Football: A long wait but Taufik eager to seize his moment with the Lions this time

Taufik Suparno has three goals in as many games for Tampines Rovers this season. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - When Taufik Suparno received his first Lions call-up as a 20-year-old in 2015, the forward had hoped it would be the start of a long international career.

But it would take another seven years before the nation came a-calling again.

And now Taufik, 26, is expected to finally earn his long-awaited, maiden national cap when the Lions face Malaysia at the National Stadium on Saturday (March 26).

He is among four uncapped players in interim national coach Nazri Nasir's 26-man squad for the FAS Tri-Nations Series, a three-team 'A' international friendly involving Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Although Taufik had been called up in 2015 by then-coach Bernd Stange to face Japan and Syria in the World Cup qualifiers, he did not feature then and continued to be ignored over the years following a series of injury setbacks.

But he also accepted that he was partly to blame and credited his wife, Jessica Khor, 25, with whom he shares three young children, for his Lions renaissance.

Taufik, who has three goals in as many games for Tampines this season, said: "Marriage changed me. Before that, I didn't have the maturity and the discipline needed to be a professional footballer. I took things lightly and I wasn't taking care of myself in terms of my diet and rest time."

A conversation with his wife about what he wanted to achieve in his football career has proven to be the catalyst. Taufik said he then realised that if he wanted to make a mark with club and country, he had to change his ways.

A "foodie" who loved to indulge in a bowl of mee rebus, Taufik changed his diet with the help of his wife, who prepares meals that usually comprise brown rice, steamed vegetables and herbal soup.

"Initially, it was tough for me to eat that. I wasn't used to it and I wouldn't feel satisfied after meals. But my wife kept reminding me that I need to take better care of my body. And I also realised that if I want to go far in my career, I need to get out of my comfort zone," said Taufik.

Despite the changes in his habits, the return to the national fold was not straightforward. Last season, in 21 matches, Taufik made Tampines' starting line-up only thrice. Yet, he managed to score on six occasions.

This year, he has started all three matches thus far for the club, scoring thrice. Now, he wants to make a mark against Malaysia.

Said Taufik: "Like most football fans here, I have been to matches against Malaysia. This is the big one. I have dreamt of representing Singapore and playing in a match against Malaysia so I do hope to get the chance."

Nazri, 51, told The Straits Times that he is certain that Taufik will earn his first cap against Malaysia or against the Philippines on March 29, noting : "He deserves to be here and he has been performing very well for his club. He gives us speed and trickery in the final third and I think he can be a big part of the national team going forward."

Nazri was also the interim coach when Singapore beat the Harimau Malaya 1-0 in the Airmarine Cup, a friendly quadrangular, in 2019. He is looking forward to getting the better of Malaysia again and said his players did not need extra motivation given the nature of the rivalry between both teams.

He said: "It is always a special occasion when playing against Malaysia. They have quick, attacking players that we need to be mindful of. It is going to be a difficult match. We are playing on home ground and I am sure the boys won't disappoint me."

Malaysia coach Kim Pan-gon who saw his side beat the Philippines 2-0 at the National Stadium on Wednesday, hinted at the possibility of changes to his team for the fixture against Singapore but said he was still targeting a victory.

Said the 52-year-old South Korean, who oversaw confident, aggressive attacking football from his team in his first match in charge: "These friendlies are good opportunities for me to assess players. We can also experiment tactically. But this is a derby match and so the result is very important (as well)."

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