Azrul Amri: The Malaysian ‘Boy Wonder’ whose career nosedived after Phil Neville’s tackle
Those who have seen Azrul Amri Burhan on the pitch — some even from his school days — will tell you of the talent he had.
Labelled the next Azizol Abu Haniffah, Azrul was sent on a training stint to German club Wolfsburg in 1993, before being part of Malaysia's 1996 Olympic qualification squad.
"We’ve known each other since I was 14. Azrul was a year older and played for the Aminuddin Baki school while I was at Victoria Institution,” former club and country teammate Azmin Azram told FourFourTwo.
"Every time our schools faced each other, we were always on the lookout for Azrul. We later played together for Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. He was one of a kind ... good with both legs, great distribution, killer passes and great ball control. He only lacked in strength."
The number of people who spoke highly of Azrul would go on. He was among the feel-good stories of Malaysian football in the mid-1990s — especially during a period when the sport was tainted with a bribery scandal that resulted in over 100 players and officials being banned for life.
Then-Malaysia coach Claude Le Roy clearly recognised the potential Azrul had and the latter was an integral part of the Harimau Malaya squad that headed to France for the Tournoi Espoirs de Toulon in 1995.
This was a leading under-20 tournament that has featured the likes of James Rodríguez, Javier Mascherano, Juan Román Riquelme, Thierry Henry, David Beckham over the years.
An 11th-minute tackle from Neville resulted in a knee injury that Azrul would eventually take a long time to recover from.
And Azrul had already impressed a scout despite Malaysia suffering a 3-0 defeat to Angola, with talks of a potential RM1 million move to French side Montpellier.
Yet the world came crashing down on his career, when Malaysia faced an English side that boasted the likes of Philip Neville, Beckham and Dean Richards in the following group match.
Azrul held his own in the opening minutes, causing trouble for England's midfielders, but a 11th-minute tackle from Neville resulted in a knee injury that Azrul would eventually take a long time to recover from.
"He was the nearest in terms of ability to Azizol. This was illustrated when Malaysia faced England, which few actually witnessed,” football journalist Rizal Hashim offered.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb by dominating the midfield in the first 11 minutes before getting injured.
"His performance wasn't a surprise for Le Roy. He was already treated like an uncut diamond at KLFA, who had sent him to Germany for a stint with Wolfsburg.
"He was labelled as the future of Malaysia. He could play as a No.10, No.9, No.8 and also the flanks. Such was his offensive talent.”
Yet, there was no indication that Azrul's career could have been different had he not undergone surgery
There were some puzzling circumstances that surrounded Azrul’s recovery thereafter.
FourFourTwo understood that Le Roy had contacted the same doctor who treated a certain Ronaldo of Brazil for advice and was told the Malaysian did not require any surgical treatment.
Kuala Lumpur still chose to proceed with an operation.
Yet, there was no indication that Azrul's career could have been different had he not undergone surgery. The midfielder tasted some domestic success with Perak and Negeri Sembilan, but the midfielder never played for Malaysia again.
Coaches who had Azrul under their tutelage believed that although there was genuine concerns over his fitness, his indiscipline was really the root of his troubles.
"Azrul had a fantastic Toulon tournament under Le Roy, but he didn't really grow up to his true potential,” said current Felda United and former Football Association of Malaysia coach B. Satiananthan.
"Yes, there were injuries but this was also a case of a player not taking care of himself in and out of the field.
"We had a few promising players like that and it cost them their career. It was the lack of guidance that lead to their downfall.”
Main photo: rizalhashim.blogspot.my