Monday, 14 January 2013

Bye Raddy Avramovic, see you soon

Nobody's perfect, says former Lions coach, but I've tried my best
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 13 Jan 2013

"Can I get you a coffee?" asks Raddy Avramovic.

Some things do not change. As always before interviews, he offers to pick up the tab, even when the media flows with criticism for him.

But things have changed.

After nine years, he is no longer Singapore's football coach. On Tuesday, he and wife will return to Serbia - his first vacation in two years.

His voice was even more hoarse than usual yesterday, as he spends his last week on this island saying farewell to friends and former colleagues.

At one dinner, he stares at a picture of himself in 1977, when he was playing in goal for then Yugoslavian club NK Rijeka, his face free of lines, his hair full and black.

"Look at what Singapore has done to me," the 63-year-old teases.

Known for his reticence, Avramovic presents another side this time.

He talks about his biggest heartache here, when Singapore missed out on qualifying for the 2011 Asian Cup, the continent's biggest football tournament where the big boys such as Japan and South Korea play, by a single point - the 1-2 loss to Jordan the year before ending the dream.

"That failure was the biggest disappointment," he sighs. "While we have some success at the Asean level, the next step is the Asian Cup. That is where we can truly test ourselves, and we missed it by just one point."

He reveals when he decided that he will not renew his contract - after the Lions were thumped 7-1 by Iraq in the third round of the World Cup qualifiers in February last year and finished bottom of the group with six losses and no wins.

"But I didn't want to quit. I knew we had the foundations of a good team and I had the chance to bring in new players. In the end, it paid off. These boys have written football history for Singapore."

Maybe that is why Avramovic is so much more willing to open up.

He has proven himself again.

Last month, the Lions returned from Bangkok with a record fourth AFF Cup for the Republic, after beating Thailand over two legs in the final.

The first match at the Jalan Besar Stadium saw the coach banking on attack as the Lions' won 3-1. Then the second leg at the Supachalasai Stadium was a gruelling defensive test. The Thais won 1-0 but it was not enough for the home side, and Avramovic was widely hailed for getting his tactics spot-on.

It was the third Cup for the coach as well - another unprecedented feat.

"Winning three times is a good record in some ways, because we're competing against Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. They have, in some way, more resources," he says.

"This latest win was the result of a few years of hard work preparing this generation of players."

Each victory was marked by Avramovic's successful blooding of new players.

His first two AFF Cups were delivered by Shahril Ishak, who is now the Lions captain, Baihakki Khaizan and Khairul Amri - rookies who won their first caps under him.

Last December, another new batch delivered - Izwan Mahbud, Safuwan Baharudin and Shahdan Sulaiman.

But there were those who fell short.

While 2010 began with Asian Cup failure, it ended with ignominy for the Lions. They exited the AFF Cup tournament at the group stage.

In between, stories about lack of discipline, broken curfews and smoking in the Lions camp cast a further pall. The Football Association of Singapore acted by disbanding the team.

The coach insists it is not his style to name and shame, but he showed that he was not afraid to drop star names such as striker Noh Alam Shah and winger Ridhuan Muhammad, even if they did rise up under him.

"Those are the hardest decisions - dropping players," he says. "But my decision-making has always been clear. It is always about selecting the best team, not the best players."

Then there are those players who pick themselves.

He names Shahril, midfielders Hariss Harun and Fahrudin Mustafic, retired goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, and Singapore football's first naturalised foreign talents Egmar Goncalves and Mirko Grabovac as among the best players he coached here.

And there was special mention for 42-year-old striker Aleksandar Duric, who also called time on his Lions career alongside his coach last month.

"Duric is unique, he's probably the only one of his kind in the world right now. He is a really good example of a footballer who looks after himself."

In this game, timing is everything.

And Avramovic believes he has gotten it right in choosing to step down from Singapore's hottest sporting seat.

"I feel that now is the moment to stop with the national team. The team needs new blood... both the players and the coach.

"I've tried my best. I achieved some good results. Although I could have done a little bit more, nobody's perfect. At least I've tried.

"I have mixed feelings about leaving. We are top of Asean. It is time to achieve something more at the Asian level. But this will take time and the people at FAS are serious football people who know what they are doing."

There is also a message for fans.

"It was absolutely great to see the reaction of Singaporeans during and after the tournament (last month). I hope the support will continue to be like that. I hope the fans can be patient."

His mood is a conciliatory one, of a man who wants to leave on a happy note and with his friendships intact.

He is mum on his future, insisting that no decision has been made.

But he admits that discussions with the FAS over a possible technical director role to mentor young coaches are still ongoing. His close friends say his ticket to Serbia has a return stub.

And this may not be his last interview with The Sunday Times.

He gets up, his coffee finished, and wags a finger.

"Never say never."

