The Red Giant between the sticks
“The goalkeeper was absolutely fantastic and I’ve seen many good players tonight. Maybe I might sign a Malaysian player based on what I’ve seen,” claimed Arsene Wenger, whose team had just beaten Malaysia 2-1 during their Asia tour in July 2012. The Arsenal boss might have meant that as a polite gesture, but it still spoke a lot about the quality of Farizal Marlias, the goalkeeper of the day, who did an outstanding job of shutting out the Gunners for the majority of the game. Only a late meltdown by the Malaysia defence prevented them from getting a famous win over the 13-time English league champions for the first time since the late Mokhtar Dahari won it for Malaysia back in 1975.
“I was just doing my job,” Farizal humbly remarks of his valiant performance of almost two years ago. Chilling out in Selangor’s dressing room with the sound of the rain drumming on their training ground in Shah Alam, our interview takes place just a day after the Red Giants beat Hanoi T&T 3-1 in the AFC Cup match at the Shah Alam Stadium, with Brazilian striker Paulo Rangel completing a hat-trick. Considering that the Vietnamese side defeated Selangor 1-0 in the reverse fixture two weeks prior, you would think that Farizal is happy with the result. Well, so much for that, as he isn’t entirely happy with the match’s outcome.
“Can you believe that the referee actually gave that penalty [to Hanoi]? It was so silly,” the Selangor stopper complains, referring to the penalty converted by Gonzalo Marronkle to reduce the deficit. Farizal strongly believes that Hanoi player Hughton Hector, who was fouled by his team-mate Ahmad Hazwan Bakri, made a meal out of the minimal contact.
“Being a goalkeeper is not easy,” he muses. “When the team wins, the goalkeeper will hardly get the glory, but when the team loses, mati lah (‘we’ll die’). We can make one thousand great saves, but people will only remember those conceded goals or that one silly mistake made by us. That’s why I hate conceding very much.”
Perhaps realising that we are slowly backing away from him following his serious rant, he immediately bursts into laughter and reassures us that he is a nicer person off the pitch than on it – “You have to be intimidating [on the field]. If not, you will be intimidated by your opponents instead.” Wearing a white adidas T-shirt and a long pair of khakis, he definitely looks more cheerful than you would usually witness him in the stadium or on TV. In fact, the way he is joking around throughout the interview reminds us exactly of the silly Farizal Marlias we saw in Zzati’s ‘Malu Malu Mau’ music video on YouTube…
“How did you guys know about the music video?! Oh no, memang malulah kali ini (‘it was so embarassing’)!” Clearly, the Pahang-born lad has underestimated our remarkable journalistic ability…
From a striker to a goalkeeper
Born in June 1986 in Jengka 18, Pahang, Farizal was the fifth child of seven in, as he puts it, a sports crazy family. “My family didn’t come from a rich background, so we spent most of our free time on sports. For instance, my father used to play sepaktakraw when he was not working on the palm field, and my eldest sister was a netball player. While everyone had their own favourite sports, only me and a younger brother of mine enjoyed playing football,” Farizal says.
Like most kids caught with the World Cup fever, the boy known as ‘Mael’ among his friends initially began playing football as a striker. He only started to wear a pair of gloves after he was encouraged by his primary school teacher. “My teacher used to praise me for my goalkeeping skill. As a kid, you love it whenever your teacher compliments you, so that’s how I became a goalkeeper,” he laughs.
Those innocent compliments soon drove him to achieve greater heights, as he grew up admiring former Pahang goalkeeper Mudzar Mohamad and Italy international Gianluigi Buffon and aspiring to emulate his idols. In order to do so, he left his hometown to pursue his secondary education at the Sultan Abu Bakar School (SABS) in Kuantan, which was two hours’ drive from Jengka 18, when he was 13.
“I remember I begged my parents to let me go to the SABS!” he recalls. “It was easier to achieve my dream there. Thankfully they were very understanding about it and okay with me staying in a hostel.”
As he honed his skill at the SABS, his talent as a shot-stopper became more evident. At the tender age of 15, he was the only youngster selected by Holger Obermann, a former head coach and technical advisor of the FAM Youth Department, to undergo a three-week training clinic in Germany after impressing in a local tournament. Although he struggled with the weather condition and language barrier, Farizal was named one of the best performers ahead of other German and international kids at the end of the training clinic. So, it was no surprise that the Bukit Jalil Sport School came calling afterward, where he studied and trained alongside the likes of Stanley Bernard and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha.
