Heir apparent: Safiq’s a different class but Irfan plans to catch him

Irfan Fazail’s Malaysia Premier League (MPL) status has not put off Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee and the former Harimau Muda starlet tells Vijhay Vick how he intends to set out to eventually replace Safiq Rahim.

The premature international retirement of Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) captain Safiq Rahim has unwittingly propelled former Malaysia under-23 skipper Irfan Fazail into the limelight.

Forgotten by many after a lengthy spell in the sidelines due to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in August 2014, Irfan has rather quietly returned from injury and been featuring regularly for Malaysia Premier League side JDT II for the past one year.

Malaysian coach Ong Kim Swee, however, has not forgotten his former captain after naming the 25-year-old in the Tigers squad for a friendly against Indonesia on September 7. Ong told FourFourTwo he had kept close tabs on the central midfielder and felt Irfan was capable of making a long-awaited progression to the senior Malaysia team.

At his peak, Irfan was tipped to surpass Safiq as his commanding presence and eye for defence-splitting passes allowed him to dictate play in the middle of the park, but the youngster himself was quick to admit he needs to up the ante to be labelled a worthy successor.

“We all know Safiq has great quality … to be like him I have a lot to practice and correct. That’s where I aim to be,” Irfan told FourFourTwo.

“I’m free from my injuries now fortunately but I think I need to polish many areas. I’m also searching for the confidence I once had and consistency in every good performance I put out.”

So determined was Irfan that he was the first player to report for national duty at Wisma FAM after coming in a few days before the call-up to work on his fitness.

The opportunity of donning the national jersey does not come easy for everyone. Everyone wants it just like how I do and I will give my utmost commitment to prove I can play at this stage.

“I knew I needed additional preparation before coming in … so since I was back in Klang Valley on holiday, I decided to come in earlier to work on myself,” he said.

“I’ve always had the desire of playing for Malaysia at the highest level and this chance I’m given now is something I must make use. The opportunity of donning the national jersey does not come easy for everyone. Everyone wants it just like how I do and I will give my utmost commitment to prove I can play at this stage.

Irfan’s second-tier status may be cause of concern for some, but not to Ong, who previously said Irfan was worthy of a place in most Malaysia Super League sides.

Ong has also called JDT II’s Zaquan Adha and another former Harimau Muda player Amer Saidin to the national team, a sign of his belief that some MPL players are capable of playing on the international stage.

Safiq's boots need filling – and Irfan could be just the man to do that

Irfan stressed he was psychologically ready to be called upon against Indonesia, whether as a starter or substitute, but conceded it that would be subject to him coping to a higher pace than the second-tier.

“The pace of national team is close to what we trained and played when I was in Harimau Muda and the national under-23s," Irfan continued. "But I need to push myself physically to obtain match fitness at this level because the pace in the MPL is different.

“Training is where I need to deliver now because although I have worked with Ong in the past, I still have to prove that I belong in the national team. I cannot afford to give anything less than everything I’ve got.”

Irfan takes comfort from the fact that he finds himself in familiar surroundings, as he has worked with most members of Ong’s backroom staff and played alongside the likes of Azrif Nasrulhaq, Ahmad Hazwan Bakri and Wan Zack Haikal Wan Noor.

He also told FourFourTwo that he does not feel out of place with the more senior players in the team, and that squad harmony was vital as it transform to a better performance on the pitch.