not a multi-millionaire, but people are getting retrenched and there are hiring freezes everywhere.

"I had other offers to stay in Thailand, but considering how my family needs me back in these tough times, and how sincere Tampines are, I know I made the right moves."

In the 11 years since joining Persija Jakarta in 2009, Baihakki had played in regional leagues with top-tier clubs like Johor Darul Ta'zim and Trat, returning to the S-League only in 2017 to play for Warriors FC.

"I thank my wife for her support and understanding throughout my career, but I also realise I have to be fair to her and my children because I have also missed many of their important milestones all these years," said the Singapore defender, who has three children aged 11, nine and four.

"This year was always going to be my last year playing overseas, and it is a shame it has to be cut short this way.

"Tampines have always been known for free-flowing football and are a club many local players want to join. I have never won the SPL, so with a good coach and a strong team, I'm looking forward to returning the favour and going for the title together with the boys."

Covid-19 has thrown football scheduling into disarray worldwide, including in Singapore and Thailand where leagues have been suspended since March. The Thai leagues aim to restart in September, while the SPL awaits a clearer picture from the Government on a possible resumption date as local football, and transfers, remain at a standstill.

While the SPL has managed to stave off salary cuts, Tampines chairman Desmond Ong said "any kind of major financial outlay is irresponsible" during this period.

He added: "Baihakki's proposition gives us the opportunity to sign someone with proven quality without taking food away from someone else's table.

"He brings to Tampines plenty of experience as a player and as a person. From a humble background, it is impressive how he has grown to become a Singapore international who has won three Asean titles and played in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. We have gotten ourselves a role model for our young players."

The addition of Baihakki alongside Daniel Bennett means the Stags, regarded as title contenders this season, could possibly start with a veteran centre-back pairing with almost 280 caps.

Tampines coach Gavin Lee said: "We say to our young players 'if you are good enough, you are old enough', and it is the same at the other end of the age spectrum. If they are not capable, we won't have them.

"We see how Dan proved himself in this year's AFC Cup and against Lion City Sailors, and Baihakki has also done well in T1, which is of a very high standard."

While he acknowledged that the recovery process will be different for older players, Lee said that Baihakki will provide strength in depth, which will help reduce the team's fatigue levels if the restarted league sees a schedule congestion.

He added: "Baihakki's quality resonates with Tampines because he is comfortable on the ball and finds good solutions under pressure. He is capable of managing the backline and will be a leading voice on the pitch."

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