Football: Dream debut for teenager Putri Nur Syaliza

Putri Nur Syaliza, 14, the youngest player to be called up to the national women's football team, scored on her debut against the Maldives last Monday (March 5).
Putri Nur Syaliza may only be 14 but the youngest player to be called up the national women's team is not just a name for the future but the present after scoring on her debut against the Maldives last Monday (March 5).
Putri Nur Syaliza may only be 14 but the youngest player to be called up the national women's team is not just a name for the future but the present after scoring on her debut against the Maldives last Monday (March 5).ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - If someone had told footballer Putri Nur Syaliza she would score on her national team debut, she would have rolled her eyes in disbelief.

After all, the 14-year-old is the youngest player to be called up to the national women's team and she trained only twice with her team-mates prior to the international friendly against the Maldives at the National Stadium last Monday (March 5).

But, as the saying goes, if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Putri started on the bench but was thrown into the fray by national women's coach K. Balagumaran in the 33rd minute in a bid to inject more spark into the attack.

Showing composure which belied her age, the teenager, who normally plays as a left-sided midfielder but was instructed by Balagumaran to operate as a false nine, opened the scoring in the 51st minute.

Pouncing on a poor clearance from the Maldives goalkeeper, Putri strode forward and unleashed a shot that went in through the custodian's legs. That made her the youngest scorer in the history of Singapore's national women's team.

Stephanie Dominguez scored the second goal to seal a 2-0 win watched by more than 1,000 fans.

"When I realised I had space because no one was around me, I told myself to just try and shoot," the Queensway Secondary School student told The Straits Times (ST).

"I was really shocked at first (when it went in), then I became really emotional because it was my first goal (for the national team)," added the Secondary 3 student, who admitted that she cried on the pitch.

"I had a gut feeling that if I brought her on, she would do something for us as we were desperate for our first goal and she scored," Balagumaran said.

Putri's call-up to the national team was a matter of time, after having forged a reputation as a "goal machine" in the schools scene.

In the Schools National girls' C Division football championship last year, she plundered 42 goals in six games to become the top scorer of the competition and lead her school to the title.

She was also named the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Young Player of the Year after her debut season with champions Warriors FC in the five-team FAS Women's Premier League last year.

Balagumaran first noticed Putri through a video of her doing a skill test. "She showed tremendous technique and footwork for a 14-year-old," he told ST.

But it was her performance for the Warriors in a 4-1 win over Police Sports Association in the FAS-Sports Hub Women's Challenge Cup final last November that convinced him to give Putri her first national call-up.

"I saw 20 minutes of her playing, and that's it. I knew we needed her for the Maldives game," he said.

"She's a player who has good control of the ball and can take shots from long range."

The win over the Maldives follows recent impressive performances like the 3-0 victories over world No. 73 Guam, Bangladesh (114th) and Macau (unranked) last year, which have propelled the Lionesses to 89th in the Fifa rankings, up from 141th just three years ago.

But Singapore are still some way to matching regional powerhouses such as Thailand (30th) and Vietnam (32nd), who have each won five SEA Games gold medals.

For starters, Singapore do not have a professional women's league like Thailand.

The Republic have not sent a women's football team to the SEA Games since 2003, when they failed to progress from the group stage.

Their best result in four SEA Games appearances was a runners-up finish in 1985, when they lost 0-2 to Thailand in the final.

Still, the FAS has introduced a slew of initiatives in recent years in its efforts to grow the women's game among youth in Singapore.

In 2016, the Fifa "Live Your Goals" (LYG) programme for girls aged between six and 15 years was launched. Free weekly training sessions are offered to encourage more girls to play football.

"We can scout the more talented girls through the programme to join the (national) youth teams," said FAS grassroots and women's football general manager Julie Teo.

The FAS Girls' U-14 League was started in 2016 and a national Under-12 team were formed last year, added Teo.

Said Balagumaran: "Now I see a lot of young girls play football, street soccer. It is definitely picking up and we need to work a lot more on our youth."

The objective is to produce more talented footballers like Putri, who took up the sport when she was four because of her four older brothers.

When she was younger, she often played football with boys, which she said helped her physically.

"The way they play is really aggressive and that trained me to be stronger," she said. "It doesn't matter whether they are guys or girls, I learnt to play without fear."