‘Bye, ‘bye, Baihakki!

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WHAT a fond farewell salute: After 16 years, 134 international ‘A’ caps and five goals, Baihakki Khaizan has fittingly decided to call it a day.

He leaves this month, hanging up his international jersey and holding his head high as a role-model Singapore defender, probably one of the finest defenders of his generation, since he earned his first cap on August, 2003 against Hong Kong at Jalan Besar Stadium.

I will always have fond memories of this 1.9m centre-back, sometimes temperamental fiery tackling mood, but unfailingly giving off his very best whenever he puts on the red Lions jersey. He just hates losing!

What an immaculate football-minded professional who was involved in a record eight Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup campaigns – winning three of those.  Rather unforgettable was Baihakki’s goal two minutes into stoppage time against Thailand in the first-leg of the 2012 final at Jalan Besar Stadium that sealed the Lions’ fourth regional crown.

100TH CAP

He reached his milestone 100th cap in a friendly ‘A’ match against China in September 2013 and, deservedly, he was inducted into the ‘FIFA Century Club’ in December 2013, which is an elite global club for players who have distinguishedly crossed the 100-match mark.

His rags-to-riches tale deserves mention as Baihakki’s father, Khaizan Muhd, died when he was three. He has an elder sister and a younger brother. He married Singaporean flight attendant, actress and singer, Norfasarie.

What I liked about him was his  long-term eye for the future and a futuristic career after football, Baihakki opened his interior design and renovation company in April 2013. He also launched his second business, a spa, in March 2014.

Former iconic Lions coach Radojko “Raddy” Avramovic, who gave him his international debut, says: “We brought in young lads in that squad. He was in that generation and we worked with them to prepare them for the national team. Some of them had earlier opportunities to play, some later but most of that generation played nearly 10 years (or more).

“Like all others, Bai had his ups and downs. We worked with them in bad times also and at the end it paid off because for so many years they have played and contributed to Singapore.

“His height was a definite advantage and he’s a clever guy. He was also fortunate that when I put him in to play for the national team, he was surrounded by the likes of Aide Iskandar and S. Subramani and they all helped him to develop.”

PIONEER BATCH

Raddy further praises him as he was “focused on football and for so many years, he played outside of Singapore; it means the trust we had in him paid off”. He explains: “He has spent so much time in football and he should continue to be a coach or an official; he should stay in football and try to help other people fulfill their dreams. A lot of people helped him to get where he is now and I think in some way, he should help them in different ways.”

Baihakki was part of the pioneer batch of the now-defunct National Football Academy in 2000 and progressed through the various age-groups, while at club level he started his professional career with Geylang United (now Geylang International). He was named the S-League’s (now Singapore Premier League) Young Player of the Year in 2003 while with Geylang and went on to play for Young Lions and Warriors FC.

The sense of football adventure never diminished and he also had spells in Indonesia (Persija Jakarta, Persib Bandung, Medan Chiefs) and Malaysia (Johor Darul Ta’zim). He became the first Singaporean player to score in Thai League when he netted for Second Division side Udon Thani in a 3-0 win over Thai Honda last February. Now he is currently contracted to newly-promoted First Division outfit Trat.

Baihakki’s final appearance for the Lions was on November 25 2018 as a substitute in the Suzuki Cup match against Thailand at the Rajamangala Stadium. The 35-year-old now retires as the third-most capped Singapore player.

Former Singapore midfield legend Rajagopal Suriamurthy, the ex-Singapore youth coach, remembers Bai when he was 15 years. He says: “Shahril Ishak, Hassan Sunny, Bai – they were my first batch and he was actually playing for Jin Tai (Secondary) back then. I went scouting and brought him in.

“We went to every (school) game and watched them (in order to find the best players). He had good height and that was very useful in defence and attack. I coached him for two years. They were a good set of boys. Bai read the game well, was good with the ball and he improved a lot.

‘VERY NICE GUY’

“He is a very nice guy, carries himself well and speaks well. He was one of the most handsome (in the team), like a movie-star model!”

FAS Council Member Lim Tong Hai played with Baihakki in defence in his first season at Geylang. He says: “I enjoyed playing with him, he was up and coming, had lots of enthusiasm and the entire team also leveraged on his strengths. Along the way, we gave constructive feedback. You could see he had the potential to go pretty far and there wasn’t any doubt that he was going to play for the national team.

“Talent is one thing, working hard is another and he has put in the hard work. He deserved all he has achieved. It will be good if he can stay in the game, be it in a technical role, coaching or even on the administrative side. It’s up to him what he wants to explore; with his experience and contacts, if he can put it to good use, that would be great (for the local game).”

Now at newly-promoted Trat FC, he’s still excited at the “fire in my belly” to still pursue a pro football career. He says: “This is a massive achievement for me, considering my age in football terms. I came to Thailand last year determined to prove that I’m still able to compete against the best and I gave everything at Udon Thani, so it is good to know another Thai club saw my hard work.

TWILIGHT OF CAREER

“I have to thank the people at Udon and also the Trat management for having faith in me. Even more so, I have to thank my family, including my wife who has had to be there for the kids while I continue chasing my football dream.”

Baihakki hopes to use this move to encourage his fellow Singapore footballers, especially those who are in the twilight of their careers. Never ever give up, he urges.

He says: “This is a huge step up to be competing in T1 as compared to T2. Priority is to get myself in peak condition to fight for the team. It won’t be easy against giants like Buriram United, Bangkok United and Muangthong United but if we play as a team, the ball is round. I hope this move also inspires the ones who are old and rejected.”

For international football, it is definitely a final goodbye for now.

After 134 matches over 16 years, he announced last week over Facebook: “Thank you all the fans for your support. I hope I have given my best during my 12,240 minutes outing. I’ll be joining you soon in the stands doing the ‘Kallang Roar’ together as one Singapore.”

I, once again, take my hats off to this handsomest Lion. He hangs up his international jersey and holds his head high as a role-model Singapore defender, probably one of the finest regional-class defenders of his generation. – By SURESH NAIR.

 

  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has followed Baihakki Khaizan’s football career from Jin Tai Secondary School days in the 1990s.
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