Azkal Mark Hartmann is living the OFW dream in Singapore

Hartmann is the first Filipino to play professionally in South East Asia since Freddy Gonzalez. Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

Hartmann is the first Filipino to play professionally in South East Asia since Freddy Gonzalez.

Photo by Bob Guerrero/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – There could be anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 overseas Filipino workers toiling away in Singapore. Many of them are manual laborers or semi-skilled workers in service industries. But there is no shortage of IT professionals, advertising account managers and creatives, and interior designers too.

And then there is the one and only Pinoy in Singapore who makes his living trying to kick a ball inside a net. His name is Mark Hartmann.

Hartmann is the first Filipino to play professionally in Southeast Asia since Freddy Gonzalez suited up for Vietnamese outfit Ngân hàng Đông Á in 2003 and for Indonesian club Komodo a year after. An Indonesian club once tried to get the signatures of James and Phil Younghusband, and the Medan Chiefs, also of Indonesia, were reportedly interested in Aly Borromeo for a time, but neither of those deals happened.

But the dream of playing abroad has come through for Hartmann. The 24-year-old Fil-Brit seems relaxed as he digs into his plate of Ayam Penyet, or Indonesian smashed chicken, at the Bedok Mall on the east side of the city-state. Chicken is not the only thing getting smashed these days in Bedok. A few kilometers away, in Bedok Stadium, Geylang's home ground, it's the visiting defenses that are also getting pulverized.

According to Hartmann he has scored 7 times in 8 games for the Eagles since joining them on the last day of the S League transfer window midyear. What is all the more remarkable is that he became one of the league's most feared strikers after sitting out for 6 months while recovering from ACL surgery on his right knee. Once his contract with Global ran out in June, he swapped the blue and yellow of Global for Geylang's Celtic-esque green-and-white hoops. His brother Matt remains with Global.

It was a case of “if you can't beat him, sign him,” for Geylang. In August of 2015 Hartmann scored a hat trick for Global in the second leg of the Singapore Cup quarters versus GI as the Pinoys romped to a 4-2 aggregate victory. In previous years he has also shone in the Singapore Cup for his old club, Loyola Meralco Sparks. 

Most of Hartmann's goals for his current employer have been in the League Cup, which is different from the Singapore Cup that Ceres and Global participate in, and also a separate competition from the S League itself. Here are samples of his handiwork, like this lovely header against Balestier Khalsa at 2:14 on this clip, one of 2 header goals he has produced for Geylang.

Hartmann had previously been more of a “number 10” striker, who plays behind the center forward and is often called upon to facilitate and dish. But as a “number 9” at the apex of the formation he is tasked with using brains, brawn, height, and guile to disturb the nets with his feet and with his head. Hartmann, who stands 6'0”, has made the adjustment look easy. 

One of Hartmann's jobs is also taking free kicks for GI. In this League Cup match versus Warriors, he scored the only goal of the match in the 90th minute with a free kick of stunning quality. It's one of two free kick goals this season that have come from his boot.

It helps that Hartmann is settled off the pitch in his new home.

“The backroom staff is so professional. Everything off the field, they take care of. Outside of football, no stress,” marvels Hartmann. That includes a brand-new one bedroom crib for him to stay in near the stadium. 

Geylang has one lead physiotherapist but other physiotherapy student interns also come in to help out. The medical staff is also very careful when it comes to injuries.

“Any niggle (slight injury,) and if the doctor is not sure, you go straight for an MRI scan,” says Hartmann.

On the pitch Mark relies on a passel of Singapore national team players, many of whom played together in the recently dissolved LionsXII team, to pressure opposing defenses. He particularly rates left-footed winger Gabriel Quak and winger Shawal Anuar. Hartmann thinks Geylang is blessed with some of the best wide players in the league, which means supply lines to him are open much of the time.

“There are no selfish players in Geylang,” he adds.

The Geylang coach, Hasrin Jailani, also a new addition to the club, is a former national team player who favors a possession-based approach that Hartmann is fond of.

The Pinoy's exploits have made him a fan favorite. In this year's European championship Northern Ireland striker Will Grigg was celebrated with the chant “Will Grigg's on Fire” based on the hit “Freed from Desire” by Italian singer Gala. 

The chant went viral, and the Geylang diehards, (they have two ultras groups), have adopted it in honor of Hartmann.

Hartmann's on fire! Your defense is terrified!

Hartmann's on fire! Your defense is terrified!

Na na na na na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na na na na na

The club even referred to him as “Geylang's Zlatan Ibrahimovic” in their official Facebook page.

It also helps that Mark seems to be maturing as a person too. He smiles and nods when asked if he has avoided the principal's office with his current team. Mark has had spells in the doghouses of coaches in the past, but all seems to be well with the Eagles.

Hartmann has made the most of his stay in the Lion City, visiting the Night Safari and zoo with his partner Nathalie, who visits when she can. He also gets recognized in Lucky Plaza, a mall frequented by many Pinoys. He even once noticed a Filipino at a money remittance center there Googling him while he was sending cash back home.

But not everything is completely rosy for Hartmann and Geylang at the moment. The striker is nursing a minor meniscus issue that will keep him sidelined for a few weeks. It's unlikely he will be available for selection for the next Azkals home friendlies on October 7, against Bahrain, and on October 10 versus Korea DPR.

Geylang is, as of press time, 6th in the League table, level with Home United at 28 points but saddled with an inferior goals-for mark. (Both clubs have a +1 GD.) The team's target is at least 4th-place Hougang United.

Singapore gets two AFC Cup slots, but since league-leaders Albirex Niigata Singapore, a transplanted Japanese farm team, and 3rd place Brunei DPMM are not eligible, the two Singapore clubs who make the top 4 in the standings will get the berths. Tampines Rovers, generally considered Singapore's most affluent club, are in second place.

Hartmann says he definitely wants to return to the AFC Cup. Mark was part of the Global team that came within a whisker of qualifying for the knockout stage in 2014.

To make matters worse, Geylang has only 3 matches left, while most of the other teams have 4. The Eagles take on Warriors, Home United, and Hougang for the balance of the league schedule.

Hartmann has been sensational in the League Cup but has only scored in one S League match. There will be tons of pressure on Mark to keep on compiling goals in the business end of the season and with so much at stake.

And then there is the matter of the national team. Hartmann has struck 7 times in 18 appearances for the Azkals, but he was left off Thomas Dooley's roster for the recent friendly against Kyrgyzstan. He is hopeful for consideration for November's Suzuki Cup, where Javier Patiño, who plays his position, is expected to start.

“It'll be good fun,” muses Hartmann when he thinks about facing Quak and the other Singaporean stars when the Azkals entertain the Lions on November 19 in Bulacan for the Group A opener.

Fun is something Mark Hartmann is having lots of these days in Singapore. And with the typical OFW values of hard work and sacrifice, defenses in the S League will probably continue to be terrified. –

Follow Bob on Twitter @PassionateFanPH.