John Wilkinson: Singapore international on nappies, bears and lower-league football

John Wilkinson playing for Singapore against Brazil's Anderson
Wilkinson (left) faced then Manchester United midfielder Anderson in an international friendly in 2008

Food poisoning isn't pleasant at the best of times.

But imagine playing in a World Cup qualifier in front of 21,000 people during a particularly nasty bout... while wearing an adult-sized nappy.

Former Exeter City midfielder John Wilkinson knows what that is like.

When he moved to Singapore in 2002 - after a frustrating, injury-laden start to his career in England's lower leagues - he was excited by the promise of playing football in the sunshine.

And, after marrying a Singaporean woman, he qualified to play for the country.

It was before a World Cup qualifier in Tajikistan in November 2007 that he and some of his team-mates were struck down with illness.

"We all got terrible food poisoning and a few of us had to wear adult diapers when we were on the pitch," Wilkinson, 39, told BBC World Service Sport.

"We spoke to the referee and explained the problems we were having, and he told us if we really needed to go, to quickly let him know.

"Throughout the game, we were popping off the pitch, emptying our diapers and coming back on again. It was ridiculous.

"We were vomiting on the pitch. It was the toughest match I have ever played in my career."

Despite falling behind in the second minute, Singapore grabbed a 1-1 draw to qualify for the next phase on aggregate.

'We walked around the corner and there was a bear chained to a tree'

Now retired, Wilkinson played 29 times for Singapore, scoring four goals. At club level he won four Singapore Premier League titles with Singapore Armed Forces, and played for seven teams across Asia.

But the trip to Tajikistan - a landlocked country in central Asia which neighbours China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan - was memorable for more than just dodgy bellies.

Prior to the game, which was played in freezing conditions, one of Wilkinson's team-mates had a run-in with a local.

"The conditions were awful... we'd walk around a corner and there would be a bear chained to a tree," Wilkinson said.

"The Malay lads, the local-born boys, were flabbergasted. They just couldn't believe it. They were trying to get their pictures taken with this bear.

"One of them stood too close and the bear swiped at him and ripped his shirt on the arm."

'The highest of highs to the lowest of lows'

Wilkinson had started his career at Exeter - his hometown club - but struggled with injuries, once tearing his anterior cruciate ligament then breaking his leg in his first training session back.

English football, he decided, wasn't for him.

"I didn't want to travel seven hours up to Carlisle for a midweek game," he said. "I'd grown up watching Italian football, and all I really wanted to do was just play in the sun.

"I became really stale. I don't even think back in those days I was a professional footballer, I think I was just playing at it."

Since his retirement, Wilkinson has stayed in Singapore - where he now works as a pundit - but it wasn't until a family tragedy that he took the plunge and followed his dreams.

"My dad had died. I feel guilty now because I left my family, they resent it a little bit," he said.

"I scored my first professional goal against Scunthorpe, which is where my dad is from, but six hours after that he had died. It went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

"I like to think that when my dad knew I'd scored against Scunthorpe, that's when he knew I would be all right - that I was good enough to be a pro."

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