Safuwan Down Under: Why the City import can really be Singapore's biggest star

It was a maiden goal that was heard around the world, as Neil Humphreys examines Safuwan Baharudin's impact at A-League club Melbourne City after scoring against Adelaide.

In recent days, Singaporean, Australian and even the Manchester City media have been tripping over themselves to praise Safuwan Baharudin. He’s the new Fandi Ahmad, the saviour of local football, a cartographer with a fine right foot. He’s putting Singapore on the map.

So let’s throw in the most off-kilter comparison of all. He’s Alex from Target.

Alex from Target, you may recall if not overburdened with a life, was the handsome teenager packing bags at the American shopping behemoth when a hormonal girl snapped his photo and shared his floppy fringe with the world. Within a week, the kid had more than half a million followers and Twitters and was appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

He doesn’t pack bags at Target anymore. He’s Alex From Target, that good-looking supermarket guy, the cute social media phenomenon on first name terms with the planet. Surnames are no longer required.

At Melbourne City, Safuwan Baharudin is the redoubtable utility man capable of handling coach John van ’t Schip’s constant tinkering. In the A-League, he’s that Singaporean guy who put away a neat finish against Adelaide. At Manchester City, he’s that Asian guy making a bit of name for himself at their Australian feeder club, a possible conduit even between the Premier League and Asia.

In Singapore, he’s that local guy doing something Down Under. He’s a trailblazer, a lightning rod, a pathway and a beacon of hope. He’s one of “us” making it happen in an environment traditionally dominated by “them”; those guys we watched on TV and YouTube, those otherworldly, superior athletes beyond both our talent pool and the limits of our imagination.

He’s bridging gaps in a matter of days. Leaping between Singapore, Australia and the English Premier League champions in a single bound, via a solitary tweet, Safuwan is our first social media footballer. That’s why he’s closer to Alex from Target than Fandi from Groningen. His impact is immediate, accessible and easily measured.

Fandi’s historic goal against Inter Milan in the Uefa Cup drifted back to Singapore a day later, via a black and white photograph in the newspapers. Safuwan’s tidy strike from six yards belonged to every Singaporean almost immediately. Melbourne City’s match highlights were quickly shared and re-tweeted by the club, the A-League and Manchester City.

Safuwan went around the world and back in a matter of minutes.

The 23-year-old was congratulated in a Manchester City website report with the headline: “Singaporean star scores first goal for Melbourne City.” That tweet was retweeted close to 2,000 times. One strike made Safuwan a cult hit with City fans. One tweet turned him from quirky anomaly to Asian avalanche. Not only did the media snowball keep building, it was wrapped in the red and white flag of Singapore.

Safuwan celebrates with Melbourne City fans. Photo: Melbourne City FC

My earlier FourFourTwo column that suggested Safuwan could become the Tim Cahill of Singapore was greeted in cynical quarters with derision and dismissed as hasty hyperbole. But the criticism missed the point. At the Asian Cup, there was a fascinating correlation between Cahill’s waning powers on the pitch and the rise of his talismanic qualities in the stands. The 35-year-old was not the attacking force of five years earlier, but he crystalized and carried a nation’s expectations. He was so much more than a mere player.

Cahill was the spiritual figurehead, the last of the Golden Generation who had packed bags more than a decade earlier to establish a name for the Socceroos in Europe.

Safuwan is our local guy in the A-League, hopefully the first of a new wave of exports who help to build a national identity on the global stage and restore the sullied reputation of Singapore football.

With propitious timing, Safuwan’s goal in Australia kick-starts the new S-League season in Singapore. He’s a one-man advertising campaign for the domestic game, a pertinent reminder that the island can once again become an incubator for promising talent. The search now begins for the next Safuwan.

And that may well be the Singaporean’s greatest contribution to the sporting landscape. With a single swing of his right peg, Safuwan made a mockery of the myopic, outdated belief that national service must always be performed within the island’s borders. In the age of borderless media, such outmoded thinking is detrimental and just plain daft.

Safuwan's versatility has been an asset for his A-League team. Photo: Jason Heidrich Photography

At this stage, it’s unlikely that anyone in the S-League, the LionsXII or even the upcoming SEA Games could have quite the same cultural impact on their national sport as Safuwan Down Under. His progress underlined each competition’s pivotal role as a stepping-stone to greater glory, but they do not need to be an end in themselves. Rising footballers can go further. Safuwan has opened a door. It’s up to others to kick it down.

He’s not the first of course. Fandi Ahmad, V Sundramoorthy and Daniel Bennett are just three Singaporeans to make headway in superior, foreign leagues. But Safuwan is Singapore’s first social media footballer to excel overseas. There are no limits to his reach, no barriers to his inspirational feats. Every chapter in his ongoing Cinderella story is available with a click. Every impressionable kid can follow the fairytale in real time.

In cyberspace, Alex from Target inspired millions with his floppy fringe. Imagine how far Safuwan can go with his right foot.

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. He has also penned recent global bestseller Marina Bay Sins. You can find his website right here.