Singapore legend Mustafic Fahrudin shelves retirement to play in 2018
It was an alarming clash of heads that reverberated all the way to Bishan MRT station, as the veteran centre-back collided with the younger, and much bigger striker. The pair lay motionless on the Bishan Stadium grass in the first half of Monday night's S.League game between Home United and Tampines Rovers.
Mustafic Fahrudin and Irfan Fandi, Singapore international teammates, were having a rousing battle in an unofficial playoff for second spot in the 2017 S.League, which means direct entry into next year's AFC competitions.
At 36, Fahrudin not only got the better of 20-year-old Irfan in a 2-0 victory that took Tampines four points clear of Home United, who have a game in hand. But at full-time, with his lip cut from the clash with Irfan, the Serbian-born veteran revealed exclusively to ESPN FC that he intends to shelve retirement plans to play for another year.
"I think I've started every game [this season], which is good for a 36-year-old man. Let's see. I haven't talked to the new management ... next week, I think we will sit down and talk," Fahrudin said.
"But I am planning to play one more season because I'm enjoying it. Especially, this kind of game [against Tampines in the fight for second spot]. These are the kind of games you are going to miss. I think I'm going to continue ... let's see."
Amidst falling attendances and flagging commercial support, the S.League is in the midst of the most uncertain period in its 21-year history. This week, Singapore football bosses meet behind closed doors to discuss making drastic changes, which includes the possibility of scaling back the competition, or even taking a one-year hiatus.
Serbia-born Fahrudin has been an ever-present in the S.League since he came to Singapore as a wide-eyed 20-year-old at the beginning of the 2002 season. He joined Tampines Rovers as an import player, along with his friend and fellow ex-Novi Pazar youth player Sead Muratovic.
Centre-back Muratovic has a unique place in European football history. He was headbutted by Michael Owen in a UEFA under-18 Championship game to earn the ex-Liverpool striker the first red card of his career.
With Muratovic and Fahrudin on-board, Tampines won consecutive S.League titles in 2004 and 2005, as well as the 2004 and 2006 Singapore Cup. The new arrival was quickly given the nickname "Fara" and was fast-tracked to Singapore citizenship to earn his first cap against Denmark in Jan. 2006.
Back then, Fara was exclusively a midfielder, but retained the same vision and aggression that he displayed in a different position at Bishan Stadium on Monday night, a decade and a half later. Never blessed for pace, he read the game so well that he was rarely caught out of position, and brought a fearlessness and ferociousness into tackles rarely seen on Southeast Asian soil.
And he could score goals too, important ones. He had a knack of playing a one-two around opponents, and powering home with his right foot. And, in addition to his cool penalty-taking, as recently as last season he curled in a free kick from outside the area for Tampines that was a reminder to the technical skills developed growing up in football-mad western Serbia.
Against Home United, Fara's defensive partner was English-born Daniel Bennett, who turns 40 in January, giving the Tampines' centre-backs a combined age of 75. Like Fara, Bennett is expected to continue playing into 2018.
"Dan is doing well. He's showing that age is just a number. He's probably the fittest player in the league. We still contribute to the team... that's the most important thing. We just enjoy it," Fahrudin said.
Remarkably, the pair remain an important part of the national squad, with coach V. Sundramoorthy watching on at Bishan Stadium against Home United. Fara has won two AFF Suzuki Cup titles, and Bennett three, and both are a reminder of a time -- not so long ago -- when Singapore punched well above their weight. Sadly, the Lions have yet to win a game at senior level -- with four draws and five losses -- in 2017.
Bennett has played 138 times for his country, and Fara has 87 caps, with eight goals. Two of those were scored in AFF finals, including the gripping 2012 showdown with Thailand when he had to re-take a penalty in the first leg.
Five years earlier, he'd shown similar nerves of steel from the spot to provide the winner against the same opponents in front of 55,000 fans at the National Stadium.
Fara, who has four daughters and now lives over the Causeway in Johor, can't go on forever. He'd be the first to admit that he won't last as long as his former Bosnia-born Singapore teammate Aleskandar Duric, who played past his 44th birthday before finally retiring in 2014.
But during a period when the struggling S.League desperately needs a boost, the news that Fara will lace up his boots for another season will have fans nodding their heads and smiling in approval. And it might make young strikers like Irfan Fandi wish that the bearded, old man would take up golf instead.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.