Football: Zulfahmi set for centre stage

FAS kitman Omar Mohamed (left) with Zulfahmi Arifin at the national football team's centralized training session ahead of the Suzuki Cup, Nov 12, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
FAS kitman Omar Mohamed (left) with Zulfahmi Arifin at the national football team's centralized training session ahead of the Suzuki Cup, Nov 12, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Playmaker ready to assume all-action midfield role against rivals Malaysia

His languid style can frustrate. He glides rather than runs full throttle with legs pumping like pistons. His art cannot be rushed.

But in the crucible that is the National Stadium, the occasion that is a big football tournament, with qualification at stake, there is no such luxury of time for Lions playmaker Zulfahmi Arifin.

suzukicup2014am 

With Shahdan Sulaiman out for the rest of the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup with a leg fracture, the LionsXII midfielder is likely to start in the Group B finale against Malaysia.

A draw will be enough for the Lions, but the Tigers need a win to qualify for the semi-finals. All that makes for an intense clash between the rivals tomorrow.

"I have been compared to Shahdan. We both have the same style, we are not aggressive. This needs to change," Zulfahmi told The Straits Times. "It's hard because I'm an attacking player. But I'm working on my defensive side. If selected (against Malaysia), I cannot ignore my defensive duties."

When Shahdan fractured his right fibula and dislocated his ankle in the 21st minute on Wednesday, Zulfahmi was hurriedly summoned from the bench to take his place for the remainder of the 4-2 win over Myanmar.

Looking disoriented, his distribution became careless and one back pass in the 55th minute played Safuwan Baharudin into trouble and allowed Myanmar midfielder Kyaw Zayar Win to score.

Describing his display against Myanmar as "not that good", Zulfahmi recalled: "I was affected by Shahdan's injury. He is a good team-mate and we are quite close. We were all shocked by his injury. I think the team panicked a bit because of how serious it was.

"It happened so suddenly, there was no time to warm up. I entered the pitch and struggled to keep up with the tempo. The pace of the game was really fast."

Frequently the subject of brickbats on Internet fan forums, Zulfahmi is aware of the criticism he attracts and his mood turned sombre at the mention of it.

While he declined to reveal some of the comments that stung him, he said: "I've been hearing these things for a long time. It can be too hurting sometimes.

"I'll be lying if I say that it doesn't affect me. But I am staying positive and hope to prove some people wrong."

Zulfahmi's talent is undoubted. According to Singapore assistant coach Aide Iskandar, the midfielder has one of the best left feet in the squad alongside Shaiful Esah.

The 23-year-old is proficient at set pieces, he loves the glorious long diagonal passes that split the opponents' defence but, in the expected kick and rush against arch-rivals Malaysia in a vital match, he knows he needs to destroy before he can create.

Aide said of the midfielder: "Zul can do a lot more. He needs to work more on his defensive qualities. I believe he has the talent. In the tests that we did, he is one of the quickest and he has one of the highest jumps in the team. He also has stamina.

"It boils down to confidence. The coaching staff has shown him videos of midfielders who impose themselves. He doesn't have to look too far to find an example in Hariss Harun. I believe Zul has it in him to do well."

While he is concerned if he can unlock the monster in him to take on Malaysia, Zulfahmi is positively excited about the prospect of playing in the Causeway derby.

Breaking into a rare smile, he said: "This is going to be the biggest game of my life. Growing up, I watched AFF Cup games and had always wanted to play against Malaysia.

"I have to switch on faster and not let the team down."

meng@sph.com.sg