Football: Gaining experience is Zulfahmi Arifin’s main objective in Thai adventure

VIDEO: SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ
Zulfahmi Arifin at the street soccer court (left) in Ang Mo Kio where he spent countless hours playing when he was a teenager and holding his new club Chonburi's jersey (below).
Zulfahmi Arifin at the street soccer court (above) in Ang Mo Kio where he spent countless hours playing when he was a teenager and holding his new club Chonburi's jersey.ST PHOTO: SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ,
Zulfahmi Arifin at the street soccer court (left) in Ang Mo Kio where he spent countless hours playing when he was a teenager and holding his new club Chonburi's jersey (below).
Zulfahmi Arifin at the street soccer court in Ang Mo Kio where he spent countless hours playing when he was a teenager and holding his new club Chonburi's jersey (above).PHOTO COURTESY OF CHONBURI FC

The street soccer court along Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 looks like any of the hundreds scattered across Singapore, but it holds special memories for national footballer Zulfahmi Arifin.

"This was where I started playing," said the 26-year-old with a tinge of nostalgia in an interview with The Straits Times yesterday.

Zulfahmi has come a long way from playing football at street soccer courts and void decks in Ang Mo Kio where he grew up.

He was part of the national team who won the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2012, even though he did not feature in the tournament.

He also has a Malaysia Super League (MSL) winners' medal from 2013, as part of the now-defunct LionsXII. He played for S-League clubs Home United and Hougang United in the last two seasons.

On Monday, he signed a one-year contract to play as a foreign import for Chonburi FC in Thailand's top-tier league next year. They finished seventh out of 18 teams last season.

Zulfahmi will be only the second Singaporean outfield player after English-born midfielder John Wilkinson in 2011 to play in what is widely regarded as South-east Asia's top football league.

His move to Chonburi caught many by surprise.

Zulfahmi revealed that he was introduced to a Thai agent in August by a mutual friend, who knew of his dream to play in the Thai league.

Last month, the agent informed him that second-tier Thai side Angthong FC wanted him to go for a four-day trial.

But a day before he flew to Thailand, the agent called to tell him that Chonburi, 2007 Thai league champions and two-time Thai FA Cup winners, were also interested in him.

"I was very shocked because Chonburi are a big club," said Zulfahmi, whose first love was basketball. "But, at that moment, I just wanted to honour my word to Angthong."

After just one day of training with Angthong, the club decided they were keen on Zulfahmi and began negotiations on a contract. But, on the advice of his agent, he decided to travel to Chonburi.

The Thai club were on the lookout for a central midfielder who could also play at centre-back, and Zulfahmi fit the bill perfectly.

He trained with Chonburi for four days, before playing in a friendly match against Thai Port, the Thai league's big spenders, last Saturday.

He played about 60 minutes of the match which Chonburi lost 2-3. But it was enough to convince the club to sign him on Monday.

National coach V. Sundram Moorthy believes Zulfahmi will be richer for the experience.

"He is determined and motivated to achieve this dream," said the 52-year-old coach, who played for Swiss team FC Basel in the 1988-89 season.

"It is good he will get the opportunity to take on more responsibility as a foreign player in Thailand."

GOOD CHOICE

They play pass-and-move football in Thailand and their players are technically good. When you train and play with better players, you will improve.

PHILIPPE AW, who coached Zulfahmi Arifin last season at Hougang United, believes the midfielder will thrive in Thailand.

Hougang coach Philippe Aw is confident Zulfahmi will become a better player in Thailand.

"They play pass-and-move football in Thailand and their players are technically good," he said.

"When you train and play with better players, you will improve."

Unlike some of his national teammates who have played in Indonesia and Malaysia like Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan, Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin, Zulfahmi will not be earning big bucks at Chonburi.

His salary will be only "slightly higher" than what he got at Hougang, although Chonburi will provide him with an apartment and a car. His wife, a sales professional whom he married three months ago, will remain in Singapore.

"The money is not as big as what the (Singaporean) players who signed for Malaysian clubs are getting," said Zulfahmi, who has 33 caps for the Lions .

"But it's not about the money. I didn't even negotiate with Chonburi. I was willing to accept whatever they were willing to offer.

"I care more about the experience I stand to gain."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Gaining experience is Zulfahmi's main objective in Thai adventure'. Print Edition | Subscribe