Football: Late bloomer Hafiz Nor aims to make most of Lions opportunity

After his first call-up to the Lions in 2013, Hafiz Nor, 31, waited three years to get his next international cap, with his third appearance also coming more than three years after.
After his first call-up to the Lions in 2013, Hafiz Nor, 31, waited three years to get his next international cap, with his third appearance also coming more than three years after.PHOTO: QATAR FA

SINGAPORE - For a player so quick he often resembles a blur on the pitch, Hafiz Nor has had to endure a painfully slow progress in the national team.

After his first call-up to the Lions in 2013, the winger waited three years to get his next international cap, with his third appearance also coming more than three years after.

At the age of 31, his time may have finally arrived under coach Tatsuma Yoshida.

As the Lions prepare to take on Yemen in a World Cup qualification match in Muharraq, Bahrain, on Tuesday (Nov 19), Hafiz is in the running to start a third straight international game.

The Home United winger told The Straits Times in a phone interview: "He (Yoshida) is a very good coach who is also courageous in giving young or new players a chance to play and gain international exposure.

"He knows our strengths and weaknesses as individual players in detail, and it's an honour to play under him."

While he clearly relishes the opportunity to play in a Singapore shirt, Hafiz has had to balance his career ambitions with family commitments. His wife, Nurhidayu Sakuan, gave birth to their first child, Freya Inara, on Oct 8, which meant he did not travel with the Lions for the away games against Jordan and Saudi Arabia last month.

But he featured in the 3-1 loss against Uzbekistan, which was played at the National Stadium on Oct 15.

"Of course, my daughter means everything to us but even my wife told me I should go join the team, because it's an honour to play for the national team," said Hafiz.

"To start my first international game against a team like Uzbekistan was quite difficult because of the intensity at that level, but I think I did well."

Hafiz, who has a reputation as one of the fastest players in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), will be sprinting to make up for lost time.

A late bloomer, Hafiz was not selected for the National Football Academy Under-14 team as he was too small. He was so crestfallen that he chose not to play for any SPL youth team, only turning out for his schools at the secondary and tertiary levels.

But after completing his National Service, he was working odd jobs when he was offered a trial with struggling professional side Tanjong Pagar. Against his expectations, Hafiz, who is 1.66m tall and weighs 59kg, was selected by coach Terry Pathmanathan.

He said: "Training with a (pro) team for the first time at 22 was really tough, but I learned to adapt and after a week I got used to it."

His self-belief and versatility saw him winning the Goal of the Season award in 2013 and he received his first call-up for the Lions from then-coach Bernd Stange.

But after making his debut against Laos, he had to wait until 2016 before V. Sundram Moorthy gave him his start against Cambodia.

Hafiz said with a chuckle: "Six years ago, I was still a young boy and very nervous. Three years ago, I was a little bit better but there were still plenty of big names in the squad.

"But now, I am more experienced and mature, and I am more composed on the ball. I play more with my brain now, and not just run, run, run."

 

Yoshida told ST: "Hafiz brings energy to the team, is disciplined, and he can play with the ball."

With SPL player of the year Faris Ramli unavailable for the Yemen game due to personal reasons, Hafiz leads the contenders as Faris' replacement to support main striker Ikhsan Fandi as the Lions hunt for goals in Bahrain.

Hafiz started the Lions' 2-0 defeat by Asian champions Qatar in a friendly last Thursday, and he said: "We had a pretty good runout against Qatar, and although we struggled physically, we showed we could match their intensity, and I believe we are ready for Yemen."