He may come from a tiny island nation in Asia, but he has a built comparable to Europeans, a slender figure belying his strength and stamina that could match athletes from Africa, and football skills that some might associate with the South American continent. He is currently, undoubtedly, Singapore’s best all-round footballer, in terms of pure footballing talent. Safuwan Baharudin has always been the best player in the local football scene, despite the fact that he is usually deployed in an unfashionable position of centre-back. His versatility and immense skill has seen him play as an emergency forward and even central midfielder in Singapore’s Malaysian League (M-League) team LionsXII (or Lions-12). In more recent times, Safuwan is the proud flag bearer for Singapore football. Having attained a trial at Australian League (A-League) side Melbourne City FC earlier this year, Safuwan managed 70 minutes against Al Jazira of UAE, while coming on at right-back after just 15 minutes against Ukranian Premier League side FC Dnipro. Melbourne City initially did not want to take up Safuwan for competitive action in the A-League, but soon reversed their decision and took him on a three-month loan.
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The short nature of this loan may have dampened the optimism back home about having a Singaporean footballer playing top flight football abroad for the first time in a while, but this didn’t faze Safuwan as he immediately made waves in the league for his new side. It says something that Melbourne City coach John van ‘t Schip immediately thrusted Safuwan into his line-up in the vital Melbourne derby against city rivals Melbourne Victory. Safuwan continued to show his positional versatility by being deployed as a defensive midfielder during his debut in the derby. Although Melbourne City suffered derby defeat, it would not be long before Safuwan started earning recognition for his performances. He showed his set-piece prowess, one that is well-known to Singapore football fans, and managed to score two goals within a matter of weeks. Both goals came from corners, one which he lashed high into the net from close-range after a knockdown from a team-mate and the other a fine header at the back post. Goals may not be what is required from Safuwan as a defensive player, but scoring goals will always help his standing among the team and in the eyes of van ’t Schip, giving Safuwan a greater chance of securing a longer term full-time contract with Melbourne City.
In any case, Safuwan has faced competition for places all his football career, and facing up to bigger, stronger opponents in games and team-mates in training will not be any surprise to him. He made his international debut for Singapore aged just 18, and helped the national team coach phase out ageing stalwart Daniel Bennett. And while standing at just over 1.8m doesn’t make Safuwan the tallest for a defender in an European context, his intelligence, anticipation and pace gives him the edge over most opponents. He has a good leap as well, which contributes to his aerial prowess and goalscoring ability from set-pieces. Safuwan’s footballing ability also allows him to play out from the back with comfort – something most teams around the world currently demands, with their aspirations to play possession-based Barcelona-esque football.
He also has that winning mentality required of all top players. His defensive performance was integral to Singapore’s 2012 ASEAN Championship win over Thailand in the final, where for most of the game, Singapore were pegged back and had to defend their slender lead. The following year, Safuwan was part of the meanest defence in the M-League, which was a huge contributory factor towards the LionsXII’s maiden league championship. Safuwan will certainly be part of the core of the national team for years to come, and with his leadership ability, it would be no surprise if he is handed some form of national captaincy soon.
Only 23, Safuwan’s best years are ahead of him, and his time at Melbourne City so far can only benefit Singapore football. For one, he can show the A-League, and maybe more of the world, that Singaporean footballers do have the talent and ability to perform at a higher level, if given the right chance. Secondly, he can be the inspiration for young Singaporean footballers island-wide, to have them aspire to go abroad to further their footballing career. There are a few more Singaporean youth talents in the youth teams of overseas clubs that could make the first-team in the future, but right now there needs to be more Singaporean footballers playing in the first-team of higher quality top flights – leagues that are better and bigger than what the local league, and even the M-League, can offer. The whole Singapore football community hopes that Safuwan can keep up his level of performances for Melbourne City, further his professional career abroad and continue to proudly represent the best of Singapore’s football.
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Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Darren C.