Referees ● Apr 24, 2017
No Regrets for Referee-Turned-Administrator
By Alvin Tham
Local football fans will be familiar with two-time Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Referee of the Year Shamsul Maidin, who won the region’s highest refereeing accolade in 2005 and 2006. However, some may not know there was another Singaporean who was nominated in 2006 alongside Shamsul, who is now the AFC Director of Referees – current Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Referees Executive Abdul Malik.
The soft-spoken and modest Malik may seem too friendly to be a top football referee, but he was one of the most successful and renowned referees in Asia during his refereeing career – and this is despite his preference to keep a low profile.
In an interview, Malik shared his views on a range of topics, including how the support from the FAS, AFC and his family had played an important role in his path to becoming an AFC Elite Referee.
A reformed footballer
Malik was known for his no-nonsense playing style with a poor disciplinary record while playing in the National Football League (NFL). All that changed in 1995 when he caused a serious injury to an opposing player during a match. Then aged 27, he felt so guilty about the challenge that he asked to be substituted. As he pondered over the incident, he came across an advertisement on a refereeing course organised by the FAS.
Malik felt that attending the course would help him to understand why his on-field disciplinary record had been so poor. This was the humble beginning of one of the most successful football referees Singapore has produced.
Transformation from footballer to referee
Malik continued playing social football for two years after completing his refereeing course but gave up completely in 1997. He said: “Andrew Yap (former coach of former NFL Division 1 champions Tiong Bahru Constituency Sports Club) once told me “you choose between football and refereeing”. He told me that if I want to (continue to) play football, I would not reach the top. I may be able to play at that level in the top league, but I would not be good enough to play in the national team. But he told me that the likelihood for me to be a good referee is very high because I understand football.”
Following the advice of the coach, Malik decided to seriously pursue refereeing. Despite working then as a technician in water treatment and later air-conditioning, he planned his schedule accordingly so as to find time to officiate three to four matches a week. Malik saw refereeing as a profession since match allowances provided him with an additional source of income, and he wanted to do it to the best of his ability.
Despite this, he said not aiming to reach the pinnacle of all refereeing careers – officiating at the World Cup finals – was “a mistake”.
He said: “Honestly, I never aimed for that (officiating at the World Cup finals). I think that was the biggest mistake, really. Because if you never dream of the World Cup, it will never come to you. If you dream of it and work hard, it will come. At that time, I only thought of making that extra income. So I kept myself very fit and close to football. Of course, I got all that but I was always this close to go to the World Cup (but never went). But I don’t feel sad, not even once.”
More than a job
Although Malik mentioned he saw his refereeing career as a source of income, his high levels of professionalism would help him reach the top level of refereeing in football. Along the way he clinched the S.League Referee of the Year award three times and is the inaugural winner of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Referee of the Year (2012) award.
One fine example of his professionalism was when he was injured during an S.League match in 2011, after a player ran into him accidentally. Despite his injury, Malik continued with the game and completed it without further incident.
The continued pain from that injury did not prevent him from travelling to South Korea for the 2011 AFC Champions League Semi-Final between Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Al Sadd which was played just two days later. It was only after he returned from the trip that he was advised by FAS physiotherapist Nurhafizah Sujad to see a doctor for his chest pains, and it was revealed that he had broken his ribs.
Despite the diagnosis, Malik continued officiating after only two days of rest. He admitted that being an AFC Elite Referee meant he felt he needed to lead the younger referees by example. He said: “At that time, maybe I felt that being the only elite referee in that period, it’s my responsibility to manage and not show my injury. I must set a good example.”
When asked if he felt the pressure of being a top local referee, he said: “I don’t see it as pressure. I see it as a challenge that I asked for. I know that the risk comes along with that, so I must be prepared to face it. Every job has its own risks; you just have to face it.”
Other than the risk of injuries, Malik also acknowledged the gravity of a referee’s job where the results of the game are in their hands. While the affirmation from AFC and FAS motivated him to do his best on the pitch, his composure on the field could also largely be attributed to his devotion to his family.
“If I don’t do well in a match, when my wife or children go to work or school the next day, people will talk about my performance on the field. I don’t want that to happen to them. So in every match I will tell myself: ‘I can do well and I will do well.’ I always put my family first because they have always been there to support and encourage me.”
