SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Hougang United v Albirex Niigata
Jalan Besar, 7.45pm
Mahathir Azeman must have wondered if time moved slower for him than for everyone else.
The Hougang United midfielder watched as other players walked through the gym doors at Jalan Besar Stadium, completed their rehabilitation, recovered from injury, and returned to playing.
"But I was always still there," the 23-year-old said with a wry smile. "One of my former teammates even joked with me and asked if I got offered a job at the gym since I was there all the time."
His injury nightmare over the last four years was not a joke as he spent the majority of that time on the sidelines after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee a staggering four times.
A full tear of the ACL, one of the key ligaments that helps stabilise the knee joint, will sideline a footballer for at least eight months, sometimes for more than a year.
Thirty years ago, it was considered a career-ending injury.
Mahathir is a forgotten boy to some, but I have no doubts over his ability...And I'm confident he can do better.
CLEMENT TEO , Hougang United coach, on Mahathir's injury comeback.
What makes Mahathir's comeback story all the more astonishing is that the footballer is set to line up for Hougang today against champions Albirex Niigata at Jalan Besar, where a win will put them on the Singapore Premier League (SPL) summit with just three games remaining.
Mahathir has come into form at the right time, starting and scoring in the last two games that they won. The Cheetahs are chasing their maiden SPL title and are in form with five wins in six games.
Said Hougang coach Clement Teo: "Mahathir is a forgotten boy to some, but I have no doubts over his ability. He has shown he can contribute to the team and I'm very happy for him. And I'm confident he can do better."
Each of Mahathir's four ACL tears came with added disappointment for the former national youth team star, who rose to prominence at the 2011 and 2012 Lion City Cup. He even earned himself an 18-month stint with Brazilian club Boavista's Under-17 side in 2013 and 2014, where he made the No. 10 shirt his own.
In 2015, he returned to Singapore and played for Balestier Khalsa but it was also the same year he picked up his first injury in his right knee. It ruled him out of that year's SEA Games on home soil.
The second, in early 2017, was when his left knee buckled in a second-tier Asian Football Confederation Cup match for Home United, a game he had earmarked as the one to re-establish himself.
The third was when that same ACL snapped again in the gym after almost a year of rehab.
"That one really hurt," he said.
"I had worked so hard to get back to that point, but even that was not enough?"
This left him without a club last year. Instead of throwing in the towel, he decided to take up a one-year diploma in sports and exercise science course offered by PSB Academy, in part so he could learn more about recovery.
This was where he learnt about the psychological aspect of recovery, such as "self-talk". Videos chronicling the recovery of top athletes like Spanish footballer Thiago Alcantara and National Basketball Association star Derrick Rose from ACL setbacks, were also helpful.
"So many people have played a part in building me back up," said Mahathir.
They include Football Association of Singapore physiotherapist Nurhafizah Sujad, its former strength and conditioning coach Matt Jones, and also Hougang teammate Fazrul Nawaz, a PSB Academy ambassador whom he grew close to while doing his diploma.
National striker Fazrul, 34, praised Mahathir's humility. He said: "He has a really positive attitude, never gives up, trains hard, and, despite the setbacks, has always shown the determination to come back stronger every time."
Mahathir suffered his fourth ACL injury, a partial tear of the left knee, in March this season in only his second appearance for Hougang, but experience taught him to stay calm and he has since fought back to regain his place in the starting XI.
"The biggest thing I've learnt over the last few years is that sometimes you just have to accept things," he said. "It's how you react that's important, not asking why something happens to you."
And a star turn in his team's title charge is a fine reaction, to make up for all that lost time.
OTHER SPL FIXTURES
Young Lions v Geylang International
Jalan Besar, 7.45pm
Warriors FC v Albirex Niigata Jurong East, 5.30pm
Hougang United v Home United
Jalan Besar, 5.30pm
Balestier Khalsa v Brunei DPMM