Singapore legend Aleksandar Duric has warned match-fixing poses a major threat to the development of Asian football as he prepares to wrap up one of the sport’s most extraordinary and prolific careers.
The 42-year-old striker, a former Olympic kayaker who travelled from war-torn Bosnia to score nearly 400 goals in Singapore’s S-League, said Asia’s rise was being compromised by corruption.
“We saw so many cases in China and South Korea - it’s getting out of hand. Something needs to be done drastically because sooner or later you’re going to have a big problem,” he said in an interview.
“If you lose the trust of the fans... that’s the biggest problem. And once it comes into the fans’ heads, we’re going to lose all the fans - and what’s the point of playing in empty stadiums?”
Duric scored twice on Sunday to reach 382 goals in 461 S-League games - by far the most top-flight strikes by any active player worldwide, according to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.
The rangy, 192 centimetre target man has been terrorising Singaporean defences since arriving, via Sweden, Hungary, China, Australia and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in 1999.
Since then he has won seven S-League titles with three different teams, and is in line to finish his career with an eighth, with his club Tampines Rovers five points clear halfway through the season.
The grizzled father of two has been named S-League player of the year three times, top-scored twice and has totted up a goal nearly every other game since gaining Singaporean citizenship and making his international debut in 2007.
Last year, he was instrumental in his adopted country’s march to a record fourth victory in Southeast Asia’s AFF Suzuki Cup, becoming Singapore’s oldest scorer along the way.
During Duric’s time in the region, Asian football has grown in stature with its first World Cup, more professional leagues, better players and increasing competition between national teams - although deep-seated problems remain.
And he urged authorities, especially global body Fifa, to crack down on match-fixing after scandals across Asia, including Singapore, and worldwide raised grave fears for the sport’s integrity.
“This issue of match-fixing, we really need to hit hard because it’s really getting out of control,” Duric said. “It’s not good for football in Asia, it’s not good for football worldwide.
“Fifa is the one which should really do something. At the moment I don’t see that they’re doing much, they’re pushing this issue to the countries where match-fixing comes from.
“But they should really look closely at this because it’s really spreading around the world, spreading around Europe in countries which you’d really never believe: Germany, Austria, Slovakia.”
Singapore’s long association with match-fixing dates back to the early 1990s, and Interpol has blamed Singaporean criminals for orchestrating an international network responsible for rigging hundreds of games worldwide.
However, Duric insisted that in 14 years in Singapore he had never been approached or even heard of other players being asked to rig games, with lie-detector tests and the threat of tough penalties keeping players in line.
“Definitely, I think this is the cleanest league in Southeast Asia... but what’s happening outside, this is a different issue,” he said.
Duric is now counting down the last 10 games of a professional career that has its roots in his home city of Doboj in the former Yugoslavia, now in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Duric left for a trial in Sweden aged 20, carrying only US$200 and a sports bag, and found himself trapped outside his home country when war broke out in 1991. He was not to return home for 10 years.
While playing in Hungary, Duric, a talented junior kayaker, received an offer to represent the newly formed Bosnia-Hercegovina at the Barcelona Olympics, which he reached by hitch-hiking across Europe.
With a borrowed boat and paddle and little training, he did not challenge for a medal, and his family also received threats and intimidation in his Serbian-dominated home city.
The next year, Duric’s mother was killed in a bombing raid, and his father was injured. His brother was a soldier in the Serbian army.
In 1995, he seized the opportunity for a trial in Australia, motivated by the chance to gain an Australian passport and perhaps represent the Socceroos.
The following year, he started a two-season stint in China - a “tough, tough league, with a lot of travelling” - before returning to Australia, and he was invited to Singapore when his club, West Adelaide, folded.
“I came here in 1999, and the rest is history,” he smiled.
After his retirement, Duric, who can speak six languages, hopes to take up coaching and also increase his charity work, focusing on under-privileged children and orphans in Singapore.
“I must say I’m really proud of what I achieved. For a guy who didn’t really plan this kind of journey, I did OK,” he said.