Football: Hanafi savours second chance

Midfielder Hanafi Akbar has starred for Balestier Khalsa this season and is in the provisional squad for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers and for the SEA Games.
Midfielder Hanafi Akbar has starred for Balestier Khalsa this season and is in the provisional squad for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers and for the SEA Games.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

A year after being released from prison, he earns another opportunity to play for S'pore

A meeting with a fan - in the cell they shared at Changi Prison more than a year ago - proved the wake-up call that Hanafi Akbar needed to turn his life around.

The skinny attacking midfielder was a national sensation at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG), where his tricky dribbling and long-range left-footed shots singled him out as a potential star.

But mixing with bad company meant that he started to destroy himself with drugs and alcohol. That all came to a head in 2015 when he was arrested and convicted of consuming methamphetamine, a drug also known as Ice. The courts gave him the red card and sentenced him to one year of hard time.

It was within the confines of his prison cell that he finally hit rock bottom and discovered the drive to bounce back up.

"There was this 19-year-old boy, he saw my name tag and recognised me. That was the turning point, I woke up," Hanafi told The Straits Times yesterday.

"He said, 'You are the one who played in the YOG.' I was embarrassed, I was really shocked when he told me I was his idol. The word 'was' kept me thinking and I hope that I can become his idol once again."

These days, Hanafi, now 22, has cleansed his body of drugs and liquor. Apart from training, he stays at his Woodlands home to watch football and is home earlier.

NO MORE MISTAKES

This time around, there is no room for mistakes any more. I've been through a lot in my life, it has been a roller coaster.

HANAFI AKBAR, Balestier midfielder, on his decision to go straight.

His new-found discipline has reaped rewards for both him and his club, Balestier Khalsa, for whom he has shone in the S-League this season.

In fact, Hanafi has done so well that he has earned himself the right to be considered fit to wear Singapore's colours again.

He has been named in the provisional squad for the upcoming Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualifiers and next month's SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur.

The squad will eventually be trimmed to 20 and, if he survives the cull, it will be his first call-up to a national age-group side since his release from prison in the middle of last year.

Hanafi was in a cheerful mood yesterday when Football Association of Singapore (FAS) head coach of national youth teams Richard Tardy and the national Under-22 players met the media.

Even when asked about his time behind bars, Hanafi did not duck the questions as he stressed that his comeback is for real this time.

He said: "This time round, there is no room for mistakes any more. I've been through a lot in my life, it has been a roller coaster.

"But football is the thing that will make me feel happy and calm - those 90 minutes on the field.

"Not everyone gets a second chance, third chance. My aim is to prove that people with second chances can be successful."

Even though the Young Lions have a difficult task in the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers, being drawn in Group F alongside hosts Myanmar, continental powerhouses Australia and Brunei, as well as a tough SEA Games group that comprises hosts Malaysia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar, Hanafi is clear about his target.

"To win the (SEA Games) gold," he said without hesitation. "This team are full of potential. We definitely have something to prove."

Tardy is also looking forward to the AFC U-23 qualifiers and SEA Games, saying: "It is good (to play two competitions back-to-back) because after the tournament in Myanmar, we can show what is good and bad so that we can react immediately... sometimes my players have difficulties starting a tournament. We'll be stronger (by playing in consecutive tournaments)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Hanafi savours 2nd chance'. Print Edition | Subscribe