Why Safuwan can hit the big time at Bukit Jalil

Neil Humphreys believes the Malaysia FA Cup final represents a chance for returning LionsXII player Safuwan Baharudin to crossover and become a real mainstream star...

Safuwan Baharudin has already dipped a toe in the water. Now he’s ready to swim in the mainstream. Saturday’s date at the Bukit Jalil Stadium represents a real opportunity to break out from the back pages and make a dash for the front.

The Malaysia FA Cup final is his crossover moment. No successful performer can sustain a healthy career without one.

As it stands, in musical terms, Safuwan is a respected indie artist, with three notable highpoints already on his resume – the Suzuki Cup, the Malaysian Super League and a solid stint in the A-League with Melbourne City.

The last one was pivotal, leaving him on the brink. When he scored against Adelaide United in February, he became more than Singapore’s first footballer to score Down Under. He became the nation’s first social media footballer.

Melbourne’s big brother - Manchester City - sent out a congratulatory tweet praising his goal. Almost overnight, Safuwan’s name was briefly familiar to millions, tweeted and shared by the pale blue multitudes.

He reached more global followers than any sporting Singaporean in social media’s short history.

But it wasn’t quite enough at home. Through no fault of his own, Safuwan remained on the periphery, an unlucky footballer handicapped by bad timing. He’s hitting a peak when his profession is stuck in a trough.

The 23-year-old remains the biggest fish in an ever-shrinking pond, the main man in a sport followed by a dwindling minority. Beyond the smallish bubble of the LionsXII and the senior national side, Safuwan’s name probably isn’t on the tip of the average Singaporean’s tongue.

He’s still waiting for his crossover moment.

Whether it’s David Beckham’s looping effort from the halfway line against Wimbledon, Wayne Rooney’s thumping strike against Arsenal or Fandi Ahmad’s finish against Inter Milan, there is usually a turning point, a clear transition from vague awareness to nationwide brand, from base camp to summit.

And Singapore football could certainly use a household name. With a bit of luck, they may pop up like proverbial buses. After waiting in vain, two could come along at once in Safuwan at the Malaysian FA Cup Final and then Irfan Fandi at the upcoming SEA Games.

Their timing could not be more propitious.

Passing on the baton

The S.League continues to trumpet its development plans to drown out the faint death knell that ominously chimes in the background. The senior squads chalked up some woeful results and the LionsXII’s unexpected run to Saturday’s final helped to draw a veil over several poor league performances.

Singapore’s winter of discontent may slowly dissipate if Safuwan maintains that spring in his step. He’s a new hope after so much despair. And it only takes one.

Every generation needs at least one to collect the baton from a predecessor and pass it forward. But there hasn’t really been anyone since Alexandar Duric retired, no footballer who has quite stretched beyond the game’s cocoon and into the national consciousness.

That’s the true litmus test for a crossover footballer in Singapore. If his name filters through the social funnel and spills across school playgrounds, coffee shops and even Raffles Place smoothie bars, then he’s extended his sphere of influence. He’s taken the local game beyond its traditional borders.

After a training session this week, the Lions XII received pep talks from several stars of the 1994 Dream Team. The symbolism was obvious. The Dream Team were Singapore’s last crossover side, where almost every member was a household name.

They didn’t just make the mainstream. They owned the mainstream.

In the current climate, that’s probably too much too ask for. Besides, one is enough for now. Just as every Grammy Awards requires a breakthrough artist, Singapore football needs a Safuwan Baharudin.

And he stands ready, baton in hand.

The 23-year-old returned from Australia a different footballer, a harder footballer. He acclimatised to the cauldrons of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and now plays at white heat. His colossal contribution in his first game back – the 2-1 first-leg win over Terengganu – left Fandi showering him in superlatives.

Wise beyond his years, Safuwan is a quick study in possession, reading the play like a quarterback, comfortable on the ball, always unhurried. His midfield partnership with Izzdin Shafiq mirrors his defensive relationship with Baihakki Khaizan when they won the 2013 Malaysia Super League: coherent, coordinated and rarely flustered.

Safuwan proves that “utility” isn’t necessarily a dirty word. He changes positions because he excels in most positions, not because he’s a master of none.

Fandi knows what Safuwan brings to the LionsXII. So do his team-mates, their supporters, the Football Association of Singapore and even Melbourne City.

He’s primed now for the next step. A rare sporting talent is potentially just a game away from becoming a national icon.

As the familiar faces of the Dream Team demonstrate, Singaporean cup success in Malaysia offers a direct window into the mainstream.

At Bukit Jalil, Safuwan can break on through to the other side.