|By Kenneth Tan
There was no doubt what the focal point of the Tanjong Pagar United pre-season press conference, which was held at Queenstown Stadium last night, was the official unveiling of marquee signing Monsef Zerka, alongside three other new French signings and new coach Patrick Vallee.
Lost in all that, perhaps was another new arrival at the Queenstown Stadium, a name which the local football fraternity should have no problem identifying, and someone who has four S.Leagues medals draped around his neck for the past five years.
“He’s our local marquee player!” beamed chairman Edward Liu who even brought in comparisons between him and the likes of English Premier League players Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli.
“It was actually my captain Hafiz (Osman) who whispered to me ‘Can we take him?’ He knows him well. Latiff’s a player we couldn't afford in the past, he’s creative but sometimes controversial thus I told him I’ll think about it.
"After that coach also asked whether we can invite him to come thus I told him to go ahead [to sign him] as long as they can work together.”
Vallee added: “I remember him when I was at Etoile. I like this player. He was great at SAFFC then he went to Tampines and won two championships. He gave a lot and he’s certainly a player with character. Thus when I know he was released, I told chairman I wanted to recruit him.”
A testament to his character was perhaps getting over the first obstacle of his Tanjong Pagar career with ease – the new 2.4km fitness test.
Earning a notorious reputation of being a constant struggler with the mandatory Beep Test over the years, he nearly failed to make the 2012 season – making his first league appearance only in late April, almost three months into the season after passing on the umpteenth time of asking.
This year, the 33-year-old will be available to plunge in right from the season after passing the new test on his first attempt.
“It was not easy as we seldom run rounds around the track, but I’m happy that I managed to do it,” said Latiff.
The former Singapore international was linked with a slew of clubs in the off-season, but eventually decided to pen a two-year contract with the Jaguars.
“There’s a lot of rumors regarding which club I will go to, some of which I didn’t even know!” he laughed.
“In truth there’re only two to three clubs [in consideration]. It was Hafiz who called me to inform me that the Tanjong Pagar management wanted to see me thus I came over and had frank discussions about what both parties want. It was good and I decided to sign.”
After a highly successful two years at Tampines, Latiff admitted he didn’t expect to be released from the club. Despite being sad about the manner of the departure, he insisted he has to move on with the club not including him as part of their new direction.
With former teammates Hafiz, Zahid Ahmad, Asraf Rashid and Sazali Salleh all in the Jaguars’ ranks, he should have no problems bedding into the side although it will be an all-new experience under the stalwart of Vallee.
With his then team SAFFC bid for a fifth successive championship being stopped by Etoile in 2010 and in the following year holding off the same team to clinch the championship with Tampines, Latiff is no stranger to the astute tactician despite only shaking hands with him before.
“He’s a very competitive coach, you can see he always want to win,” he said.
“To others he may seem a bit crazy, it’s true that he’s stern in training but it’s all for the team and the players are responding well to his style.”
Latiff was also adamant that this move is not a step down from his illustrious career: “If you look at my previous clubs SAFFC, Tampines or even Woodlands (Wellington) and Johor FA, people may think it is [a step down] but sometimes it’s between the coach and the player."
"It’s about the communication and what he wants from me as a player, I feel good under him. Basically I come here without much specific targets. Hopefully we can make top half, but most importantly I just want to make the club improve and make progress."
Last but not least, the departure of the long-serving Raddy Avramovic from the national team hotseat meant the door is now left ajar for a possible return, and the former S.League Young Player of the Year hinted that he will relish a call-up which he has not received since 2006.
“I have never said before that I retired from the national team, it was the selectors who didn’t choose me," he pointed out.
"It’s up to them, if [current interim coach] Sundram or whoever wants my contributions to the team, I’m willing to go."