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Win or lose against South Korea, Malaysia have unearthed a rare gem in Safawi Rasid

In the midst of all the hoopla in Malaysia about reaching the knockout stage of the ongoing AFC U23 Championships, much of the actual importance of the tournament has been overlooked.

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Apart from national pride and perhaps some regional bragging rights, this is not an event where results actually matter.

There is no Olympic qualification at stake in this edition and to purely focus on wins, losses and progression or otherwise is missing the point.

The 20-year-old midfielder has not only been Malaysia’s most important player at the tournament, but one of the standouts across all nations

In the case of a woeful Vietnam side – who had the lowest completed passing percentage of all 16 nations - celebrating their progression could be viewed as doing a disservice, but that’s a story for another day.

As is consistently the case at youth tournaments, what should be the clear priority is exposing future senior internationals to competitive matches, placing them in situations to pit their technical abilities against continental rivals, find solutions to the tactical problems they face and then assessing which players are ready for the next step.

One player who quite clearly ticked all those boxes is Safawi Rasid.

The 20-year-old midfielder has not only been Malaysia’s most important player at the tournament, but one of the standouts across all nations.

As he was in qualification for the finals as well as at last year’s SEA Games, the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) man has looked far and away the most comfortable of all the Young Tigers in possession.

The youngster should get used to some increase attention

He also has a fine tactical understanding of when to make runs, both on and off the ball, and when it’s at his feet he’s what the Dutch call a ‘game-changer’.

With respect to the rest of this squad that coach Ong Kim Swee has fashioned into a disciplined, hard-working outfit ,Safawi is the only player who appears capable of winning matches on his own.

Many other nations in China over the past week or so haven’t had even one such player so the fact that Malaysia has such a gifted playmaking talent in their ranks should surely be the headline being written from Perlis to Johor, rather than the incessant focus on results.

We all have faith and belief in our coach that we can continue to do well now we are in the knockout stages

FourFourTwo was fortunate enough to catch up with this sublime creative talent for an exclusive chat ahead of the quarter-final clash with South Korea, where he admitted that already having half a dozen senior caps to his name means he’s not feeling the pressure.

“In my opinion there’s not such a significant difference between playing for the senior team or the under-22 team as our objective is clear for both teams and that’s to achieve greatness for Malaysia.

“I learned a lot by playing in the starting 11 at the SEA Games which was a memorable tournament and in this tournament too we’ve tried to play our style of football regardless of the opponent.

“We’ve been so pleased by the continued support of all Malaysians who really are our twelfth man who lift up our spirits and we all have faith and belief in our coach that we can continue to do well now we are in the knockout stages.”

[NEXT: Safawi's very lofty goals for the years to come]