Ko Po Hui
He was one of the most colourful characters ever to be involved in the S.League, becoming very much the public face of Bruneian side DPMM FC when they first entered the S.League in 2009.
Loud and brash on the field and off it, Vjeran Simunic grabbed headlines with a peppering of acts and quotes that sometimes bordered on the outrageous, and at one point he seemed all set to steer DPMM to the S.League trophy in their maiden year.
The chance to become the first foreign team to claim the title, however, was lost when Brunei was handed an international football ban by FIFA, the world governing body of the sport, for government interference in the operation of the Brunei Amateur Football Association (BAFA).
Two years later, that issue has been resolved, with BAFA now reformed under the name National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam, clearing the way for FIFA to lift the ban – and for DPMM to apply for a return to the S.League.
That created an opportunity for Simunic to return to the club as its coach for a second time, something which had always been on the cards even when he had left following DPMM’s enforced exit from the Singapore scene.
“I made a promise to the Crown Prince of Brunei that I will come back to complete the unfinished business – to revive DPMM and Bruneian football,” he said in a recent interview with sleague.com.
Pg Muda Al-Muhtadee Billah, eldest son of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is incidentally also the chairman of DPMM, the only professional football team in Brunei.
Simunic candidly shared his thoughts what happened since 2009, a significant year for the oil-rich sultanate in terms of football.
The Bruneians, initially assumed to be nothing more than outsiders for the title, took the league by storm with their tough and uncompromising play that tore to shreds a long-standing image of the country being whipping boys of ASEAN football.
Under the former NK Zagreb goalkeeper, DPMM claimed the accolade of being the first foreign side to lift a trophy in Singapore’s professional football scene, beating powerhouse outfit SAFFC in the League Cup final that June on penalties following a 1-1 draw in regulation time.
The achievement sparked off wild celebrations in Bandar Seri Begawan, when the team flew home and were greeted by an ecstatic reception from adoring fans at the airport.
The euphoria proved short-lived at the end of September due to the FIFA ban, and despite appeals from the Football Association of Singapore to let DPMM complete their campaign, Simunic and his charges were forced to forfeit their remaining five league games and had all previous records in the league expunged.
Only in May 2011 was that ban lifted, which allowed football life to resume in Brunei, and while the domestic scene was quickly revived, much of the attention was on getting DPMM up and playing overseas again.
That was secured earlier this month when FAS confirmed the return of the Wasps, as they are commonly known, at a ceremony at the Singapore Sports School, coinciding with Pg Muda Al-Muhtadee’s four-day state visit of Singapore.
But two years’ worth of stagnation has made the task tough for the coming season, according to Simunic.
Not only have some of the hardier players like Sallehuddin Damit and Rene Komar moved on, the lack of serious football for more than 20 months means the likes of Rosmin Kamis, Shahrazen Said and Azwan Salleh will find themselves propping up a team in need of new talent.
This, even as the S.League continues to see several teams like Home United and Tampines Rovers grow from strength to strength.
“It’s much tougher now compared to 2009,” commented the 55-year-old.
“The last two years saw the S.League improving in terms of standard of play. Meanwhile Bruneian football is lagging behind because of the ban.
“One of the priorities for me now is to groom a core of local players that would complement the foreign players we signed, which I think is crucial if the team’s to perform well.”
One of the signings for DPMM this season is Ivan Jerkovic, who was first introduced to the S.League scene in the colours of the Bruneian outfit after playing for Indonesia’s Pelita Jaya.
Jerkovic moved to SAFFC following DPMM’s expulsion from the S.League, but decided to reunite with his fellow Croatian after two years of fine service for the Warriors.
Other foreigners who will pull on the red and black jersey include Brazilians Rodrigo Gral and Tales dos Santos, as well as 22-year-old Ghanaian forward Osman Bashiru, who once played for Israeli outfit Hapoel Petah Tikva.
By far the most important foreigner in the team, however, is the coach, who has been keeping himself busy in Southeast Asia and waiting for the chance to return to Brunei.
“I am pleased with what I have seen so far since we began our training three months ago,” said Simunic.
“And all this would not have been made possible if not for Ho Chi Minh City FC, who allowed me to exercise the release clause stipulated in my initial two-year contract with them.”
The Vietnamese First Division club had agreed on the clause in 2010, when Simunic signed to become their coach.
Under that clause, he would be free to go back to DPMM if and when they should return to the S.League.
That it has now happened is welcome news for FAS advisor Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee, who commented at the contract signing ceremony that the presence of DPMM is ‘pivotal’.
“The return of DPMM to the S.League provides a platform for local teams to play in front of a crowd of 10,000 in Bandar Seri Begawan,” said Assoc Prof Ho, who acknowledged the opportunity would be hard to find here in Singapore without a stadium of similar size.
“It serves as part of an ecosystem to allow Singaporean players to play, week in and week out. And through football, it also helps to foster the relationship between Brunei and Singapore.”
DPMM are already in the final stages of their pre-season preparations, having beaten Thai outfit Chiangrai United 2-1 in their first friendly spar recently.
Their opening S.League game will see them host reigning champions Tampines Rovers in front of what is expected to be a bumper crowd at the 30,000-seater Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium.
DPMM had never beaten Tampines in the S.League in 2009, having lost once and drawn twice with the Stags, so Simunic would appreciate the difficulty of facing Steven Tan’s hungry charges.
With some unfinished business to settle, though, the Croatian will be eager to announce his return in his typical dramatic way.