Man at His Best

What I've Learned: Abbas Saad

The former Australian footballer tells us how football has transformed, as compared to the '90s.

BY sim wie boon | Jul 30, 2016 | Fitness & Health

Delvin Xian

Footballer, pundit, 48

Moving from Lebanon to Australia was a huge transition for me. I was eight years old and I didn’t speak a word of English. Leaving a war-torn country, we had to wait for our visas in Cyprus. It took two or three months, if my memory serves me right, until we got the go-ahead.

It took me awhile to go back to Lebanon because of the war, probably 20-odd years. It’s a beautiful city; unfortunately, problems with politics are big.

Throughout it all, football was a constant. In Lebanon, we played in the streets. There were no parks or grounds, so wherever there was a space for a few people to play, we’d go play barefoot or whatever. The passion for the game was always there. We had no coaches or academies or anything. It was all pretty much on our own instinct, copying players we saw on TV and such.

Coming to Southeast Asia was an eye-opening experience for me. When I got the opportunity to play for Singapore, I’d never been to Asia. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. To be honest, I thought it would be like a third-world country where camels, donkeys, cows and chickens would be running around the streets [laughs]. It’s funny because I couldn’t believe it when I arrived at the airport. I was like, “The hell? This is unbelievable. This is better than the Australian airport.”

Football is more professional now. It’s more of a business. There’s more money involved. The game is transformed. It’s a lot faster now too. But, back in the ’90s, competition was a lot stronger than now. Football was the only game shown on TV and talked about in newspapers; now, you have the Premier League and such. It’s taken the shine off the local game a little bit. It’s definitely harmed the quality and the attention of the game here, and in Singapore.

What’s important is improving the domestic game. At the moment, there is a lack of professionalism and unity. Every state is not on par and the problems come from the top down. There’s a gap between the players and the management, as well as a lack of money, training facilities and good, professional coaches.

Johor is the only state at the moment that is taking the game to a professional level. It’s the effort of the Tunku Mahkota of Johor, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, because he’s putting his money where his mouth is. He’s walking the talk. That’s why all players want to go play for JDT. Look at the fans; he’s brought them back. Look at the infrastructure; he’s built great, new infrastructure. That’s what is missing in the other states. They must follow suit. There’s no use for JDT being so good, and the rest being so bad. It’s not good for the league.

I’m opening a Lebanese restaurant at the Tun Razak Exchange. It’s called Byblos Cafe and Lounge. I’ve owned restaurants and bars in Singapore before, but this is my first business venture in Malaysia. I think there’s a lack of quality Lebanese food in KL.

When the match-fixing accusations came up, it was a huge shock to me. I had no idea what was going on. If you do something wrong, you’re probably waiting for something to happen to you. In my situation, I got pulled into something that was totally out of my jurisdiction in that sense. It was a very disappointing time in my life that left a hollow feeling.

I was at the peak of my career. I was about to sign a professional contract in France. I was on top of the world, helping Malaysia win a cup final, helping my team achieve something that hadn’t been done in 15 years. And then, to be sucked into something like that… it really put a dent in my heart. But I’m a fighter. And I’m an honest fighter. If there’s an incident, I don’t run away. I approach it head-on. The most important thing was to clear my name.

If you’ve done something wrong, you shouldn’t just get slapped with a fine. The cost should be greater than that. I think they knew that I was pretty much innocent of everything. I’d done absolutely zero wrong, and it was a testing time with the political fighting between Malaysia and Singapore. I think that I was used as a scapegoat, because I was one of the players with the highest profiles in the whole of the MSL at the time.

I took it on the chin and fought for my right to play straightaway. I took my case to FIFA and it was overturned.

The only way to succeed is to play for each other, to love each other and go out on the field to spill your blood and sweat. I did that for Singapore. I did that for Johor. The will to win, entertain and put a smile on your fans’ faces. That is the most important thing in football. That’s something that I miss more than anything: when you walk out after winning a game, and the fans come to you with the biggest smiles. You’ve made them happy. You don’t know what’s going on in their lives—they could have nothing in their pockets—but it’s those smiles that leave you with something that you never forget.

First published in Esquire Malaysia's June 2016 issue.