SEA Games: Amiruldin Asraf refuses to be a forgotten man
In 2013, Amiruldin Asraf caught the eye at the Lion City Cup with his dynamic displays for the National Football Academy Under-16s (NFA U16) and was touted as one to watch for the future.
No expense was spared to develop the young forward, as he and Hami Syahin were selected for a short training stint the following year with Eintracht Frankfurt’s youth academy.
All seemed to be going well for Amiruldin as he rose to the NFA U18 ranks and was poised to join the Young Lions, until a meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament tear at the U-19 AFF Championship in 2015 halted his progress.
And that was the first time Amiruldin learnt what it was like to face rejection and be forgotten.
“At the Lion City Cup, my name was thrown about. People talked about me, especially after I won a man-of-the-match award (in the the fifth / sixth place playoffs). But after the injury, nobody remembered what I did there,” the 20-year-old shared with FourFourTwo.
“I was out for six months and it was not easy to deal with that as a youngster, but I never stopped working hard to come back.
“But even after I came back, the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) released me (from their programme), even though I wanted to play for Young Lions — they said I wasn't at the level required, which was fair because I hadn’t played for a long time then.”
Handed a lifeline
Distraught but undeterred, Amiruldin banged on every door he could, hoping to resuscitate his fledgling career.
It was Home United who took a chance on him and brought him into their Prime League team in 2016.
Their faith was repaid when Amiruldin settled down immediately and contributed nine goals in 12 games with ease.
That led to a call-up to the first team and before he knew it, Aidil Sharin had given him his professional debut, albeit off the bench with minutes to spare in Home’s 3-0 win over Warriors on August 4, 2016.
It would be Amiruldin’s only brush with the S.League that year as he returned to Prime League duties after that, notching 10 goals as Home captured the Prime League title, but his fleeting cameo had provided a tantalising glimpse of top-flight football that left the then-19-year-old craving more.
His big break
Exactly one year on from his professional debut, Amiruldin has now broken into Home’s first team and is primed for a spot in Richard Tardy’s 2017 SEA Games squad.
Slowly blooded into the senior squad, he has played in 20 games, with 12 coming from the bench.
His big break came when he impressed Aidil during the club’s pre-season tour in Thailand
Not many expected Amiruldin’s sudden ascension, considering Home’s attacking riches like Singapore internationals Faris Ramli and Khairul Nizam, and current S.League hotshot Stipe Plazibat.
But his big break came when he impressed Aidil during the club’s pre-season tour in Thailand.
“I (had) laid my cards out for the players and told them that if you deserve to be in the team, it doesn’t matter what age or whether you are a Singapore international,” Aidil said.
“Amiruldin did very well. When we played big teams like Muangthong, he didn’t show any fear. I don't see him as a young player, for he doesn't lack confidence.”
Amiruldin then vindicated Aidil’s decision to grant him game time by scoring in his first appearance of the season in the 3-0 win over Phnom Penh Crown in an AFC Cup qualifier.
“I was surprised to have played so many games for the first team this year,” Amiruldin shared.
“Looking at the squad (then), it (felt like it) was too strong for me to even fight for (a spot on) the bench, but somehow, coach Aidil put his faith in me.
“He gave me my debut and when I showed him I could compete in the AFC Cup…he continued to show faith in me.”
Amiruldin would also break his S.League duck this year, scoring against Tampines Rovers, who boasted two veteran defenders in Singapore internationals Daniel Bennett and Mustafic Fahrudin.
“It was really exciting because I couldn’t believe I could score against the Stags!” Amiruldin said animatedly.
“I was doubting myself before, but after I scored the goals, it gave me the belief that I could do it.”
Emulating his father
Not many can show such tenacity in the face of similar setbacks, but Amiruldin is relentless in his pursuit to be a top footballer as he hopes to emulate his father,Nodin Kalil,a former Singapore striker who played alongside Fandi Ahmad in the 1994 ‘Dream Team’.
“It’s my dream to play for Singapore and follow my father. So far he is very proud of me, he is very excited; he will always come for my games,” the youngster said.
Amiruldin’s first chance to emulate his father will likely come at next month’s SEA Games
“He has had a big influence on me from young; he always brought me and my brother (Balestier Prime League goalkeeper Naqiuddin Nodin) to train… Even now, he tells me what to do and insists that I go for more training on my own.
“After every game, he will always tell me I did my best. He really is proud of me and so far it has been good for me.”
Amiruldin’s first chance to emulate his father will likely come at next month’s SEA Games, where Singapore are grouped alongside Myanmar, Malaysia, Brunei and Laos.
The Young Lions have never won the gold medal at the tournament and last featured in the final in 1989.
But Amiruldin ran the risk of missing the Games after he rebuffed the Young Lions’ efforts to sign him before the start of this season
SEA Games coach Richard Tardy told the forward then that he wanted Amiruldin under his direct supervision in the lead-up to the tournament in order to give him more game time.
Again, the youngster faced the prospect of being overlooked by the national selectors. But Amiruldin chose to take his chances with the Protectors.
“Honestly, my aim is to play for the national team, and not only the SEA Games,” the ITE College Central Higher Nitec student added.
“The Young Lions did call me back, but Home did me a favour back then so I stayed with them to repay them.
“Furthermore, we play with seniors here — they will guide us and teach us, so I still can improve here even if I did not join the Young Lions.”
Having had the game time he had, Amiruldin proved his worth and has been consistently called up by Tardy for the national youth side.
The risk of being forgotten again
In fact, Amiruldin has progressed so much that he has been mistaken for team-mate Nizam as both share a similar playing style and physique.
“I get that a lot, there was once a student asked me, ‘Nizam, can take a photo? I was like ‘No, no, no! Not me, Nizam is over there!’” Amiruldin laughed.
Amid his joy at coming so far, Amiruldin still harbours fears of fading into oblivion, with his enlistment for National Service (NS) due in 2018.
It is every Singaporean son’s rite of passage and a duty Amiruldin knows he has to fulfil, but the game is littered with examples of players drifting away from football after completing NS.
Nonetheless, with the full support of his parents and his determination, Amiruldin is confident he can bounce back and regards the SEA Games as a platform to make his mark.
“This is my time and I have to show them that I can do this and make them remember me at this SEA Games,” he added.
“I have always worked hard, and it won’t be the first time I have to work hard to come back. Not after the Young Lions’ setback. If people forget me, I know I just have to work harder to return to their minds.”