Now he’s 24, the resurgent midfielder must reach the potential he showed in the A-League and lift the Lions, says Neil Humphreys.
Local football is in disrepair. Attendances continue to plummet in the domestic league as supporters turn towards other sports, taking advertisers with them. Many commentators believe the national game is suffering from an irreversible decline, tumbling towards oblivion.
That was English football in the late 1980s.
And then Gazza came along.
Paul Gascoigne brought the tears, the showmanship, the petulance and the perfection. Most of all, his extraordinary talent brought back the love. Crowds fell in love with the cuddly Geordie, followed him through Italia 90 and established a springboard that would send the English Premier League stratospheric when it was launched in 1992.
English football’s malaise in the late 80s bears remarkable similarities to Singapore football at the start of the year.
And then Safuwan Baharudin went to Melbourne City.
For a brief period, he was going to be our Gazza, a launch pad for the local game. He was Singapore’s first social media footballer. His goal against Adelaide United in February was tweeted and celebrated first by Melbourne and then by their sister act Manchester City. One goal reached millions of followers. A single finish took him beyond the media reach of Fandi Ahmad in his prime.
Melbournians, raised in the cradle of Aussie Rules football’s heartland, appreciated the tenacity of the unknown son of Singapore.
A defender by trade, but a utility man by temperament, Safuwan played just about everywhere for Melbourne City.
With the Suzuki Cup and the Malaysian Super League trophies already in the locker, he was a household name in the making. He was primed not to be the next Fandi Ahmad but Singapore’s Gazza, a unique talent capable of lifting the domestic game from the doldrums.
It was a fine Hollywood premise, but we’re still waiting for the tinsel-town ending.
Safuwan celebrated his 24th birthday last week and while he was blowing out the candles he might have reflected on a year that feels like a pundit’s cliché.
It’s been a year of two halves.
A spine injury ruled out a permanent contract at Melbourne and Safuwan returned to the LionsXII and a dramatic Malaysia FA Cup victory in May.
But then the homecoming party went a little flat. The wheels didn’t quite come off the bandwagon, but they certainly lost their way. The Malaysian Super League campaign was one mired in mediocrity, with Safuwan used in different positions to fill gaps in Fandi Ahmad’s struggling side.
Singapore’s first social media footballer had been reduced to a competent plumber. He contributed to games, but didn’t own them.
On the eve of his 24th birthday, however, Safuwan played in flashback. Against Johor Darul Ta’zim II, the Lions XII earned their first Malaysia Cup win this season with the birthday boy bagging both.
Then against Terengganu this past weekend, he did it again.
But it wasn’t so much the goals as it was the position. Safuwan played behind the strikers, popping up in the box to nod in a couple of headers. The ghost was back. JDT II and Terengganu chased a shadow. It’s always hard to catch something that’s behind you.
Safuwan had previously been deployed up front, plugging holes again, but he’s not a totemic presence around a penalty box. He pulls his punches. In central midfield, he pulls strings.
Safuwan is one of the few Lions comfortable in possession. Unflappable, he can give the air of a hay-chewing farmer among headless chickens. But his unhurried style shouldn’t be misconstrued as a lack of application. He’s laidback, not lazy.
And his influence extends beyond the pitch. He’s paved a way beyond the kampong puddle. In a recent interview, Sahil Suhaimi shared his ambition of playing in Australia. He watched Safuwan on TV and saw a career path.
Safuwan already leads by example. When the national armband inevitably comes, it will be a confirmation rather than a coronation.
An inspirational figure to his peers and now restored to his favoured position, Safuwan’s return to form seems propitious.
The World Cup qualifiers against Afghanistan and Cambodia are coming. Both are being played at the National Stadium as the Football Association of Singapore banks on a promising start to the campaign to attract the crowds.
But Safuwan should be the draw. He can continue what he started at Melbourne at the start of the year and build on his brand.
Right now, he’s that one player who went to Australia. There’s a certain familiarity beyond football circles, a sort of hazy recognition, but he’s yet to seep into the national consciousness.
If he does, he’ll no longer be that local kid who did something in the A-League. He’ll be Safuwan Baharudin, an established identity. If he makes a name for himself, he gives local football an outside chance of doing the same.
At 24, his playing peak looms and the World Cup qualifiers, along with the ongoing Malaysia Cup, are opportunities to prove that the A-League stint wasn’t a career anomaly, but a stepping-stone towards better things.
Safuwan is already a very good Singaporean footballer. But there’s still time to be a great one.
The Lions need you this October! To purchase tickets to the home games against Afghanistan and Cambodia, visit sportshubtix.sg.