Malik was nominated by the FAS Referees’ Committee to become an AFC Elite Referee in 2006, and was subsequently given numerous unique opportunities to officiate overseas including two-week attachments to the China Super League in 2005 and 2006. At the club level, he officiated in the Group Stages of the AFC Champions League in 2006 and 2007, the AFC Champions League Final first-leg match between Gamba Osaka and Adelaide FC. At the international level, he was the referee for several FIFA World Cup Qualifying matches for the 2010 and 2014 editions, including high-profile games such as Saudi Arabia vs South Korea, Bahrain vs Japan, and Qatar vs Australia.
Malik also shared his list of the top match officials he has worked with and learned from, including Shamsul Maidin, current FAS Head of Referees K. Visva Nathan, Mohammed Ali Samad, Nazeer Hussain and Jeffrey Goh, describing them as “very, very good.”
Like Jeffrey Goh, he was grateful for the years of guidance offered by former FAS Referees Executive Mr PT Murthi, who has since retired. But his admiration for Shamsul was obvious. He said: “I learnt a lot of good traits from him. That is how I became better and better. Whatever I want to know along the way, I always go back to Shamsul.”
Coming full circle
As a young referee, Malik was guided and assigned to matches by Mr Murthi, the former FAS Referees’ Executive. When Mr Murthi retired, Malik joined the FAS and took over this role as a referees’ administrator in 2012, a year before he retired from refereeing.
When the opportunity arose to join the FAS, he could not refuse the opportunity to stay close to football, and the prospect of a stable job. Malik described the change from being a technician to an administrator as “a steep learning curve”, and he had to pick up new skills along the way.
However, he is enjoying his work, which includes setting up match appointments, and training sessions for referees for matches.
“I am very grateful to FAS, the Referees’ Committee and Referees’ Department for the opportunities I was given in my refereeing journey and after I retired. When FAS offered me the chance to work here and continue contributing to refereeing, they also, through the organization of various courses, provided me with the support that I needed to develop my management skills and improve myself,” said Malik.
“I would also like to thank my family, especially my wife and late mother. They are the two most important women in my life. My wife stuck with me when I was down and took care of me when I was injured. She always wanted me to do my very best and has never been negative towards my refereeing. It was really difficult to be away from my family, my two lovely daughters when I travel around for matches, but they have always been very supportive of my career and helped me to achieve what I want. I would never have gotten to where I am today without them. They are everything to me.”
In the last year of his refereeing career, Malik had the opportunity to meet the AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa before a match in Kuwait. Asian football’s head honcho told Malik that he should return as a referee’s assessor and instructor after his retirement. True to his word, Malik received the invitations from AFC when he returned to Singapore.
Even though he passed both tests to become referees’ assessor and instructor, he specifically told the AFC Director of Referees that he would not be taking up the instructor role. Using the same reason for giving up playing football, he instead chose to focus on his work in FAS, and to do it to the best of his abilities instead of being distracted by possible AFC responsibilities. He said: “Refereeing is very important to me. Being an instructor is also very important. But as an instructor, I would have to travel. While the FAS has been very supportive and understanding, it would not be fair if the referees’ department needs me yet I am away being an instructor for AFC refereeing courses. I think my priority for now is the Referees’ Department.”
Malik’s role as a referees’ administrator also means he gets to guide and train the next batch of local referees, something he feels deeply passionate about.
He said: “I find that it is my duty to help my referees to become the best. I firmly believe that there are a lot of good referees out there who are better than me. They may be very good but they still need help and guidance. I want them to be better than me, and if they can be better than Shamsul, that’s even better.”
FAS Head of Referees Visva is happy to have a former top referee in his team. He said: “It is essential that as administrators of referees, we must have the technical knowledge to guide and teach our young referees. Malik has all the necessary experience and knowledge. He also brought his focus and professionalism from refereeing into this job, which has seen him excel alongside my other colleagues.”
When asked if he missed refereeing, Malik looked back at his career with fondness but is convinced that he retired at the right time.
“Like I said, I believe that we have a lot of good refereeing talent in Singapore. I must give them the opportunity. If I were to stay (in refereeing), then I’m not giving them the opportunity. I have been well supported by the FAS during my time as a referee and now, I just want to continue the strong support for the next generation of referees. So it was good for me to retire and for them to shine. My time is over and I have had no regrets as a referee,” he concluded.