'ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore' a labour of love for Lions fan Thiyaga Raju

The book
The book "ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore", with its author Thiyaga Raju (left) and editor Gary Koh. (PHOTOS: Courtesy of Pagesetters Services)

SINGAPORE — Thiyaga Raju pulled out a large green file, stuffed to the brim with pages of text, all protected by waterproof plastic covers.

He beamed proudly as he explained that these pages are filled with facts, figures and anecdotes of Singapore and Malaysia football history that he had painstakingly collated since he became a fan back in the 1970s.

"It should be enough to produce a definitive book on the football history of both countries," the 61-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in a coffeeshop at Toh Yi Drive last month. "But I'm starting off with just Singapore with the new book."

That book, "ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore", was released on Wednesday (31 August) with a special match featuring former Singapore and Malaysia greats such as Fandi Ahmad and Soh Chin Aun at Jalan Besar Stadium, widely regarded as heart of Singapore football.

Tracing the roots of the sport in the city-state as far back as the 1920s, the book is filled with nuggets of historical information such as Singapore's first football stadium, the Anson Road Stadium, which hosted several of Singapore's Malaya Cup triumphs before it was demolished to make way for the Singapore Conference Hall in the 1950s.

Raju fills the pages with anecdotes and side notes of his recollections on his experiences as a football die-hard, giving the hard facts a warm nostalgia, especially when he writes about the exploits of the players who had thrilled him as a young fan who frequented the old National Stadium to cheer them on since 1974.

"I remember trying to climb the stadium fences to get in - illegally - before running away when the police came," he recalled with a laugh. "But I got to experience the magnificent Kallang Roar eventually, that began my love affair with local football and I started to record down all the matches I had been, all the player facts and figures I could get from the newspapers.

"“What I like about Singapore football is that all races come together as one voice — regardless of whether you are Chinese, Malay, Indian or Eurasian, you play as one. That is the power of Singapore football."

Long road in getting trove of football history published

That zeal for local football served him well during a stint working at The Straits Times sports desk, and even after leaving the national broadsheet, Raju has continued to contribute his opinions on the sport on the Forum pages.

It was not until 2018 that he decided that he should make use of his trove of information on Singapore football and produce a book detailing all the memorable figures that had enthralled a nation in the pre-Internet years, when football was the major passion among the city-state's residents.

"After I left my job at Standard Chartered Bank in 2017, I decided that these information that I had kept for so long should be published as a book. I did even more research to flesh out the book, and the National Library became my second home during this period," he said.

Getting the book published was no easy task, however. Raju revealed that several publishers turned him down, telling him bluntly that the appetite for local football has waned and they could not see enough interest for his proposed book.

Eventually Raju's nephews recommended him to independent publishing company Pagesetters, who took on the project and brought in editor Gary Koh as well as photographers Lim Weixiang and Zee Ko - all football fans too - as they pieced together Raju's recollections into "ROAR".

"“Football is part of our nationhood and sporting heritage. These 11 players on the pitch are fighting for our country and countrymen, and this is why we should care about football,” Koh said.

“Sometimes people seem indifferent, or pass remarks like ‘Singapore football cannot make it lah!’ — I do sympathise, because it indirectly reflects that they do care about what is going on in our game, and want us to do better.”

"ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore" book author Thiyaga Raju (left) and editor Gary Koh (centre) with former Singapore national player Chia Book Leong. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Pagesetters Services)
"ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore" book author Thiyaga Raju (left) and editor Gary Koh (centre) with former Singapore national player Chia Book Leong. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Pagesetters Services)
Singapore great Fandi Ahmad (blue jersey) during the match between Singapore and Malaysia football legends at the
Singapore great Fandi Ahmad (blue jersey) during the match between Singapore and Malaysia football legends at the "ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore" book launch. (PHOTO: Courtesy of Pagesetters Services)

Important that football legends' efforts are not forgotten with time

For Raju, it is important that the players' efforts in trying to win a football match for Singapore are remembered and recorded down, as many of them are already getting on in age - and their exploits are increasingly being forgotten.

He recalled how the family of 97-year-old Chia Boon Leong - who remains the only Singaporean to have played football in the Olympics at the 1948 London Games - thanked him for still remembering their dad as he contacted them ahead of the book launch.

"In recent years, some of the players have passed away, people like Mohammed Noh and Salim Moin. A couple of them are also not in the best of health," he said.

"That motivated me to press on with the book. Like Chia Boon Leong's family, there are people who are happy that someone remembers the good times these players gave all the fans. And this book is most importantly dedicated to them."

Raju was glad to see so many former greats supporting his book launch with the friendly match at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday. The event also saw the unveiling of Chia's foot cast, which was commissioned by Sport Singapore in a tribute to the football great.

Raju had also organised an appreciation dinner for the ex-Lions in 2017 to mark the 40th Anniversary of Singapore's 1977 Malaysia Cup victory. And "ROAR" serves as his present to these former stars for their services.

"We should recognise and appreciate our football legends — past and present — for their contributions to the nation through sport," he said.

"They sacrificed a lot of their prime years slogging under the sun to bring honour to our country, and this is my small gift to them.”

ROAR: Football Legends of Singapore retails for $26.75 (incl. GST). It is also available via mail order.

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