The player nicknamed ‘King of Kallang’ is trading his football boots for paramedic boots and wants to make a difference in people’s lives.
After more than a decade spent saving shots as a goalkeeper on the football pitch, Zainol Gulam is now off to save lives as a paramedic in the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
Last month, the ‘King of Kallang’ – a moniker given to him after an impressive performance at the National Stadium in 2018 for his club Geylang International against Warriors FC – announced his retirement from professional football at just 29 years old.
He has signed on as a paramedic specialist and will undergo a 15-month training programme, which includes a full-time one-year diploma course in Paramedicine at Nanyang Polytechnic and a three-month attachment to SCDF’s Emergency Medical Service.
Upon completing the training programme, he will be posted as a paramedic to an allocated fire station, where he will have the opportunity to take up higher appointments as an overall in-charge or instructor in the future.
The decision to trade football boots for paramedic ones is inspired by the opportunity to “make a difference in people’s lives”, Zainol tells Youthopia.
“From young, I liked the feeling of helping people and that is something that has never left me,” he says.
“I was just scrolling through the SCDF website for possible career options when this paramedic role got me quite interested. There’s a real purpose in this job where you can really play a part in saving someone’s life.
“Another thing is that they offer this paramedicine course which will come in useful in the future, should I decide to leave SCDF. I can still work elsewhere in other related sectors like health care.”
As a recognisable name in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), Zainol’s decision to call time on his football career so young, and even before the 2021 season ended, shocked many within the fraternity.
Those who are close to him on a personal level, however, have known that it is a decision that has been in the making for a number of years now. He has contemplated joining the SCDF on a few occasions since late 2015, after he finished serving his National Service as an instructor with the force.
It was only his burning desire to succeed as a professional footballer that kept Zainol from doing so.
“Football is and will always be my number one love, so I wanted to do everything to make sure I fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer,” he says.
Six years on, Zainol has set his heart on walking away from the game he loves the most. Having lived and breathed football since his primary school days, it was not an easy choice to make, but he knows it is a necessary one to make – especially as he turns 30 next February.
“I guess everyone knows the lack of stability in local football and I didn’t want this uncertainty of living from contract to contract every year,” he explains.
“I was speaking to Neezam Aziz (the former LionsXII and Warriors FC goalkeeper who quit the game at 24 years old to join the Singapore Police Force) about possibly signing on with SCDF after my football career. He advised me to do it as soon as possible as I’m not getting any younger. That gave me the push to just try and apply for the job.”
An open and honest chat with his coach at Geylang International, Noor Ali, gave him further affirmation that he made the right call.
“He was quite supportive of it. He said the football industry is as such where even some of the local superstars never had an enjoyable time towards the tail-end of their careers. Some of them even struggled to make ends meet after retirement. Since it’s a good career opportunity, he also thought I should go for it,” Zainol shares.
Things progressed quickly from there, with Zainol securing the first interview a month after his application in early April. He was then called for a second round of interviews and went through a medical test in June, before signing on for five years.
Now eagerly anticipating this new chapter of his life, he looks back on his rather short but eventful career as a footballer with fond memories.
The sport has given him plenty of life lessons, such as how patience can be rewarded. At the beginning of his career, he had to bide his time behind established goalkeepers and work extremely hard before finally getting recognised as a shot-stopper who is capable of starting week-in, week-out.
First named as a substitute in a S.League (now renamed as the SPL) match in 2013 for Warriors FC, it took three years before Zainol had his first taste of action on the pitch for the club. He never once wavered or sulked though, preferring to learn whatever he can from those ahead of him in the pecking order.
“It can be mentally draining (to wait for your chance), but I had to respect the ones who are starting. At Warriors (in 2013), there was Hassan (Sunny) and at Woodlands Wellington (in 2014), there was Yazid (Yasin) – both are experienced keepers who have played for many years,” he recalls.
“I knew I had to be patient because one day my time will come. Hassan used to share with me a lot previously on how he was always behind Lionel (Lewis) in the national team, but he didn’t give up. His advice and encouragement gave me the motivation to keep working hard.”
In between, Zainol even had to go through the uncertainty of being unemployed for an entire year after Woodlands had pulled out of the S.League at the end of the 2014 season due to financial difficulties. He did manage to get some playing time with amateur side Singapore Recreation Club in the 2015 League Cup before signing his first full pro-contract with Warriors FC.
His professional bow finally came during the 2016 season when he was called upon to deputise in goal for the Warriors during a league game against Tampines Rovers, as first-choice goalkeeper Yazid Yasin was dismissed for a red card offence.
In the following game, against defending champions Brunei DPMM, Zainol made his first start and put on a commendable display to hold the Brunei team to a 1-1 draw. Zainol describes that moment as a “dream come true”.
“It was such a shiok feeling because I had been waiting for that moment for so long,” he says.
“I was definitely nervous, but the senior players like Hafiz O (Osman) and the late Hafiz Rahim really helped me and I did pretty well in that game.”
Still, Zainol had to contend with being used sparingly over the next two seasons. He was released at the end of 2017 and struggled to find a club, once again. He harboured thoughts of quitting the sport to sign on, before Geylang eventually came calling.
In similar fashion, Zainol was made to wait for his chance, which came when the first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Chan suffered an injury a few games into the 2018 season. He never looked back, starting 17 games out of a possible 24, and famously starred in a 2-0 win over his former club Warriors at the National Stadium.
Of the ‘King of Kallang’ nickname, Zainol says: “Wherever I go, people will always disturb me and call me that. It’s just so nice to see people taking notice of your hard work.”
He adds: “In that game, I remembered being very motivated to do well and repay Coach’s (Hirotaka Usui) faith because he kept me in the lineup despite me making a mistake in the previous game. In the last 10 to 15 minutes, I saw my teammates running all over to defend our lead so I knew the more I had to do my job.”
Zainol says he is eternally grateful to Geylang for giving him the opportunity to establish himself.
“They took the chance on me when I had nowhere to go and I really improved as a player at this club,” he shares.
“In terms of how I approach the game mentally and my overall play, (goalkeeper) coach Narong (Saiket) helped me a lot and that’s why I was able to put up some good performances for the club.”
Zainol carried where he left off in 2019 as he produced the winning save in a marathon shootout to help the Eagles defeat Brunei DPMM en route to clinching third place in the Singapore Cup. In the same year, he was called up to train with the Singapore national team on a couple of occasions although an official appearance never came. Despite that, he does not view it as a disappointment.
“Of course playing for the national team would be the pinnacle of any footballer’s career. But look at the goalkeepers that we have – Hassan, Izwan (Mahbud) and Zaiful (Nizam). So I’m not surprised I never got the nod,” he explains.
An injury-disrupted 2020 campaign meant that Zainol was no longer an automatic first-choice for Geylang going into 2021. That was what prompted him to develop a vision for his future, beyond football, and he is now focused on his new goal as a future paramedic.
While it is a different industry altogether, he is going in with the same hunger and work ethnic to succeed.
“I guess the same skill sets can be used,” Zainol says.
“Similar to football, I have to work my way up and prove my abilities. Also it’s important to put your ego aside to help the team achieve the target and be able to handle pressure from the public.”
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