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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

Never too late to have a ball

Indoor five-a-side soccer pitches are becoming places for working adults to unwind after work
The Straits Times - May 16, 2014
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Never too late to have a ball At Kovan Sports Centre, one can opt to play soccer in ankle-deep water in an inflatable pool. -- PHOTO: KOVAN SPORTS CENTRE

When the sun goes down on Fridays, Mr Imran Ayub swops his office wear for soccer gear and tears around a pitch like he is 18 again.

The 33-year-old field service manager at an oil and gas company is among a growing number of indoor football warriors - working adults, mostly men, who unwind after work with a game of soccer played on a sheltered pitch.

Unlike football, which is played on an outdoor field measuring about 100m by 64m, the indoor version commonly played here takes place on a far smaller court that measures about 25m by 16m.

It is known as five-a-side soccer as each team has five players instead of 11. It is also sometimes called futsal, but that is officially played on a hard-court surface.

Most pitch operators here carpet their grounds with synthetic turf to reduce the risk of injury. The pitches are usually enclosed to prevent the ball from leaving the court - another difference between indoor football and futsal, which is delimited only by lines.

The Cage, near Stadium Walk, was the first to introduce an indoor pitch here in 2005. There are now at least eight operators. Some courts can be found at unconventional locations, such as under a flyover. The pitches at The Cage are walled up, while others use nets to enclose the courts.

The rise in the number of indoor football pitches has drawn droves of soccer enthusiasts such as Mr Ayub. He says: "It's more convenient to make plans to play the game when you know that the location is weather-resistant."

It costs $90 to $120 to play an hour- long game during peak hours, which most operators define as after 6pm on weekdays and all day on weekends.

As fewer people are needed to play, it is also easier to cobble together two teams for a game, says Mr Ayub.

He adds: "The smaller pitch is also less demanding on our stamina, compared to an 11-a-side football game. I'm young at heart but my legs are not 18 anymore."

Mr Ayub, who is usually the goalkeeper, plays with 15 to 20 friends and colleagues aged 18 to 54 on Friday nights at Golazo in Jurong West. The team has been playing together since 2012 and chose the location because most of them live in the area and carpark lots are easy to find.

The long operating hours of these pitches are another plus for the working crowd. Many of the centres are open till 1am, with some operating around-the-clock when there are advanced bookings.

Mr Ayub and his friends usually book the pitch for two hours, from 6 to 8pm. And there have been occasions when he played from midnight to 2am with another group of friends.

"We sometimes book late games to accommodate those who want to wait for their wives and kids to go to bed before heading out. There are also some bankers, engineers or teachers who have to work overtime or odd hours," he says.

Senior IT executive Jason Seet, 38, says he enjoys playing the five-a-side game more than traditional football as it is more exciting. This is because "everyone gets to touch the ball and score often" due to the smaller pitch and fewer players.

The game is also played at a faster pace and he believes he gets a better workout.

Mr Seet, who plays the position of striker, is at Kovan Sports Centre on Thursday nights with 15 to 20 friends and acquaintances aged 20-plus to 50-plus.

He used to play with his colleagues, but after the group dwindled, he started looking for more players by posting on online forum HardwareZone. The strangers who responded have since become his friends.

For operations manager Darrel Teo, 31, who also plays at Kovan Sports Centre, the weekly game is a chance for him to catch up with his friends, many of whom he has known since secondary school. Since March, he has been playing with a group of about 20 friends on Thursday nights. They usually book the pitch from 8 to 10pm.

"Some of us don't meet except during these games because everyone is busy with work and family commitments," he says.

He catches up with his friends before the games and during the breaks, and they also sometimes go for supper or drinks at a nearby coffee shop afterwards.

And he has also made many new friends as other players ask their friends to join in the game.

Mr Teo says: "You get to meet bankers, engineers and teachers, people from all walks of life. What I like about soccer is that it is a game which brings people together."

And that includes family. Twelve-year- old Zuriel Sharul Isaac, for example, often tags along when his father plays. Band director Sharul Isaac, 39, joins his friends at Offside, a pitch located under the Thomson flyover, every Monday from 8 to 10pm.

Zuriel's small frame stands out among the group of 15 to 20 men in his father's team, whose ages range from 20s to 50s. But the Primary 6 pupil, who plays soccer for St Gabriel's Primary School, says he is not intimidated - not even after one of the men accidentally fell on him and stepped on his thigh.

"Football is fun," says the boy who hopes to be a professional footballer.

Mr Isaac says Zuriel asked to join in the game and that his wife does not mind as long as their son finishes his homework and revision.

Mr William Koh, 36, one of six directors behind pitch operator Golazo, believes there is enough of the pie to go around despite what seems to be an increasingly crowded scene here.

"Competition has grown, but there are still not many sheltered futsal facilities around. For example, we are one of two such facilities in the western part of Singapore. Different operators cater to people living in different areas."

He also works with vendors to provide other games such as speed and archery tag and bloop soccer (soccer played wearing giant inflatable balls) to stay competitive. Corporate organisations, which sometimes book the whole place for team-building exercises, make up about 40 per cent of his business, he adds.

Golazo offers students a 40 per cent discount on weekdays before 6pm, charging $30 an hour, and this has helped to draw traffic during off-peak hours.

Football academies also provide regular business, says Mr Derek Cheong, 30, who owns Offside in Whitley Road. Up to three such schools train at his facility and make up 20 to 25 per cent of his revenue.

He set up a new outlet in Mattar Road in the Aljunied area in February. It has 13 outdoor pitches ranging from five-a-side to 11-a-side. It is a collaboration with Home United Football Club. The Mattar Road facility is a training base for the Home United Youth Football Academy, which comprises six teams of players aged 13 to 18.

Audio, visual and lighting technical manager Ray Ng welcomes having more five-a-side pitches in Singapore. The 50-year-old, who has been playing soccer since his secondary school days, believes it is a good way for teenagers to spend their time and it also allows adults to sweat it out.

Not even a heart attack could stop him from playing his favourite sport. After undergoing heart surgery in 2011, he returned to the football pitch last year.

He is friends with Mr Isaac and plays with the group on Mondays at Offside. He admits he cannot keep up with the younger players, but says "being able to play is good enough".

He adds: "These indoor pitches are done up so nicely, stepping onto them is like stepping into a mini football stadium. I find soccer a more fulfilling form of exercise than, say, jogging. It is not just about how fast you run, but also about teamwork and skill."

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