Farizal’s first breakthrough
After he graduated from Bukit Jalil, Farizal returned to his home state and joined the Pahang President’s Cup team. Despite training hard in hope of getting a call-up to the senior squad, it did not come around, forcing him to consider a move away from the club.
“It was very difficult to break into the Pahang first-team back then. I did not really want to leave Pahang, as they were my boyhood club, but I decided to try my luck at Shahzan Muda,” recalls Farizal, who joined the then-Malaysian Premier League club when he was 20.
Farizal ended up making a good call, as the Shahzan Muda move provided him with the necessary platform to gain game time, experience and exposure. With two seasons under his belt, he earned a move northward to Perlis and upward to the Malaysian Super League.
“I will forever be thankful to Shahzan Muda for giving me the opportunity to play, but it was the right time for me to to make the next step in my career,” he says. “Besides Perlis, I was also approached by Johor back then…” he pauses for a while before giving us a wide grim. “I know that look on your face!” What? What have we done?
“Yes, maybe I should have joined Johor instead. Then I could be playing for JDT now,” he jokes, clearly seeing through us. Note to self: don’t think out loud anymore. “Anyway, as I was trying to say, I decided to join Perlis because they looked solid and were challenging for top honours.”
In his first season with the Northern Lions, Farizal helped the team to finish second in the Super League and progress to the semi-final stage of both the FA Cup and the Malaysia Cup. That season also saw him scooping the 2009 Best Goalkeeper award. As his reputation grew, other clubs began to lurk around, but he rejected their approaches and continued to stay with Perlis – just for another season, though. At the end of the 2010 season, he left when Negeri Sembilan showed their interest, which was an opportunity he could not pass.
“I really enjoyed my time with Perlis, but it [the opportunity to play for Negeri Sembilan] was too good to refuse,” he says. “They had so many quality players like Hai-O [Hairuddin Omar], Shukor Adan, Zamani Misbah, and Aidil Zafuan. It was really an all-star team.
“I desperately wanted to join them because it’s not every day you get to learn from the best and play with them. Plus, I knew I would have a better chance to win trophies with them, which is the main target of any footballer.”
Just as he foresaw, Farizal won his first major club silverware in his first year with the club as his side defeated Terengganu, the 2011 FA Cup winners and Super League runners-up, in the 2011 Malaysia Cup Final. After conceding a deflected goal from Terengganu’s Ashaari Shamsuddin on the hour mark, two goals in the final ten minutes of the game courtesy of S. Kunalan and Hairuddin Omar sealed a memorable comeback that saw Farizal celebrate jubilantly on the pitch.
“I was just so happy,” he smiles as he reminisces about that glorious day. “With the prize money I got from winning the Malaysia Cup, I was able to fulfil my dream of sending my family to a pilgrimage to Mecca. It wasn’t cheap!”
Following the Malaysia Cup victory, Farizal went on to win the 2012 Charity Shield before departing to Perak to re-join his former Negeri Sembilan coach, Azraai Khor Abdullah, where he hoped to replicate the success with N9. Unfortunately for him, he ended up getting more than he bargained for. It is a topic so taboo that Farizal was reluctant to talk about it.
“Oh no, are we really going to talk about that [my time at Perak]?” he jokingly wails. Yes, we are, Farizal.
“What can I say? I didn’t play yet I still got punished,” he laughs. Although he could afford to laugh about it now, the incident in question was well-documented. After the Seladang were humiliated 6-1 by Sarawak and knocked out of the 2013 Malaysia Cup, the Perak management immediately suspended everyone in the club and lodged reports with the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) of potential corruption violations. The playing and coaching staff were declared clean two weeks later, but the damage had been done by then, as most players decided to leave the Silver State due to the lack of trust.
“I think that was probably the worst and most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me in football. Nobody, not even the coaching staff, saw it coming. Everyone was so shocked,” he says, sharing a similar sentiment as Nasir Basharudin when we spoke to the Perak player a few months ago.
“Anyway, let’s just stop talking about it,” he pleas while saying he has moved on – in a very literal sense too. After his contract with the Bos Gaurus expired at the end of the controversial season, Farizal joined his current team, Selangor where he seems to be happier.
