News Singapore Premier League • April 20, 2018

Simplicity the name of the game for Balestier starlet Shaqi


The centre-back has impressed with his start to life in the top tier and is tipped to go far by his Head Coach 

Shaqi Sulaiman (left) has enjoyed a good start to his first professional season.

SINGAPORE, 20 APRIL 2018 – When he was 18, a professional debut felt like a distant prospect for Shaqi Sulaiman.

But that moment came sooner than expected.

With the implementation of the Under-23 player quotas this season in the Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL), Shaqi’s opportunity came two weeks ago.

The centre-back, who is 20 this October, featured for Balestier Khalsa FC in a 3-1 opening loss to Home United FC.

“I thought I would only get my first break at 21 or 22 because (the age limit was U-23) for the Prime League back then,” recalled Shaqi, who was named on the bench once for a S.League game while at Hougang United FC last year.

“Getting my debut at 19 in front of my family and friends at a great club and against a big opponent – it was a memorable experience even though we lost.

“It felt really great… it’s a big thing to get your first professional appearance. It’s my first step (of my journey) here, it’s a huge step for me.”

The defeat was a chastening experience for Shaqi, too. The Tigers were on course for an upset victory, only to concede thrice in the final 15 minutes.

“The biggest difference (from the previous levels I’ve played at) is the mental aspect,” Shaqi explained. “It gets mentally tough in the last 10, 15 minutes and the Home match is a good example.

“I cracked after the first goal (from them) because I haven’t been exposed to these kinds of games; it just hit me hard and then the second and third goals quickly followed.”

Shaqi has since quickly adjusted. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the only goal of the game in the next match, against Albirex Niigata FC (S), came after he was substituted off, while he turned in a commanding performance in their recent 1-0 win against Geylang International FC.

“I felt more comfortable and composed,” he said. “Of course I will make mistakes, but I will only learn and get better with more time and games.”

Shaqi Sulaiman playing for Home United FC’s Prime League side (Photos courtesy of Shaqi)

The 1.80-metre defender has impressed many with his displays, not least Head Coach Marko Kraljevic, who described him as “unbelievable” after the victory against Geylang.

The Croat admitted that he did not know much about Shaqi when he joined Balestier, but has since been won over.

“He’s really a guy who’s willing to learn and works very hard; he comes early for training, he does extra work in the gym and is always wanting to learn more,” the 52-year-old said.

“This is why I put him in the first eleven in the first game. It was not his best game and he can do much better, but I think he can go very far.

“He has very good size for a defender and heads the ball well; he needs to improve in some areas, like passing and agility… but so far, so good for him here.”

Shaqi is pleased with the first-team exposure at his new club, having approached them when he finished his contract with Hougang at the end of last year. The Tigers fielded the second-youngest side in the league in 2017 and Shaqi felt he would benefit from their faith in youth.

“Whether I want to take that chance, it’s up to me,” he said. “I chose to come here and Coach Marko and (Club Chairman) Mr S. Thavaneson gave me the chance to play… it’s what I wanted.

“For me, it’s about (getting) playing time now because I want to develop and grow.”

The lanky Shaqi believes in keeping things simple on the pitch, citing Italian legend Paolo Maldini as an inspiration.

“He once said, ‘If I have to make a tackle, then I have already made a mistake’ and it’s a statement I really like,” he said.

“I started as a striker but I feel centre-back best suits my style of play… I don’t do fancy tricks or anything a centre-back doesn’t do. Keep it simple – play the ball forwards and if you can’t, play it backwards.”

Shaqi looks up to cousin Shannon Stephen, the Tampines Rovers FC defender, who is “always getting called up to age-groups above his age” and still works out while on holiday, and also mentions “learning a lot” about defending under Coach Robin Chitrakar at Hougang.

A post shared by Shaqi Sulaiman (@shaqi98) on

One of Shaqi’s photos on his Instagram profile.

Shaqi is grateful for the support from his parents, who have watched every match since he started in the COE leagues at 14, first for Hougang and then Home United FC.

“Even my older brother, who studies in NTU, comes all the way to support me when I play at Toa Payoh,” he added. “My family is what motivates me and why I want to improve myself.”

Outside of football, there is a creative side. Shaqi is in his final year at Nanyang Polytechnic, studying for a Diploma in Visual Communication, and currently on an internship at the Singapore Scout Association. In his free time, photography is a hobby and snapshots pepper Shaqi’s Instagram profile.

“You meet timelines instead of having exams for my course and the flexibility allows me to slot my training sessions into my schedule,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s not easy when deadlines are coming, but football has taught me a lot of discipline and I plan my time well so I can balance both.”

Going into the design industry is a future consideration for Shaqi but for now, his focus is firmly on excelling in football – which involves optimising his time as much as possible.

“I stay in Serangoon and I’ve never played for clubs far away from me – so far, it’s Hougang, Home and Balestier.

“I realise if I cut down on travel time, I can be more productive in terms of doing my work and training – I can develop better as a result.”

Last year, Shaqi’s progress was held back by a right shoulder injury sustained during pre-season that ruled him out for four months and miss out on a potential first-team debut in the League Cup.

But he is ready to push on this year and believes Balestier can qualify for the AFC Cup.

“We have a strong, robust team and while we might not play the best football, we get the results and in the top tier, it’s all about results,” Shaqi asserted. “We are getting better and go into every game with a winning mentality.”

His personal aim is to get into the Singapore squad for the 2020 AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers in March 2019, which doubles up as the first qualifying stage for the 2020 Olympics, as well as the SEA Games next December.

“I want to play at and be exposed to international-level football,” Shaqi said. “I want to play in the SEA Games before I enlist and I think it’s possible.”

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