By Suresh Nair
DONALD Trump may well be giving the thumbs-up if he reads this: American graduate Raspreet Sandhu has become the first US-born lad to sign for four-times S-League champions Tampines Rovers.
The newly-elected US President has always advocated a foreign policy of “America first” and he will be pleased to know that this 23-year-old lad from Sonoma State University in California gets to be first to play for Tampines Rovers in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup.
It’s been tough-going in the pre-season trials for Raspreet, whose father Kalwant also played for Tampines Rovers in the mid-1970s. But Raspreet is ball and brain as he’s a Bachelor of Arts (BA) history graduate from the university, located about 40 miles north of San Francisco, and he played three years for the renowned Sea Wolves.
For the moment, he has yet to showcase his abilities in the 22-year-old S-League as he cannot be registered after the Stags (Tampines Rovers’ nickname) maximised their league foreign quota with Japanese winger Ryutaro Megumi, Croatian forward Ivan Dzoni and 25-year-old South Korean Son Yong Chan.
The AFC Cup, on the other hand, allows up to four foreign players to be on the pitch at any one time and this will give new German coach Jurgen Raab more depth, as the AFC Cup and S.League kick-off on the same week.
Tampines’ President Krishna Ramachandra says: “Raspreet has got the big break for the AFC Cup. That’s a massive start for a 23-year-old. But we will hold on to him for the S-League season and (coach) Raab may use him if one of the three foreign professionals don’t perform up to expectations.
“So it’s a win-win situation for Raspreet, who has personally proven to me that he has the rip-roaring talent to be a value-add professional. I must also mention this. I admire and respect his dad (Kalwant Sandhu) because he’s been very professional in his approach to me and the club and never ever pushed for Raspreet to be given any favoured treatment just because Kalwant was one of the Tampines’ players in the mid-1970s.”
News of Raspreet’s Singapore signing may not have hit the roof at the White House but in California, his head coach at Sonoma State University, Marcus Ziemer, had glowing words: “Raspreet is an excellent player. Not only is he quick and agile, but his ball skills are outstanding. He is crafty on the dribble and also has excellent vision and can break teams down with his passing.
VERY COMPETITIVE PLAYER
“He is tough to mark out of a game and is very competitive and hates to lose. Raspreet has an excellent shot with both feet and scored some big goals for us. Working very hard, he has always been one of the first on the training ground and the last to leave. Let me reiterate that all of his hard work has finally paid off”.
Tampines Rovers General Manager Desmund Khusnin, adds: “Raspreet joining TRFC is a bit of a historic moment as Kal Sandhu, his father, used to play for Tampines Rovers and this is great for football in Singapore as it evidences the passion for football that runs through generations. Raspreet joins us on our AFC campaign. He has impressed us in trials and we hope he ends up having a long future with us”.
Director of Football Excellence at Tampines Rovers, Jita Singh, forewarns of Raspreet’s longer-term potential: “I will not pull any punches but I will go on record to say that Raspreet would be starting on the Singapore national team if he was a citizen. He has great attitude and disposition”.
The award-winning Jita can spot true talent from hundreds of miles away as he was the first Sikh footballer to play for Singapore in the early 1970s, at 22 years, and donned Singapore colours during the first and only three-weeks overseas playing tour in England in 1972. He later went on to be the youngest Singapore coach to win the Malaysia Cup in 1981 and the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) decorated him with the 1983 ‘Coach of the Year’ award.
“I hope Raspreet stays with Tampines because he has that rare fire in the belly to succeed,” says Jita. “Academically, he’s also strong as a BA degree graduate, so he’s a smart formula to marry both football and studies to be a noteworthy role-model young football professional.”
Raspreet is over the moon after he signed the professional-contract and promised to live up to expectations. “It’s been real hard work to compete with so many young professionals,” he says. “I expected or never asked for any favours just because my dad was a former Tampines player. I knew I had to start from ground zero and prove to everyone that I’ve the necessary qualities to realize my longer-term dreams to be a football professional.”
Dad Kalwant and mum, Pam, were reduced to tears after the Tampines’ announcement. Kalwant, who played with me in the 1974 hockey tour to India with Singapore Juniors, admitted confidentially to me that “my son is 1,000 times better than me, football-wise”.
“Raspreet, the youngest of my three sons, can elegantly juggle tennis balls, non-stop, with both feet, until the American cows jumped over the moon!,” he told me tongue-in-cheek. “Believe me Suresh, he has so much of footballing talent, ever since he was two years. Yes, two years! And when he hinted to me that he wants to be a football pro, after graduating with an university degree, I said, give it a shot at my Singapore club, Tampines Rovers, which ranks as one of Asean’s oldest clubs.”
Kalwant, 61, a well-known businessman in Mountain View, California, who even ran for the race to be a suburb mayor a few years ago, says the professional baptism at Tampines Rovers is a “blessing in disguise”.
From 1977 to 1979, he turned out for Tampines Rovers in local top-flight football before he left for his studies. Among some of the more illustrious names he played with were former internationals Quah Kim Song, R. Suriamurthi and Edmund Wee.
He recalls training under the legendary “Uncle” Choo Seng Quee, who won the Malaysia Cup in 1977. Kalwant says: “He told me that I had a chance to play for the national team. I still regard him as one of my mentors. He might yell at you often, but that’s because of his extraordinary enthusiasm.”
Suriamurthi, one of the most talent-gifted midfielders in the late 1970s and 80s, also remembers Kalwant. He says: “He was probably the only Sikh playing football at that level at that time. He was a good player. We used to play in the same team.”
Kalwant received his US citizenship in 2001 and the Sandhu family now resides in Santa Clara County called Mountain View, where he is also vice-chairman of the city’s Human Relations Commission. He also holds a National Diploma from the National Soccer Coaches of America Association.
EARLY DAYS AT TAMPINES
I watched Raspreet in his early days in January for the Tampines Rovers’ trials, and I knew he had a mountain to climb with a legendary club. But, believe me, I sensed he could overturn the odds simply because he’s got what it takes: A real heart of steel, a big head to succeed (without a turban!) and a steady pair of sure-footed football feet.
When he first arrived here, Raspreet told me: “Tampines Rovers is the biggest name club in Singapore and I want to prove my worth to be considered for selection. My father believes in me and I must have confidence in my playing skills to make it as a football professional.
“Yes, it’s going to be hard with a vast talent of new players coming for trials. But hopefully with the support of family and friends and, most importantly God, I will make my dream come true.”
Chairman Ramachandra believes that Donald Trump’s philosophy of “America first” may well have inspired Raspreet to reach out the S-League record books as the first American professional teenager footballer.
He says: “It’s good to see such a varied interest from young professionals-to-be far and wide to take part in our trials. Raspreet, being a Sikh, is a bonus as that community has produced some superb footballers over the years.”
Even in Malaysia, Sikh-names like Santokh Singh and Shebby Singh have significantly hogged the football headlines from the 1970s. Both turbanless Sikhs went on to be skippers of the Harimaus (nickname of Malaysian national team) in their respective positions as rear-guard sweepers of Asian-class standards.
Now only time will tell if Raspreet, who started with the America Youth Soccer Organization League when he was five years, can rewrite the books and, in the process, make (dad) Kalwant really proud as the first American-Sikh to break new professional grounds in Singapore.
And somewhere along the hallmark corridors of the White House, President Donald Trump may well be blowing his trumpet again on another “America first” heroic.
• Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who was one of the founder-committee members of Tampines Rovers when the S-League was launched in 1996. Raspreet’s father, Kalwant, was his hockey-playing mate in the mid-1970s when they played for Singapore.