SINGAPORE - In 2020, Zharfan Rohaizad was at a crossroads after leaving the Young Lions. He was enlisted into national service, the coronavirus was starting to wreak havoc, causing the suspension of the Singapore Premier League (SPL), and the then 23-year-old was without a club.
During the circuit breaker, he stayed home and entertained friends by singing karaoke on Instagram Live. Privately, he was worried if that was the end of his football career.
"But when the league resumed and I saw everyone back in action, I realised I want to be playing," said the 1.8m goalkeeper, who was thankful to be able to train with the Lion City Sailors Under-21s and Geylang International.
Last May, his police unit gave the green light for him to be picked up by Tanjong Pagar United, and Zharfan grabbed the chance with both hands.
While he did not keep a clean sheet in 13 games last season, he played an important role in the Jaguars' surge in form as they pushed Tampines Rovers, their opponents this Saturday (May 28), hard for a spot in the AFC Cup before finishing fifth.
In nine matches this term, he has two shutouts - the joint second-most in the Golden Glove race - as his team climbed to third. He also tops the list of saves made with 46.
On Tuesday, he also received a national call-up from new Lions coach Takayuki Nishigaya.
Zharfan, who missed the 1-1 draw against Hougang on May 14 due to Covid-19, said: "Our team are greater than the sum of their parts. People have been writing us off since the start, but we have grown in belief and confidence since the second half of last season, and beating Albirex in our first game this year reinforced that.
"Most importantly, we are a family and there is never a dull day in this team."
Things have never been easy or straightforward for Zharfan, who was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse, a heart condition, when he was young.
At eight, his first sport was hockey, and he was also in goal. At 11, he started playing football, and was such a natural he earned a place at the Singapore Sports School after a trial.
"But I hated goalkeeping, because it was so repetitive and I felt it would lead me nowhere," he said.
Encouragement from his mother, overseas opportunities such as training stints with J-League's Albirex Niigata and Brazil's Portuguesa, and being signed by LionsXII made him realise he could make football - and goalkeeping - a career.
"Personally, I feel I am more consistent and confident in goal, and it helps that I have commanders like Daniel Bennett, Faritz Hameed and Raihan Rahman in front of me. Further up, we also have established players like Blake Ricciuto and Reo Nishiguchi," said Zharfan, who also aims to follow in Singapore No. 1 Hassan Sunny's footsteps to play in Thailand in the future.
Jaguars coach Hasrin Jailani urged his team to prove that their fine start to the season is not a fluke. He said: "Zharfan is not the tallest, but he has presence, good reflexes and distribution.
"He still needs to improve on his decision-making and maintain concentration for the full match, but we are happy with how he has strengthened our team and provides good competition for our other goalies like Fashah Iskandar.
"Through our comebacks such as the 5-3 win over Balestier and 3-3 draw against Tampines, you can see our players working for one another."Some people don't give us a chance, but we are happy to play spoilers. We want to achieve something this season."
Albirex v Geylang (May 27, 7.45pm)
The Eagles battled to a 2-2 draw with the White Swans at Our Tampines Hub in April, but have incredibly lost their last 11 games against Albirex at Jurong East by a combined score of 35-0. Geylang coach Noor Ali has quite rightly demanded goals if they are to avoid the wooden spoon, while Ilhan Fandi is in a race to be fit for his Albirex debut.
Hougang v Balestier (May 28, 5.30pm)
Both teams are level on 10 points, in the midst of a three-match winless run, fired blanks last week, and will be desperate to not lose ground on the top half.
Hougang are missing Andre Moritz, Fabian Kwok, Ridhuan Barudin, Idraki Adnan and Zulfahmi Arifin through injury and illness, but Balestier have won just once in their last 17 away games.