When people talk about the "good old days" of Singapore football, they throw out names like Fandi Ahmad, Malek Awab and Sundram. There is no doubting that Rafi Ali, one of the most talented local footballers to ever wear a Lions jersey, belongs to that elite group.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the 1998 Tiger Cup winner recently over lunch and pick his brain, as the former midfield masetro recalled how he went from a kid with a dream to becoming one of the most gifted players of his generation.
“I grew up watching my father’s kampung team and following them to the field,” Rafi shared.
“My grandfather pushed me towards football; he made me the jerseys. He always told my dad that this boy will one day be a national player. When you are exposed to football every single day it becomes a thing in you.”
Apart from family influence, the biggest catalyst that triggered his desire to be a professional footballer occurred when he was still a young boy. During a charity game between Singapore and Malaysia, Rafi got intrigued about the lifestyle of a national player.
"I can still remember Fandi playing in that game,” he said.
“After the game, I wanted to go down. I’ve always wondered how it was like for national players. What do they do? How do they go to the stadium?
“I always had this idea that every time there’s a game, the bus will pick the players up at their respective houses and bring them to the stadium. So after the game, I wanted to go down and see for myself.”
Rafi did just that and witnessed first-hand the players walking out of the stadium one by one. But it was Fandi’s exit that got to him.
“They barricaded the place and everybody was cheering for him," Rafi recounted with awe in his eyes. "The car swooped in to Gate One and picked him up and it was just chaotic. People rampaged through and they were all over the car, wanting to get a glimpse of Fandi.”
When Rafi was 10, he was spotted by current national goalkeeping coach Lee Bee Seng while playing on the field one day. The latter immediately brought him to join the Milo Soccer School and it was all hard work from then on as Rafi dedicated his life to the sport.
“Those days, it was really bad,” he reminisced.
“Bee Seng really pushed me and gave me a hard time. Every time after training ended, I'd have to do extra. It was just me alone. He always said that as a midfielder, you are basically the engine. You have to put the ball on the tray for strikers to score a goal.”
After every training session, Rafi would be tasked to pass 20 to 30 balls from the middle of the pitch to the corner flag, where there were small goalposts set up.
Initially, he couldn’t place the ball anywhere near them. But eventually, he didn’t have to turn and look anymore and could do it with ease with either goalpost.
“I just put the ball and the ball goes there," as Rafi put it. "Then, I realised it became quite easy.”
That was only the beginning, as trainings became more intense. Rafi, however, was unfazed by the challenge as he resolved to become a professional footballer.
“I am a fighter,” Rafi asserted. “You tell me I cannot make it and I will prove to you I can make it. I will get angry, but that helps me a lot. People can call it arrogance. But I was small for my age, so I always found it difficult to do stuff. So I just do extra training."
Eventually, Rafi’s hard work paid dividends as he was called up to the national team in 1992, roughly two years after he played for his first professional club, Tiong Bahru.
His home debut for Singapore, where he was in the starting line-up to face Pahang at the National Stadium, was one of the most nerve-wrecking moments he’d ever experienced. The newspapers had been psyching the nation up for a whole week leading up to the game and Rafi's mind was not at peace the entire time.
“It’s always pressurising [playing at home] because Singapore supporters are quite demanding, which is understandable,” Rafi said as he recounted how he went to the toilet so many times before kick-off that his coach became suspicious.
“He thought I was smoking and asked me why I kept going to the toilet, and I said I was nervous and didn’t want to play!”
Rafi also recollected one of his best goals, which happened in 1992 for Tiong Bahru. Up against a star-studded Geylang United (now known as Geylang International) side containing the likes of Kadir Yahya, Malek Awab and Syed Farouk, his side needed at least a draw to clinch the title.
And it was Rafi who duly equalised with a first-time volley from the edge of the penalty box in the final 10 minutes to ensure the match ended 2-2.
Rafi also reserved special praise for the legendary 1994 "Dream Team" that won the Malaysia League and Cup double, recalling how they just knew they would win in one particular away game against Kelantan. Trailing 2-0 at half-time, they scored thrice after the break to win 3-2.
“Somehow or another, this 1994 squad, we don’t have to talk to each other much,” Rafi explained.
“Sometimes when we look at each other, we know what we want to do. I don’t know how to explain it. When we look at each other, we just nod and we know what song we are going to sing.”
Rafi the coach
Having retired from the game in 2008, Rafi has still been very involved in football. Apart from a period of time where he made a living selling cars, he has spent his time in the coaching business.
Currently the assistant coach for S.League champions Tampines Rovers and head coach of the Republic Polytechnic (RP) football team, he also opened the Rafi Ali Soccer School a few years ago. Despite his commitments with Tampines and RP, Rafi still finds time to coach kids from his school once or twice a week.
After his fair share of training and coaching youngsters, Rafi didn’t mince his words when he discussed the poor mentality and attitude of footballers today.
“We always have this joke [about youngsters today]: when one player pass this one ball, they will talk for one year; for us when we make one good pass, we will keep doing it again and keep trying,” Rafi said matter-of-factly.
“Sometimes I feel sorry for them. All of us know deep down inside, if we [the older generation] are still playing, they have no chance and all of them will be ball pickers.
“But I want to give something back. Because I want to see youngsters [train] and I like to see them going up."
To some, it might sound like a scathing attack on youngsters. But to Rafi, it’s simply a brutal assessment on just one of the many issues Singapore football is facing today.
However, Rafi remains undeterred and is still in the thick of things when it comes to developing young players. His passion for football was evident throughout the chat, and he undeniably has a lot more to offer to the local football scene.
From his story of fulfilling his childhood dreams to his continuing desire and passion to help develop youngsters, Rafi is the epitome of inspiration for both young and old.