“I think I have settled well at Selangor, which has been a particularly easy transition due to [former Perak team-mates] Shahrom Kalam, Abdul Hadi Yahya and Paulo Rangel being here as well,” Farizal smiles. “Our season has been going very well so far. I hope it will continue and we will win the title [at the end of the league season].”
“And hopefully my performance with Selangor will catch the attention of the national coach.”
Playing for Harimau Malaya
That should not be a problem, as throughout his club career he has never gone unnoticed and has been constantly called up for international duty. Even when he was playing second division football with Shahzan Muda, Farizal was selected to play for the Malaysia U-23 team in the Asian football qualifiers for 2008 Olympics as well as the 2007 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Thailand. Besides that, he also played for the senior squad in official matches as well as exhibition games against the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, Manchester City and the aforementioned Arsenal.
“I do not have a favourite game with the national side!” he laughs when asked about it (we thought he would say the Manchester United game because he was a self-confessed Red Devils fan). “Whether it is just a friendly game or an important qualifier, I consider myself very lucky if I get to represent my country.”
Although he enjoys pulling on the Harimau Malaya jersey, Farizal has not enjoyed much luck in the international scene. For instance, he was the favourite to be the first choice goalkeeper at 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, but an unfortunate injury ruled him out of the contention. During a training session with the national squad, he was knocked in the face by Faizal Abu Bakar, which broke his cheek bone and sidelined him for almost five months. He was promptly replaced by Kelantan custodian Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, who excelled and led the team to victory.
That was the second time where Farizal was not fortunate to be the winning goalkeeper of the national team’s recent success. Previously when the Malaysia U-23 team won gold in the 2009 SEA Games, Farizal started as the goalkeeper in the first two matches, but an alleged bottle attack on the referee after a 3-1 defeat to Vietnam suspended him for the following match. His one-match suspension opened the door for reserve keeper Sharbinee Allawee to step up and claim the number one shirt outright throughout the competition.
“It’s all in the past now,” Farizal comments about missing out on both finals. “Like how we Malays always like to say, rezeki masing-masing (‘it was written for each of us’). I admit it was frustrating that I did not get to play, but I was proud at the same time that we won. We deserved to win them.”
With the talk focusing the national team, the conversation then takes its natural course onto his supposed rivalry with Khairul Fahmi, who has been entrusted with the national keeper gloves most of the time since the 2010 Suzuki Cup success. “I do not have a problem with Apek [Khairul Fahmi],” replies Farizal, when asked if his relationship with the Kelantan stopper is in the same vein as Germany’s Oliver Kahn/ Jens Lehmann. “We are team-mates first because we want the team to win and do well. If anything, I would like to think we push each other to keep improving.
“Anyway, I cannot dictate what other people want to say or write about us, which I honestly do not care about because, in the end, the national head coach’s opinion is the most important one. And it is not easy to gain the coach’s trust.”
Indeed, it is not easy. Take the recent departure of K. Rajagopal as head coach as an example. Since Rajagopal left his position in December 2013, Harimau Muda coach Ong Kim Swee has been put in charge of the senior team on an interim basis. Although Farizal has been performing well with Selangor, he did not get to play in the most recent international games. Pahang’s up-and-coming goalkeeper Khairul Azhan Khalid started in the friendly against the Philippines, while the familiar back of Khairul Fahmi was seen in the final 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen. Although he did not get to play, it has not dampened Farizal’s spirit.
“I did not get to play, but kudos to both [Khairul Azhan and Khairul Fahmi] for doing brilliantly in those matches,” he praises the duo. “I do not mind not playing because I am sure that the coach has his reasons if he does not pick me. Anyway, it is good that we have so many good goalkeepers in our ranks. Besides providing a healthy competition, it also means that the national team will not have a shortage of goalkeepers.”
“But,” he continues, “it does not mean I want to play second fiddle to anyone. The time will come for me to show what I am capable of and that I can be the undisputed goalkeeper. We’ll see.”
It’s all well and good aiming to be the first-choice goalkeeper for Malaysia, but Farizal could perhaps afford to aim for a different goal for his career, especially with Hugo Lloris and Iker Casillas recently being touted to replace Wojciech Szczesny at Arsenal. After all, Wenger did say he was fantastic, and stranger things have happened in football.
Sign him up, Wenger?
This interview was originally published in the May 2014 edition of FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore.