SINGAPORE - For nine years, Zaiful Nizam was a driving force for Balestier Khalsa on the pitch, a vocal, indomitable presence between the goalposts for a side that, from time to time, punched above their weight.
On Sunday (Oct 3) at Our Tampines Hub, his job will be to keep them at bay.
The 34-year-old goalkeeper will line up for Geylang International in their Singapore Premier League (SPL) clash against Balestier.
It will be the first time the national shot-stopper will face the Tigers since his contract was unceremoniously terminated seven weeks ago after he refused to come on as a substitute in an SPL game, an incident he has since said he regretted.
"It's a bit weird preparing to play against the team I represented for so many years," Zaiful said with a wry smile after a training session on Friday.
"But I'm quite OK overall. At the end of the day, we're playing a football match, and my challenge as a player, and my mentality going into it, will be the same as any other."
The game, originally scheduled for Sept 19, was postponed for two weeks because a Geylang player tested positive after their 5-0 loss against Albirex Niigata on Sept 11.
There is little left to play for this season for either team, who are likely to finish in the bottom half of the SPL, but Zaiful's situation adds intrigue to the fixture.
He said the "suddenness" of how his almost decade-long affiliation with Balestier, a club he played more than 200 league games for and won the Singapore Cup and League Cup with, ended was what made it difficult to process.
Asked if it felt strange to don a jersey with a new crest on his chest, he admitted: "Yes, at first, because of the new surroundings and the fact that I was no longer around the group of players I had been with for so long.
"Thankfully, the coaching staff, management and players here at Geylang have welcomed me with open arms. I'm really appreciative of what the club have done for me, and I hope I can eventually pay them back."
Geylang head coach Noor Ali, who signed Zaiful barely a week after he was axed by Balestier, said the player has been a "superb professional" since he arrived and confirmed he would start against his former side.
"As a senior player, he sets a good example, and his approach to everything is very positive," said the coach. "He captained Balestier for many years, and that leadership quality is definitely an asset to our squad."
A point on Sunday will ensure second-from-bottom Geylang avoid finishing last in the SPL. Their recent form has been dismal, with the team losing five of their last six games.
Noor Ali pointed to his injury-hit team's rotating line-up, which led to an inability to build consistency, as the chief reason for his side's woes and added: "It's something we have had to deal with the whole season, so it's disappointing.
"But right now, all we can do is prepare for another tough game against Balestier and we aim to do well."