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Simunic’s legacy

Beyond the pitch, a coach’s impact on Brunei’s football future

For every football club, the relentless pursuit of winning trophies remains a fundamental goal, particularly in major competitions, as it signifies their ambition to be at the pinnacle of the sport.

In the late 2000s, Brunei’s professional club DPMM FC entered Singapore’s top flight, entrusting Croatian journeyman Vjeran Simunic with the mission of elevating the ambitious new club to greater heights.

Hired as head coach for the 2008-2009 season, Simunic promptly earned the admiration of fans and players alike by steering them to victory in the Singapore League Cup during his inaugural season at the helm.

The club’s inaugural season culminated in a triumphant moment as they clinched silverware, triumphing over Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC) in a thrilling final decided by penalties, with Rosmin Kamis sealing the victory with a decisive goal.

For Simunic, the victory marked a significant milestone in his managerial career, the first trophy since leading Posusje to victory in the First League of Herzeg-Bosnia in the 1999-2000 season. Furthermore, under his guidance, the team also made a commendable run to the quarterfinals of the prestigious Singapore Cup.

File photo shows His Royal Highness Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah ibni His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah, the Crown Prince and Senior Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, with Vjeran Simunic.
PHOTO: VJERAN SIMUNIC

Yet, Simunic faced an initial challenge in his tenure with the club, tasked with steering them clear of relegation in the Malaysia Super League.

“My first success was to ensure that DPMM FC did not drop out from the Malaysia Super League. In 2008, I signed a new contract with DPMM FC and I also became a national team coach for a tournament in Indonesia and the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers in Cambodia,” Simunic said.

Following their historic triumph in the Singapore League Cup, securing the club’s maiden silverware in a foreign league, DPMM FC set their sights on a potential league and cup double.

However, their aspirations were abruptly halted when FIFA imposed a ban on Brunei, leading to the suspension of their remaining league matches.

Despite the setback, DPMM FC, under Simunic’s steadfast guidance, showcased remarkable consistency on the field. Embarking on an impressive nine-game unbeaten streak, including five victories and four draws, they demonstrated their resilience until their streak was halted by Home United in May 2009.

As the season reached its climax, the race for the league title intensified, with DPMM FC and their rivals SAF FC locking horns in a fierce battle for supremacy.

The former DPMM FC head coach said, “We could have finished with the Singapore league championship because at that moment we were top. If we had continued with a couple of games left, I’m sure we could make the double crown (league and cup double).

“Unfortunately, circumstances unfolded as they did, leading us to take a hiatus from the contract.”

Unable to engage in competitive football with DPMM FC, the Croatian coach found himself at a crossroads, ultimately embarking on a new journey to manage Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Yet, it seemed there was a lingering sense of unfinished business as Simunic felt drawn back to the Sultanate. Driven by his passion and commitment, he made the heartfelt decision to tear up his existing contract and reunite with the Gegar Gegar men, determined to continue the pursuit of their shared dreams.

“I made a promise that if I was ever needed to return, I would honour my word. Therefore, I terminated my contract with Ho Chi Minh,” he said.

During Simunic’s second stint with the club, DPMM FC narrowly missed out on the Singapore league title by four points as they finished runners-up to Tampines Rovers.

“We assembled an exceptional team and achieved commendable results in 2012,” he said.

“We maintained a top-two position until 2014 when my contract concluded, prompting my departure from Brunei to join Perak.”

Under the mentorship of Simunic, DPMM FC reclaimed the championship title in the Singapore League Cup, triumphing over Geylang United with a commanding 2-0 victory, fuelled by stellar performances from Shahrazen Said and Azwan Salleh.

Simunic’s remarkable achievements in the 2012 season earned him the prestigious Coach of the Year Award at the S-League Awards Night, marking a historic moment as the first DPMM FC coach to receive this coveted accolade.

File photo of Simunic winning ‘Coach of the Year’ award. PHOTO: VJERAN SIMUNIC

Although the team’s league form may have faltered in the following year, Simunic’s enduring passion for knockout competitions remained steadfast until the final showdown.

However, their quest for a historic third Singapore League Cup title was thwarted by Balestier Khalsa, who emerged victorious with a resounding 4-0 win.

At the heart of Simunic’s strategy lay a blend of youthful energy and audacity, epitomised by emerging talents such as Azwan Salleh, Azwan Ali Rahman, Adi Said and Helmi Zambin.

The team’s dominance at the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium in Berakas, evidenced by a formidable unbeaten record, underscored Simunic’s influence as a master tactician.

Moreover, Simunic’s commitment to nurturing local talent extended beyond the pitch, as he played a pivotal role in uncovering promising players like Abu Bakar Mahari, Haji Mohd Subhi Abdillah bin Haji Bakir, and Yusof Salleh, elevating Brunei’s presence in the regional football scene.

Beyond his achievements on the field, Simunic forged strong bonds with his players through team bonding sessions and culinary delights, showcasing his unwavering dedication to their collective success.

Amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, Simunic’s leadership qualities garnered attention, with speculation linking him to the national head coach position before the Football Association of Brunei Darussalam (FABD) ultimately appointed K Rajagopal. – Fadhil Yunus

 

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