Malaysia’s twin threat Safee and Norshahrul a partnership six years in the making
What started as a winning combination at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup is expected to see its final lap come the 2016 edition in November.
Just a couple of months ago, Safee Sali and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, 32 and 30 years of age respectively, were thought to have already played their last games in national colours.
Safee had not played for Malaysia since 2015, while Norshahrul was dropped after Malaysia’s lacklustre scoreless tie with lowly Macau – then the second-worst ranked side in Asia – in March.
Yet the dearth of strikers, international retirement of several players and the overall lack of experience in the squad, has seen Tigers coach Ong Kim Swee turn to Norshahrul against Singapore and Afghanistan, while he recalled Safee for the Suzuki Cup provisional squad a fortnight ago.
As desperate as it may sound and could prove to be, the Tigers simply do not have options other than taking the duo to Yangon for the group stages, which kicks off against Cambodia on November 20.
Ahmad Hazwan Bakri, 25, is the only new generation of forwards that look ready for international action despite playing most of his football on the flanks or behind an out and out striker at Selangor for the last three seasons.
Other options in attack include 35-year-old skipper Amri Yahyah and untested Darren Lok, an English-born forward that has done little to justify his selection thus far.
Evergreen Safee could break records this Suzuki Cup
Safee is chasing three records at the Suzuki Cup this year – something he had little clue about when brought to his attention.
Not only is he expected to appear for the fifth consecutive Suzuki Cup, Safee can become Malaysia’s all-time top goal scorer in the competition while recording the most number of appearances.
“Initially, I actually didn’t even realise this was going to be my fifth tournament if I made the final squad. I actually played all the matches in 2008,” Safee told FourFourTwo.
“It’s going to be a very nostalgic moment for me. I still recall the previous editions and I have good memories. I want another great memory this year … perhaps to cap things.
“I didn’t even expect to be called-up in all honestly. I thought it was over, but as long as I am wanted, I will continue donning the national colours and work my socks off.”
Safee is currently tied on nine goals with Indra Putra Mahayuddin in the all-time scorers list. Singaporean Noh Alam Shah’s record of 17 goals remain a distance but he is just three goals behind legends Kiatisuk Senamuang of Thailand and Indonesia’s Bambang Pamungkas.
The 2010 Suzuki Cup top scorer is also just three matches away from overtaking Shukor Adan’s record 21 appearances in the competition. He may have to share this record, however, as Norshahrul and Amri have also played 19 matches already.
Safee, who now often warms the bench at Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) was happy to be reunited with Norshahrul but conceded they have to brush up on their partnership.
“The two of us are used to playing each other and when we are on form together, something will happen up front. We are fine-tuning our partnership so we can re-live some good memories,” said former Indonesia Super League poacher Safee.
“There are many new players and some familiar faces. It’s only good to have a balance. Everyone will be determined to do the country proud … the newbies surely want to proof they can deliver for the nation.”
Norshahrul wants to set the record straight
When Norshahrul, or fondly known as ‘Matyo’ to many in Malaysia, helped K. Rajagopal’s side lift the Suzuki Cup for the first time in 2010, he thought it was the beginning of an era for the Tigers.
Indeed, Malaysia also won the 2009 and 2011 SEA Games but things have not gone according to plan since – something Norshahrul is eager to correct.
“After 2010, I hoped we could continue to dominate the following editions and truly establish ourselves as the kings of the region, but that didn’t happen,” he elaborated.
“I want to win the trophy again this year to make amends for the years we missed out,” said Norshahrul.
He insisted it was too early to place hope on his partnership with Safee, but like his former JDT teammate, Norshahrul felt there are progresses being achieved in training.
“It’s a long time since we played together. In training things are looking good but what matters is that we click like before during matches,” he said.
“We have an understanding from the past that could come handy if given the chance by the coach. I feel we are more experienced now. Fitness is something we need to push a little bit though.”