Exclusive: Safiq's mission to win back fans and restore Malaysian pride

A proud former Malaysian captain, Safiq Rahim shocked the country when he retired from Harimau Malaya in July 2016. Now back in the fold, he told Vijhay Vick the reasons behind his retirement, what made him change his mind and how qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup could be the highlight of his international career.

Safiq was well in his prime when he and three other Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) teammates – Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, Amirulhadi Zainal and S. Kunanlan – stunned the country with their self-imposed exile from the national team.

Fast-forward a year and despite some criticism that has been directed his way, Safiq can’t hide his delight at being back in the national set-up.

Captaining Malaysia to victory in the 2009 SEA Games and 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup – the region’s biggest international competitions – Safiq’s influence in the national team is telling.

And there was little surprise when he decided to make a comeback after talks with JDT boss Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who took charge of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) in March.

Hungry to make up for lost time, Safiq says it was a tough decision a year ago, but one that he felt he had to make.

“I am very proud and honoured to be given the responsibility to don the national colours again,” Safiq told FourFourTwo. “It has been almost a year and I hope I can beef up the squad and help Malaysia get good results.

“I will give my best and be very cooperative to the national team.

Safiq is back as part of the new national set-up

“Only I know exactly how I felt deep down during the time I was out. It wasn’t a satisfying job environment, but let the problems in the past stay there.

I don’t want to take those comments to heart ... perhaps if we can provide good things for the national team the negatives will fade away

"I have belief in the new FAM leadership and Tunku Ismail explained to me what the objectives of the national team were and what we needed to do.

“I accepted the challenge and am I proud to be in the squad again.”

Safiq’s return has been much publicised because he is undeniably among the finest midfielders Malaysia has produced.

Yet there were critics who felt there shouldn’t be a place in the team for those who turned down Malaysia in the past.

Amirulhadi is also in the squad for this week’s recommencement of the Asian Cup qualifiers, while Aidil and Kunanlan were initially included but later pulled out due to injury.

Safiq has been sharp in front of goal once again this season

Further fuel was added to the fire when new Malaysian coach Nelo Vingada re-appointed Safiq captain this week, but the 29-year-old hopes to win back fans with his performances on the pitch.

“I don’t want to take those comments to heart and get upset over it … I take it positively and with a pinch of salt. What’s important is I give my best,” he said.

“Perhaps if we can provide good things for the national team, the negatives will fade away. It’s paramount that I stay in the national team, perform and keep doing that over and over again. That is always the case for a footballer.”

Finally feeling the love from above

Politics often take centre stage in Malaysian football.

The players and coaches are regularly made into scapegoats and are first on the chopping block when results are not favourable, while the same officials tend to bounce in and out of office.

We as players are motivated to be serious, and yes, we feel more appreciated

Yet the new leadership in FAM has brought about a new era. Vingada is the first foreign coach since 2004, the training camp moved to Johor – where the best facilities are located – and new backroom staff were hired.

Results will be a yardstick in the eyes of many but Safiq, who came up through the system under the old regime, feels the environment is a better one.

“The support system has been good. There are no big differences, but it’s the smallest of things that matter sometimes … the system, the way everything is more organised and the programmes,” said Safiq.

“We as players are motivated to be serious, and yes, we feel more appreciated. As players, we need an objective and now we understand truly what the leadership wants.”

[NEXT: Safiq's dreams at international and club level]