Suzuki Cup: Singapore's Safuwan set to claim 100th cap

Singapore's Safuwan Baharudin (21) in action against Myanmar during a Suzuki Cup group stage match at the National Stadium on Dec 5, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - He was in his early teens when his Singapore Sports School coach Teng Wei Ken asked the football team to jot down an age they felt they would be knocking on the door of the national team.

Full of enthusiasm and optimism, Safuwan Baharudin wrote down "18/19", and his self-belief was not misplaced as he did make his Lions debut as a starter in the 2010 King's Cup against Thailand when he was 18.

Twelve years on, sitting on the brink of a 100th cap in the Suzuki Cup Group A match against Timor-Leste on Tuesday (Dec 14), he was less sure when The Straits Times asked him to describe his international career in one word.

Eventually, the 30-year-old settled on "unbelievable", and it is not difficult to see why.

Growing up as a scrawny kid in Woodlands, he was four when he first kicked a ball under the influence of his father, who would later sign him up with local academies before enrolling him in the Sports School's pioneer batch of footballers.

"Like every other kid, I just wanted to play and score goals," he said.

But as he rose through the National Football Academy ranks and started displaying his natural aerial abilities coupled with impeccable timing and hang time, he began playing further back, dropping to midfield and then defence.

By the time he was with the NFA Under-17s, the late coach Salim Moin had converted him into a centre-back, although his versatility remains a useful weapon for club and country.

Safuwan said: "When we were younger, we did as we were told by coaches. It is only later on that one realises how drastic the changes were.

"It's the kind of thing that can make or break a career, but I'm grateful for coach Salim who saw the player I could be. In football, you cannot depend on just one position. It was a good transition and I'm thankful I still have the striker's instinct and nose for goal.

"We would still talk on the phone and it's a shame he is not around anymore to see me get my 100th cap."

Being able to excel in different positions has made him a Lions mainstay and much sought after at club level.

After playing for the Young Lions and winning the Malaysian Super League with the LionsXII, he became the first Singaporean to feature in Australia's A-League, albeit playing only six matches for Melbourne City, where he scored twice. He then moved on to Malaysian sides PDRM, Pahang and now Selangor.

After his Asean Football Federation Championship debut in 2010, he went on to start each of the Lions' 20 games in the next five campaigns and won the 2012 edition.

Remarkably for a defensive player, he has scored at least once every year since 2009, including a memorable hat-trick for Singapore in the 6-1 win over Timor-Leste at the 2018 Suzuki Cup.

His secret? Watching YouTube videos 10 minutes before matches according to the position he is going to play in.

His go-to for defenders are Sergio Ramos and Nemanja Vidic. For defensive midfielders, he turns to Sergio Busquets. For old times' sake, he also studies striker Robert Lewandowski.

"It's for motivation and visualisation. As for Lewandowski, I like to watch his runs and finishing in the final third. There will be times when I'm in those positions, and I want to be ready," said Safuwan, who scored in the 3-0 win over Myanmar and was Man of the Match in the 2-1 win against the Philippines at this Suzuki Cup.

In the process of becoming Singapore's 14th centurion, he also married Alia Qistina, with whom he has two sons aged five and one, and feels that he has matured on and off the pitch.

Referring to the infamous 2010 "footbrawl" between Young Lions and Beijing Guoan for which he received a $2,000 fine, Safuwan said: "I have cut out stupid things like that, and sleeping late and the junk food. It's no longer about myself. I have to think about the bigger picture because I now have a family to feed.

"I have also grown in terms of game play and taking responsibility. I take more risks with playing penetrative passes now, whereas in the past, I was more content with just securing the defensive line and kicking the ball up. I'm also more vocal on the pitch now."

National coach Tatsuma Yoshida paid tribute to Safuwan's "talent and ability, leadership and experience".

"Every player wants 100 caps for his country, but it is so hard to reach this milestone. It is a big achievement that says everything about his consistency, and I'm not surprised he will have 100 caps and more," said the 47-year-old.

Still only 30, and having "climbed many mountains", Safuwan has his sights set on scaling new peaks.

First on the list is another Suzuki Cup tilt, before a push for a historic Asian Cup qualification.

He said: "It hasn't been easy having a new coach and a different philosophy every two years since we last won the Suzuki Cup in 2012, especially when we are talking about the national team with players from different clubs combining for only two weeks to a month at once.

"But now coach Tatsuma has given us the confidence to play progressive football, and in terms of maturity, quality and unity, we now have one of the best squads since 2012.

"If we can achieve something this year, we will have positive vibes and momentum and a great chance of challenging for a place in the 2023 Asian Cup."

Safuwan is also eyeing another number, 150, which will take him past Daniel Bennett's Singapore record of 142 caps.

With a laugh, he said: "When you first see the figures for Cristiano Ronaldo (184 caps) and Sergio Ramos (180 caps), you will think, aiyah tipu (malay for bluff) lah.

"But when I'm reaching 100, I start to think, if they can do it, then with four or five years, it's possible for me too. Fingers crossed, I will continue to be fit and healthy to pull it off as it would be a great honour, just like it is getting to 100."

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