Malaysia midfielder Brendan Gan rehabs in Sydney, targets comeback
A year ago, Sydney-born Brendan Gan was riding high for club and country. He was looking forward to representing his adopted nation, Malaysia, in the upcoming Suzuki Cup for the first time after nailing down a place in central midfield ahead of the Southeast Asian showcase.
Then came the fateful trip to Indonesia for a friendly in Solo, central Java. Carrying a few knocks from a heavy club schedule with Kelantan, Gan was selected to face a side who were in their first senior match after the lifting of the FIFA ban.
Against his better instincts, an out-of-sorts Gan took to the field, and within 15 minutes was stretchered off in a 3-0 defeat. The ex-Sydney FC prodigy fell awkwardly after turning with the ball and suffered a full ACL rupture in his left knee.
"Having been through the same injury on my right knee 18 months earlier, I knew straight away that it meant another year out," Gan told ESPN FC. "At first, I was angry because I knew I shouldn't have been playing. But then I just accepted it, and concentrated on working hard to get my body right again."
This week marks the first anniversary of Gan's career setback as he continues his rehab in his hometown of Sydney. Having declined the offer of a contract extension from Kelantan at the end of 2016 -- he says he is one of several players owed two months' salary by the cash-strapped club -- Gan is now a free agent who is targeting a return to the Malaysia Super League (MSL) for the 2018 preseason in December.
Now 29, Gan has discovered that getting injured while playing for your country can be an expensive exercise, having to pay for his Australian surgeon and physiotherapist himself. The operation cost A$15,000, and he estimates that he's spent around the same on rehab and other treatment. He's living on a tight budget with his long-time girlfriend Elyse in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla, near his childhood home.
Accomplishing something that you couldn't do a week ago is the best feeling especially after surgery and throughout a rehab phase 👏🏽 . Don't ever take moving for granted (walking, jogging or running) 🚶🏻🏃🏻 . Get up and get active because you never know what could happen tomorrow, so take advantage of today and get a lil bit sweaty, you will only feel better for it 🙌🏽💦😉 . Reppin that Swoosh ✔️ . @NikeMy @durianman . #ithasBGAN #RoadToRecoveryHasBGAN #ACLrehab #ACLRecovery #TheReturn #StayPositive #NikeMY #Fitness #Health #Work #Goals #LiveLife #LoveLife #JustDoIt #Malaysia #Australia #Sydney #Cronulla #Shredded #Workout #Nutrition #Fashion #Vlog #Positive #Blog #CrunchFitnessAu #LifeStyle #Inspiration #QOTD #Motivation
"[Then senior national coach] Ong Kim Swee was very helpful and supportive and did everything that he could, but the [Football Association of Malaysia] never came through with any financial assistance because I think they had money problems. It was very disappointing," he said.
Even so, Malaysia is where the man who played 41 games for Sydney FC sees his future. He's earned 10 senior caps since 2016, and appeared as an over-age player at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea. There's been a lot of speculation about where his next destination might be, and he is planning a trip to Kuala Lumpur in October to speak to potential suitors ahead of the new season.
One club he definitely won't be going to is Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT), even though the Malaysian giants had been interested in the former New South Wales Premier League Player of the Year in 2014 when Croatia's Bojan Hodak was coach.
After media reports speculated that the Southern Tigers might be sounding him out again, JDT Sports Director Alistair Edwards -- a fellow Australian -- accused Gan of "using JDT's name for publicity" to improve his employment chances.
"It really shocked me when I was accused of this because I'd never spoken to any journalists about JDT," Gan said. "I was back in Australia, just keeping my head down, and just trying to get my knee right.
"This is the toughest thing I've gone through in football, and it has been more difficult to come back from this than from my right ACL injury in 2015. But the hard work is finally paying off, and I'll be ready to go again in time for next season."
Gan's first foray into Malaysia came as an import player at Sabah in the 2012-13 season when he'd occasionally be used as a makeshift striker because of the expectations that foreigners should be goal scorers. But due to his Seremban-born father, Gan was able to acquire a Malaysian passport, which allowed him to join Kelantan as a local player in 2014 under former Sydney Olympic assistant coach Steve Darby.
"My second experience was a lot better than my first because I'd learnt about what approach works best in Malaysia," he said. "I was gentler, tried to lead by example, and stand up for the local players because it is important to have them on-board."
Gan has been delighted to see Malaysia's under-22 side perform creditably at last month's Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, with his former coach Ong and ex-roommate Matthew Davies at the forefront. Pahang full-back and captain Davies, like Gan, is of mixed Malaysian parentage, and was born in Australia.
Malaysia ended up with the silver medal after suffering a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in Tuesday night's men's football final against Thailand at Shah Alam Stadium. But they'd acquitted themselves well on home soil, with five victories in the tournament.
"Just like myself, Matt played in the A-League, and is an extremely mature guy for his age  and someone who will always produce a solid performance. I'm happy for him, Ong and the boys who will form the nucleus of the side for the 2018 Asian Games.
"Playing for Malaysia has worked out well for Matt, just as it has for me. Despite the hard times I've been through in the past few months, I've got no regrets about my decision to play for Malaysia. Now I just need to keep working hard to get back on the field for next season."
With almost 90,000 followers on Instagram, Gan remains a popular figure in his adopted homeland. It is also where he has matured as a combative and authoritative midfielder, in contrast to his early days at Sydney FC when John Kosmina threw him in the deep end as a raw 20-year-old in the A-League.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.