SINGAPORE - When lifelong Arsenal supporter Muhammad Alfie Aasriq, 20, saw Jermaine Pennant walk into his weekly training session, he thought he was dreaming.
"It took me a while to realise that it was real, and there was actually a former Arsenal player here," he said.
Pennant was a surprise guest at SportCare's Saturday Night Lights (SNL) football programme, which aims to use football to motivate and empower underprivileged youth.
He joined in the training session with the participants, taking part in drills with them and observing their techniques. In addition to addressing them as a group at the start of the session, he also took the time to speak to participants individually.
"He talked to me about his experiences playing at Arsenal," said Aasriq, who also had his Arsenal jersey signed by Pennant.
Pennant, who himself comes from an underprivileged background, believes that such programmes are extremely beneficial for vulnerable youth. He said: "It keeps kids off the streets and out of trouble and helps them meet friends who have similar interests."
The Tampines Rovers midfielder said that his own background helped him relate to the participants of the SportCare programme. "I didn't have a high-class background, or rich parents, and it was a struggle sometimes. Football was what got me to where I am now. If they can continue to work hard, who knows what the future will bring for them?"
Pennant compared the SNL programme to similar experiences from his youth. "With this programme they get to play on a big field, not in a centre with youth clubs like I used to."
After being in Singapore for close to four months, the Englishman is settling in well. He said: "I am not as reliant on my GPS anymore!"
When talking about his experiences in the S-League so far, he said that it was tougher than he had expected. "Even though we have been doing well so far, every game is difficult.
"I couldn't name all the players who have impressed me! I think our whole starting eleven are of a high quality. They have won big games when Billy (Mehmet), Jordan (Webb) and I were not playing."