Thank you, from the boys

“When Raddy took over in 2003, he totally transformed the national team. He was not afraid to give the young players a chance and many of them are still playing for the Lions. He really helped Singapore bridge the gap with the stronger Asian countries.”
- AIDE ISKANDAR, former Lions captain

“During the 2004 AFF Cup, the Lions were written off by the media initially. But Raddy stood by us and he let us know that. That kept us focused, as the results showed.”
S. SUBRAMANI, former Lions centre-back

“I am forever grateful to Raddy because he gave me the chance to play for the national team at the age of 37. When I received my citizenship in 2007, he was the first to call and congratulate me. At my old age, I was unsure if I could play international football, but he has been so supportive.”
ALEKSANDAR DURIC, former Lions striker

His highs and lows
2003 Appointed national coach in June, fending off competition from Archie Knox, Alex Ferguson's former assistant at Aberdeen and Manchester United.
- Wins his first match in charge, beating Hong Kong 4-1.
2004 The Lions lose 0-7 to Oman in a World Cup qualifier, the heaviest defeat of his reign. He would go on to lose 14 of his first 20 matches in charge.
2005 Starts the year with an unbeaten AFF Cup campaign, defeating Indonesia 5-2 over two legs in the final in January.
- Lions crowned Team of the Year at Singapore Sports Awards.
2006 Lions fail to qualify for the 2007 Asian Cup finals but claim a famous scalp in beating eventual champions Iraq 2-0 at Kallang.
2007 Singapore storm to a third AFF Cup title, and Avramovic's second, in another unbeaten run, overcoming Thailand 3-2 on aggregate in the final.

- Guides the country to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time after beating Tajikistan 3-1.
2008 Named Coach of the Year at Singapore Sports Awards.
- Finally loses an AFF Cup game as Lions go down 0-1 in the semi-final to Vietnam.
2009 Plots Singapore's 1-0 victory over Thailand, the Lions' first win in Bangkok in 34 years.
2010 Suffers heart-break as the Lions fail to qualify for the Asian Cup after losing 1-2 in Jordan. A draw would have been enough.
- Team crash out of the AFF Cup at the group stage amid stories of indiscipline in the camp.
2011 Guides Singapore to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers, after the two-legged second-round match against Malaysia ended 6-4.
2012 Lions are hammered 7-1 by Iraq as they end their World Cup qualifying campaign with six straight losses.
- Starts his fifth AFF Cup run with a 3-0 win over Malaysia at Bukit Jalil Stadium.
Wins a record third AFF Cup, Singapore's fourth, after a 3-2 aggregate win over Thailand.
Steps down as Singapore coach after his contract expired on Dec 31.

TODAY, 14 Jan 2013
Former national football coach Radojko Avramovic, who stepped down from his post last month after leading the Lions to a record-breaking fourth Asean Football Federation Championship, will be returning to Serbia tomorrow. Whether he will be rejoining the Football Association of Singapore remains to be seen - both parties are currently in discussions. However, he has penned a exclusive farewell letter for TODAY to all local football fans, thanking them for their support and urging them to continue to stand by the Lions.

Dear Friends,

When I first arrived in Singapore back in the middle of 2003, one of the first few impressions I had of Singapore was that you were extremely passionate about your football.

Almost daily, there were discussions or articles in newspapers about what can be done to improve Singapore's football.

This is understandable, and honestly, it is good that so many Singaporeans choose to let their feelings known about football, or sports in general because this only means that you care a lot for football.

Over the last nine years or so, I have tried my best to put Singapore on the international football map.

No one is perfect, and like me, I have done whatever I can within my ability to have Singapore taste success.

And we have, to a certain degree. Three ASEAN titles over the last 10 years, is by no means an easy feat. But we did it, together.

We have also taken Japan to the limit; beat Iraq and held China at home, among many results we have posted over the last few years.

This only means that your Lions are no pushovers and they can challenge against football sides which are ranked much higher.

There have been disappointments too, like missing out on the 2011 Asian Cup by a whisker.

Nonetheless, the Lions did very well to respond to the challenges and they are now one of the region's most feared and respected.

Singapore are reigning champions of ASEAN and this is testament to the ability of the talent we have been able to produce over the last decade.

What we need to do now is get better and stay ahead.

There are just so many people I know I should mention and thank, and my humblest apologies if I forget any.

Firstly, I must give credit to the extremely passionate band of support staff whom I have had the privilege of working with during my time as national coach.

They have been critical to our success, and they have sacrificed a lot just to further the development of Singapore football.

Also, I am extremely grateful for the support shown by our Presidents - former President S R Nathan and current President Tony Tan.

Your presence at matches over the years have only spurred the team to far greater heights.

To the Presidents of the Football Association of Singapore during my tenure as national coach - Mr Mah Bow Tan, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee and Mr Zainudin Nordin - a huge thank you for believing in me and for providing me with the opportunity to take Singapore football to another level.

A special thank you to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (the players were over the moon with your Facebook updates during the recent AFF Suzuki Cup), Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (President of the Singapore National Olympic Council) and the Sports Ministers during my time as national coach. Football does have a special place in the building of a multi-racial society like Singapore, and the support you have all given me as national coach has helped us to build a strong national team, which I hope will continue to rally Singaporeans around each other.

Most importantly, my heartfelt gratitude to the fans, who braved the rain for us, who stood in queues for hours, who shouted themselves hoarse and who stood by us through thick and thin. You will always hold a special place in my heart, for as long as I live.

Football is a strange sport, which many say, can make even grown men cry.

But what's more important about football, is that it is the one sport which can bring 55,000 Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion, to the National Stadium.

It is the one sport which can bond communities.

It is the one sport which can get an entire nation talking, be it in the neighbourhood coffee-shops, in online forums, bus interchanges or even within family units.

Continue to support the Lions, because they are your national team.

Cheer them on now that they are champions, but also be there for them when they are down because that will be when they need you the most.

Singapore will always have a special place in my heart.

And for that, I must thank all of you.

Let's not say goodbye, because friendships built, are meant to last forever.

Yours sincerely


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