Singapore's leading light: what Safuwan's A-League success means for the country
There was a moment against Central Coast Mariners when Safuwan Baharudin found himself in unfamiliar territory, deep in his own half and out wide on the left with the ball on his weaker foot and a defender bearing down on him. No worries. The 23-year-old played a forward pass to teammate Aaron Mooy before running into space to receive the ball back. He then cast a glance up the field for a fraction of a second, before playing a sublime cross-field ball to send David Williams through on goal.
While it might not have resulted in a score, with Williams failing to steer the ball past the Central Coast Mariner’s goalkeeper, it was the moment that told us our A-League import was finally at home among the big guns in Australia's premier competition.
It was certainly a far cry from his debut a few weeks ago, when Safuwan was thrust into the heat of the battle in the Melbourne Derby. While he didn't exactly look out of place in his first outing, there was hesitancy in his movement and a nervous tendency to hook the ball clear at every opportunity. It felt like he was still a new jigsaw piece that Melbourne City coach John van 't Schip was trying to fit somewhere on the puzzle board, a late and unplanned addition to the squad due to Erik Paartalu's injury.
The Singapore international, who was deployed as a defensive midfielder on his debut, has since gone on to take up positions at right-back and left-back in recent matches, roles which he has performed remarkably well in, considering that he was a mainstay at centre-back when he turned out for the Singapore National Team and parent club LionsXII.
Safuwan’s incredible aerial ability also meant that he would sometimes be thrown up front as an attacking outlet when his side were chasing a game and it is no surprise then that the player is an ever present figure in the opposition box whenever Melbourne City have a set piece situation. The Singaporean is clearly a weapon that City aim to utilise at every opportunity – sometimes to devastating effect, as Adelaide United would attest to.
What started out as a 60 minute baptism of fire on debut, has now become 90 minutes of all-action displays for Safuwan, a clear show of trust in his ability from Melbourne City's Dutch coach. Training and playing alongside the likes of former English Premier League talents, Damien Duff and Robert Koren, former Socceroo Patrick Kisnorbo and improving Australian sensation Aaron Mooy each week on a stage as competitive as the A-League is exactly the type of development Safuwan needs at this stage of his career, and the signs are that he is already reaping rewards.
It will not be long before the Singapore National Team re-groups for centralised training as they prepare for the upcoming AFC World Cup Qualifiers, and while it is a given that Safuwan will be at the centre of attention with fellow players wanting to know all about his tales in Melbourne, the group will also realise collectively, once the ball is set in motion during training, that there is so much that they can now learn from Singapore's representative in Australia.
We might not see a flood of players heading to Australian shores just yet, but Safuwan will be bringing back plenty of training and tactical knowledge that he would do well to pass on to his teammates. It might be a slow process, but as Safuwan has shown, it's not so much how fast you get there but rather what you do when the opportunity presents itself.