AFF Suzuki Cup: A dead-eye for the dead ball

Shaiful Esah, seen here tackling Thailand's Mongkol Thosakrai, disputes some critics' assertion that he cannot cut it as a defender.
Shaiful Esah, seen here tackling Thailand's Mongkol Thosakrai, disputes some critics' assertion that he cannot cut it as a defender.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Shaiful Esah's pin-point deliveries fuel four of Lions' five goals at AFF Cup

For most Singapore kids, the "No football" sign in the void decks of Housing Board blocks is a reminder to emulate their sporting heroes at nearby fields and ball courts instead.

But for Shaiful Esah, it was for target practice.

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Taking a battered ball around his Tanglin Halt estate two decades ago, the youngster would kick it at the sign, arcing his body like free-kick king David Beckham.

On and on he went - two to three hours at a time - until he felt his left foot was right.

Today, opponents must wish there was a sign saying "No Shaiful Esah" when it comes to set-pieces.

The left-back has been involved in four of Singapore's five goals at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.

His bending free-kicks wreaked havoc against Myanmar on Wednesday, going straight through a crowded penalty box to break the deadlock, before sealing a 4-2 win via the head of an opponent.

Coupled with his teasing crosses in open play, the 28-year-old has built a reputation as arguably the most dangerous dead-ball specialist in South-east Asia.

The soft-spoken Lion insists there is no secret to the wicked swerve besides repetition, starting from those days at the HDB void decks.

"After every training session, I take a few balls and just keep practising to hit into dangerous areas in the box," said Shaiful, who once scored directly from a corner in the 2008 Singapore Cup final.

"If you hit that zone, even if a team-mate can't get the ball, it will create problems with rebounds or fumbles.

"Eight times out of 10, my foot can put the ball where my mind wants it to go."

Nowadays, the Tampines Rovers stalwart is one of the first names on Bernd Stange's teamsheet but, earlier this year, he was not even under consideration.

The German plumped for fit, energetic full-backs who could make 10 to 12 overlapping runs per game, meaning the 2012 AFF Cup winner had to reinvent his game or face a premature end to his international career.

Motivated to win back his spot from youngster Shakir Hamzah, Shaiful hit the gym to improve his stamina and worked on crossing from different areas down the left flank.

His improved displays in the S-League caught Stange's eye and he was recalled for the squad's training tour of Austria in July.

Singapore captain Shahril Ishak said: "Shaiful has turned himself into a deadly attacking threat.

"Whenever I get the ball, one of my first thoughts is to find where he is to get him involved."

Whereas previous Lions coach Raddy Avramovic preferred Shaiful to hover near the halfway line and deliver diagonal balls, Stange has given him leeway to push deeper into the final third.

"I'm enjoying playing a bit more like a winger - if I am closer to the box, my crosses are more accurate," he said.

Freedom comes at a price, however, as opponents have exploited space down the flanks when Shaiful and right-back Ismadi Mukhtar go forward.

But Shaiful took offence at critics labelling him a "defender who cannot defend", insisting he is not afraid to face Malaysia wingers S. Kunanlan and Amri Yahyah in tonight's Causeway derby.

He said: "I take just as much pride in defending as I do for my crosses.

"I'm not afraid of Malaysia.

"If they have seen our last two matches, they should be more wary of me going forward."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg