Football: SPL's youngest-ever debutant hopes maiden individual award is first of many

Young Lions forward Khairin Nadim is determined to make it to Vietnam as he seeks a spot at the 2021 SEA Games.
Young Lions forward Khairin Nadim is determined to make it to Vietnam as he seeks a spot at the 2021 SEA Games.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - At an age where boys like him await the year-end school holidays, Young Lions forward Khairin Nadim, who turned 17 earlier this week, is awaiting November for an entirely different reason.

He is determined to make it to Vietnam - not for leisure but business as he seeks a spot at the 2021 SEA Games.

His resolve to make the national Under-22 side at the Games has been strengthened further by his first individual gong - the Singapore Premier League (SPL)'s Young Player of the Month award for March.

He told The Straits Times: "This year, my biggest target is to make it to the squad for the Games and by progressing well at the start of the year, I think (there is) a great chance for me.

"Winning the award is not something I targeted but it shows everyone what I can do. I was really happy because people have recognised my efforts. And it will make me work even harder to win more in the future."

While Khairin, who has scored twice this season, was elated at winning his first individual award, he was surprised to find that social media reacted differently to his win.

Some news sites and social media users took aim at how he seemed to be " po-faced" in a photo where he was presented with a cheque of his cash prize - $250. Others lamented that the reward was too little.

But Khairin broke into a wide grin when asked about what he thought. He explained that he was presented with the award just before a match and that his thoughts were on the task at hand. "Before a game, I need to focus and not smiling does not mean I am not happy. I am really grateful," he said.

His determination to perform to the best of his abilities each time he takes to the pitch comes from wanting to repay his biggest supporter - his mother.

He said: "My mother was the one who noticed my talent and bought me my first pair of football boots. I am really grateful for my mum because she has been there for me since day one of my journey to be a footballer. She keeps me motivated and before every match, I think of my mother and think of wanting to do well for her."

And he has already made her proud, having broken records in Singapore football. He is the SPL's youngest-ever debutant, after he came on as a substitute aged 15 years and 298 days against Hougang United in March last year. Khairin's goal in his team's 3-1 defeat by Tampines Rovers last November also meant that at 16 years and 194 days old, he became the second-youngest local to score in the SPL - a record eclipsed only by current national captain Hariss Harun.

His mother, Suhaidah Ismail , 43, gets emotional when talking about her son. After all, she has cared for Khairin and his two siblings almost single-handedly since 2012 after divorcing her husband.

Suhaidah, a human resource consultant, said: "I know he doesn't want to disappoint me. He is a really independent boy. Some parents fetch and ferry their kids to training and matches and I'm not able to do that but he gets on with it and travels on his own."

Struggling to hold back her tears, she added: "Even when I want to buy boots for him, he would ask me whether I have enough money (for myself).

"He is not very expressive but you can tell he is different on the field. He expresses himself there. He has proven to me that he can be a success in an area that interests him."

Young Lions head coach Philippe Aw has witnessed first hand what his young forward can do and he hopes Khairin will stay the course.

Said Aw: "Technically, he is very sound. He can change a game with a moment of brilliance...he has the attacking instincts.

"Many boys his age are still playing at the Under-17 or U-18 level and some even playing at school level. Here we have a young boy who is playing in a professional league and he has done well so far."

But he also warned that the teenager has some way to go before he can realise his dream of becoming a national team player.

"He has the talent (to become a national team player ) but he must have the discipline off the field and the commitment," he said . "It's not going to be easy to reach the national team and stay there. It will require a lot of hard work from him.

"A modern footballer needs to defend as well as attack. In transition, when we don't have the ball, he needs to work hard and come back. I have also told him that he needs to work on his left foot. He is very dependent on his right. A good player has both feet. He is still young and has time to work on these things."