Unsung Hafiz ready to help bring FA Cup home

LionsXII left-back Hafiz Sujad is keen to learn from past lessons as he goes head-to-head with Kelantan right winger Wan Zack Haickal in the Malaysia FA Cup final.

The LionsXII’s thrilling run to the Malaysia FA Cup final has captured the imagination of many Singaporeans, with much of the credit going to Khairul Amri for his recent red-hot scoring form and Safuwan Baharudin whose return has tidied matters in midfield.

What has perhaps gone under the radar are the contributions of Hafiz Sujad, who is emerging to be one of the finest full-backs in the Malaysian Super League. The 24-year-old filled the void left by Shakir Hamzah with little fuss – strong in the tackle and constantly providing overlapping runs to support Faris Ramli down the left.

Set to retain his slot in the starting eleven for Saturday night’s big clash with Kelantan FA, Hafiz is looking to continue things in his no-frills style against a familiar foe in Wan Zack Haikal, whom he has gone up against on a number of previous occasions.

The Kelantan defender’s development has stuttered in the past couple of years due to an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury sustained at Japanese third division side FC Ryukyu. However this season, he is back to full fitness and showing why he was regarded as one of the brightest talents in Malaysian football just a few years ago.

“I still remember facing him in the S.League when he was playing with Harimau Muda in 2012 and at the Merdeka Cup the following year when we played against Malaysia,” Hafiz told FourFourTwo after his side’s training session at the Bukit Jalil Stadium before matchday.

“I knew he had undergone an operation recently, but in recent matches for Kelantan, he still looks as speedy as before. So I have to close him down fast and cannot give him any room to run down my flank. Besides that, it’s also important that my teammates give me the support.”

Like several others in the squad, this will be Hafiz’s first-ever cup final in professional football. Having missed the boat previously with the Singapore Under-23s in the 2013 SEA Games, he is keen to grab this coveted opportunity with both hands.

“It’s really a blessing for me and the rest of them to be in this final,” the 24-year-old said.

“I don’t know what the future holds and this could be the only cup final that I will play in, so I’m going to cherish every moment and take every step towards winning the trophy.

“We know that it’s going to be an almost full stadium tomorrow and there’s definitely pressure from that. But you can see most of us are still relaxed and laughing around in training. It’s a sign showing that we’re not taking it too hard and we know when and how to focus.”

With just 3,000 Singaporean fans expected to travel up for the game, it should be an intimidating atmosphere for the LionsXII at the 90,000-capacity Bukit Jalil Stadium.

Taking lessons from the less-than-pleasant memories of playing in front of capacity crowds in the past year, Hafiz vows not let emotions get to his head if the going gets tough.

He was sent off inside the first 45 minutes while playing for the Singapore Selection in the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup at Shah Alam last September and then handled the ball in injury time against Malaysia in the AFF Suzuki Cup two months later, which resulted in Safiq Rahim slotting home the fatal penalty to knock the Lions out.

“To me, all these matches and tournaments are learning experiences for me,” the former Courts Young Lions captain said.

“I can be hot-headed at times so coach (Fandi Ahmad) has been reminding me to stay calm whenever I go into games. I think I’m more matured now and can keep my head.

“I’m just going to focus on doing my job. Everyone has a role to play. If we concentrate on what we’re supposed to do as an individual and work as a team, nothing is impossible.”