SINGAPORE - The Lions may never have lifted their first international trophy in 1998, if R. Sasikumar had not run into "good fortune" during his national service (NS) stint.
The former international defender's "Shoulder Blade of God" goal gave the national football team a 1-0 win over hosts Vietnam to cap a fairy tale run to the Tiger Cup title.
Sasikumar, who completed NS the year before, had been posted to the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (Safsa) to train full-time after completing basic military training.
"At the time, I was on the brink of making the national team," said the 46-year-old. "Imagine if I had to go away for two years - that's game over for me."
While balancing NS duties with sporting commitments remains possible today, it is a challenge, said Sasikumar and others in the football and wider sports community.
The issue of national athletes and NS has resurfaced after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) said on Monday (March 8) that it is working with the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) on NS support for footballers.
Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin said at a press conference on Tuesday that this would mean working within existing initiatives to enable very specific athletes to train and perform during NS.
Some current avenues include early enlistment, leave and time off, and opportunities to continue training and playing at top levels while fulfilling NS obligations.
These were referenced in 2018 by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who said then that NS duties and sporting excellence need not be mutually exclusive.
He cited footballers Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi, sons of Singaporean icon Fandi Ahmad, as early enlistees who went on to be talent spotted overseas after completing NS.
Sacrificing for sport
Ikhsan, 21, told The Straits Times that early enlistment was the best option at the time, which meant he could finish NS sooner and then focus fully on his professional career.
But the striker, now plying his trade with Norwegian side FK Jerv, acknowledged that in NS, the priority is NS and not football.
"If you really want to make it work, you have to sacrifice some days off and rest to go for football training… Taking care of your body for peak performance (will be) hard," said Ikhsan, who turned out for S-League clubs Home United (now Lion City Sailors) and Young Lions while serving as an infantry trooper from 2016 to 2018.
Fellow international Adam Swandi also recalled that his NS unit from 2015 to 2017 allowed him to be released earlier to travel to training sessions - first with the Young Lions, then Home United.
Adam, who now plays for the Sailors, said: "Being a sportsman, you have to give your 100 per cent focus. If you have something else that's a bigger priority… you will not be at your very best."
While swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen have been granted long-term deferment from NS so they can train and compete at the Olympics, some observers like Sasikumar feel that other options could be considered for sports like football.
He referred to South Korea's approach, where those who are part of a national team that perform well in an international competition will have their stint shortened.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min was exempted from the full two years after helping Korea to the 2018 Asian Games gold, and completed a mandatory three-week spell last May.
'Athletes are serving S'pore'
Former sprinter U.K. Shyam set the current national 100 metres record of 10.37 seconds in 2001, shortly after serving his NS from 1998 to 2000.
The 44-year-old said he could have run even faster, if not for how tough it was to train regularly during his stint.
Though he noted that support for sportsmen in NS has evolved since, Shyam stressed that athletes who criticise their NS arrangements should not be seen as "anti-NS".
Representing Singapore in sport is like national service and an expression of patriotism, he added.
"It's a special honour to run or swim for your country at the highest level and to dedicate your whole life to it," he said. "We cannot say these athletes don't want to serve Singapore. They are doing so - just in a different and in another meaningful way."