SINGAPORE – Three months after national footballer Siti Rosnani Azman moved to Australia to play for semi-professional club South West Queensland (SWQ) Thunder in Toowoomba, she found herself working on farmlands instead of playing in football fields.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the 2020 National Premier Leagues Women’s (NPLW) to a halt in March last year, forcing Rosnani, 24, who receives an allowance for each game she plays, to reorganise her plans.
Having to fork out close to A$1,000 (S$1,010) for rent and expenses, she lived off her savings for two months before taking up an two-month stint to muster cattle in Mount Isa, a city in the gulf country region of Queensland.
At Herbertvale Station, she was part of a crew that herded thousands of cattle from one place to another on horseback, motorbikes and helicopter, sometimes working the herd for 30km from 7am to 6pm under the hot sun, including during the fasting month.
Milking and vaccinating the cows were also among her tasks, and she also taught at a grammar school.
She returned to football when the season resumed in July, but was back on a farm during the off-season, this time doing banana picking in Cairns for another three months. After that, she worked at a motel, doing everything from being a receptionist to handling bookings and cleaning.
All her efforts were so that Rosnani could meet the requirements to extend her work and holiday visa by another year to play football.
Rosnani, who is now blueberry picking, said: “It was an amazing experience. Even my teammates said they don’t have the chance to go there and muster cattles.
“Banana farming is just tiring, it’s mentally draining because it’s as if you’re working in a factory because you don’t stop and heaps of bananas keep coming in, but I just wanted an extension to play football and that was the reason why I went all out.”
Rosnani is one of a handful of Singaporean women choosing to take the path less trodden to pursue her dream of playing football professionally.
She decided to do so after being encouraged by former Lioness Priscilla Tan, who has spent most of the last three years playing football in Queensland with NPLW sides Eastern Suburbs and Virginia United.
Others who have taken their football careers overseas include national striker Putri Nur Syaliza Sazali, who plays for Cumberland University in the United States on an athletic scholarship, and Angeline Chua, now the Seychelles Football Federation’s director of women’s football and women’s national team head coach.
Former national midfielder Lim Shiya played for W-League team Perth Glory FC in the Australia’s first division competition from 2008 to 2009.
After playing for local team Woodlands Wellington in the Women’s Premier League for five years, Tan wanted to find opportunities for improvement abroad and emailed Australian clubs for trials.
In her first season with Eastern Suburbs, she worked at a sushi restaurant to earn income and fulfil the requirements of her work and holiday visa.
Now, the 27-year-old midfielder is completing her masters degree in physiotherapy studies at the University of Queensland while playing for Virginia United, who she joined this year.
Rising to the challenge
Tan told The Straits Times that she took a while to adapt to the higher intensity and physicality of the game in Australia.
To improve on her technical skills, she put in an extra four training sessions a week on top of her club’s twice weekly schedule. She also hit the gym twice a week.
Tan said: “If you want to improve, you have to play with and against better players and this was a great challenge.”
Although Rosnani was named in the NPLW team of the week twice last season, the defender also initially struggled against the more physical Australians.
Like Tan, she did weight training on her own and consulted Scott Starr, an Australian goalkeeper coach whom she had trained with in Singapore.
To compete against bigger and stronger opponents, Rosnani also learnt the importance of reading the game so that she could be one step ahead of them. She also went for runs in the cold to acclimatise to the weather, which often left her with chapped lips and ulcers.
Coping away from home
Being away from family and friends has been one of the biggest challenges for those pursuing a football career overseas, particularly with the Covid-related travel restrictions.
Rosnani had originally planned to return to Singapore after six months last year, but has not been able to do so.
She said: “I really want to see them, but for now I just do what I have to do to achieve my goals and dreams. It’s just something I have to do with my own life – being independent, growing up.”
For Tan, the breaking point came when her grandparents died last year.
She considered quitting the sport, telling ST: “There was this emotional burden and sadness when my grandma suddenly passed away and my grandfather passed on a couple of months after and I was out from injury, so I thought maybe I should stop playing.
“But I came back this year and I’m back in football again. I don’t think I can get myself out of the sport just because I love it too much.”
Giving back to local football
Ultimately, both Rosnani and Tan hope to share what they have learnt from their overseas experience with others back home.
Tan, who is taking the Asian Football Confederation ‘B’ Licence course, said: “I’m just trying to gain as much experience and learn as much as I can to bring back what I’ve learnt to Singapore.”
They also hope that their journey will encourage other aspiring Singaporean players to take their careers overseas.
Rosnani said: “We want to show the young ones who want to challenge themselves that it is possible to go out there and play.
“It’s not easy to just pack up and leave. It’s a gamble… It takes a lot to step out of your comfort zone, it was difficult for me, but it’s necessary to take a step forward.”
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