Malaysian captain Safiq Rahim shocked the country's footballing public this week with his decision to quit the national scene, along with two of his teammates so far. John Duerden argues Safiq's decision needs to be swiftly reversed...
The football world is still digesting the news that Lionel Messi has retired from international football.
He has a role to help the younger players come through, even if there aren't any capable of stepping into his considerable shoes
Messi's announcement came after a fourth defeat for his country in a major final. It was an understandable reaction to another bitter disappointment while wearing the shirt of his country – though Malaysians would argue that disappointment is relative in the arena of international football.
Safiq was a different matter entirely. The club season had just restarted after a gap of almost two months and then suddenly, fans were not talking about the football but about some other controversy. It was ever thus in Malaysia.
Just days after turning 29 (11 days after Messi did the same, the two were almost exactly – to a day – the same age when they announced their decision) the midfielder is, to put it simply, the best player in the country. On current form, he is perhaps the best midfielder in the whole of Southeast Asia.
He is a captain in every sense of the word. A leader, a talisman, the man who takes the set pieces and creates the chances.
His record for the national team is also impressive with 16 goals in 66 games. One in every four is a more than reasonable rate for a midfielder. And you knew there was more to come in that regard.
The whys and wherefores of Safiq’s decision to retire – alongside JDT teammates Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak and S. Kunanlan – are already being debated throughout the country.
It would be understandable if he hasn’t enjoyed wearing the yellow and black of late, given some of the thrashings that have been handed out. It would also be understandable if he contrasts that with his club life with the all-conquering Malaysian and AFC Cup champions JDT.
Yet whatever is behind it, Safiq needs to turn around before he leaves the stage and returns to his role. It's simple: he can't retire from the international game as he is needed too much.
Coach Ong Kim Swee issued a press statement on Wednesday to express his surprise and acknowledge the loss of the players. He also said what needed to be said. “Should Safiq and Aidil change their mind and return to the national squad in the future, we will assess their current form and have them back in contention.”
You can imagine Argentina without Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste would obviously be weaker without the best player in the world, but there are plenty of other talented stars who can keep the South Americans high up on the first page of the rankings on FIFA's website.
Argentina were one of the best around before Messi and will be after he has gone.
You have to scroll quite a long way down that FIFA list, however, to find Malaysia's name. It's there at No.174, between Dominica and Laos and below the likes of Liechtenstein, Cook Islands and Bermuda. To climb the standings without their best player is going to be tough.
Likewise when it comes to November's AFF Suzuki Cup. The regional tournament is a very big deal for Malaysia this time. It is Ong Kim Swee's first real test, the coach given the job permanently at the start of the year.
If Safiq is not around then there is an increased chance of a first round exit. That would be a disaster for a national team already short of confidence and struggling to find direction.
Safiq should be the leader on the pitch, OKS's lieutenant to take the team forward.
He should at least hang around until the next tournament and attempt go out in a blaze of glory. Or, preferably, target the 2019 Asian Cup. Malaysia are in the third round of qualification for the tournament, with the six games starting in March 2017 and ending a year later.
There is a limit to what Malaysia should do to get him back, but there is quite a lot that can be done before that limit is reached
He doesn't have to play every friendly and go on every tour, but he can be around for the big games. He has a role to help take the team forward, to help the younger players come through, even if there aren't any who look capable of stepping into his considerable shoes.
If qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup ends in failure, his career can also end but with the thanks of a grateful nation. It shouldn't end like this. His time with the Tigers deserves to be remembered fondly.
If qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup ends in success, Safiq can then think about whether he wants to captain his homeland on the continental stage in 2019.
Ultimately, if the midfielder really does not want to play then he cannot and should not be forced to do so. There is a limit to what Malaysia should do to get him back, but there is quite a lot that can be done before that limit is reached.
There are rumours and reports that Messi will change his mind and return to his national team. That is what Safiq needs to do, as Malaysia needs Safiq just as much and probably even more.