It was barely two days after he had scored his decisive wonder goal in the AFF Suzuki Cup to make Malaysia unlikely champions of South-East Asian football, but Safee Sali already had his mind on other things.
With Malaysia only needing one goal to put the final beyond Indonesia’s reach, Safee received an inch-perfect through-ball from midfielder Ashari Samsudin, burst forward beyond the Indonesian defense, and blasted a thunderous left-footed shot into the top corner.
The 26-year-old footballer was the toast of the nation, an instant household name, mobbed by adoring fans screaming his name when he and the team arrived home from their heroics in Jakarta; but his heart was already somewhere else.
Speaking to me over the phone from his home in Shah Alam, Selangor, Safee wasn’t imagining more goal-scoring heroics for his country, or dreaming about becoming a David Beckham-style footballing celebrity. All he wanted to do was spend time with his two baby daughters.
“I’ve missed them very much,” he said, sounding slightly embarrassed as his older three-year-old daughter was screaming around him wanting to play.
He didn’t shush her or ask her to be quiet, but judging by how distracted he was at some points of the interview, he was multi-tasking on his side of the phone.
“The competition started almost a month ago. Since then, I’ve only been able to see my family for a day or so during home matches,” he said in Bahasa Malaysia. “But my older daughter said she saw me on TV!”
The soft, fatherly tone of his voice is a real contrast to his robust, boisterous style of play – not surprising since his favourite player is Wayne Rooney.
But he is a family man after all. He only gets a day off from training every week, and he always spends it at home with his wife and kids.
“I do follow the younger players out sometimes, but I like to stay at home and read books with my daughters. Even if I go out, it’s usually for bowling or a movie with my family,” he said.
When I asked if he has more responsibilities as a senior player in the squad, he said: “Young players do look up to me as a role model. I’m only 26, and actually, Amri Yahya is older (laughs)! But I know my responsibilities.”
Being a professional footballer, according to Safee, is very different from a normal job. Players must maintain a high level of discipline at all times, both on and off the field. You train at 100% every morning and evening for mostly six days a week, and on top of that, there’s the constant pressure from fans, the media, and an entire country. It’s not all WAGs and Bentleys.
“The younger players talk to me about the pressure sometimes,” he said. “Like when we were playing in Jakarta earlier in the tournament, they said they were nervous. So I told them to just play their game, don’t pay attention to the fans. Just do what you’ve always done and give your best.”
It’s a piece of advice that’s worked pretty well for Safee himself ever since he started dreaming of playing for Malaysia.
“I think it was in Standard Four, when I first played for my school. And when I started out as a professional, I told myself I would just do my best and see where it will bring me. I never thought I’ll be scoring in the AFF Cup final!” he recalled.
“It was probably the best goal I’ve ever scored, and it was quite a lucky one too! I’m actually right-footed, but I had to shoot with my left, so I just hit it as hard as I could and luckily it went in,” he added.
Safiq Rahim might already be the captain of the champions of South-East Asia and the heart of a Malaysian midfield that is fast gaining a reputation in the region for its tenacity and quality, but he’s still only 23 years old.
“I’m very proud to be captaining this team, but it’s not just my effort, it’s all the players. Every single player in this team deserves to be a captain. I don’t know why coach chose me.
“There are other senior players too, like Safee and Amri, so it was a shock when I was made captain. But that’s the good thing about this team – there’s no junior or senior players on the field. We only respect our seniors off the pitch, but on the pitch, we all lead each other,” said the Selangor ace.
Rousing words from the captain, but Safiq didn’t always speak that boldly.
The first time I interviewed him after his starring role in Malaysia’s SEA Games gold medal win, he was about as shy as his footballing idol, Paul Scholes.
I remember asking him how he felt about winning the gold medal, and he said “Gembira lah”.
This time around, when I asked him the same question, the captain started firing away.
“Very happy, proud, cool, cantik …” he said, plus a bunch of other adjectives I couldn’t write down in time, before rounding it up with a thank you to the Malaysian public for supporting them.
Ups and downs
But it hasn’t always been that way during Safiq’s career. Malaysian football is only just emerging from the doldrums and not too long ago, the national football team were still a laughing stock – in their own country.
Safiq doesn’t have any hard feelings towards the fans though. In fact, the pressure continues to motivate him.
“Now, everything is good. But we must keep it up. If we stop working hard, then the fans will go away again. This tournament is only a batu lonjatan (stepping stone). We want to go further for Malaysia,” he said.
By the time I interviewed Safiq, also two days after he had arrived back in Malaysia, it was 5.30pm, and he’d been doing interviews non-stop since 5am.
“I haven’t even seen my family yet! It’s just been interview after interview since I got back,” he revealed.
Many members of the Malaysian team are now household names, their official Nike kit has been sold out all over the Klang Valley, and goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi, who saved a first-half penalty, even made it to number five on Twitter’s worldwide trending topics list during the second leg of the AFF final.
Safiq’s own Facebook page has been flooded with congratulatory messages from the public, but he’s been so busy he hasn’t even gone through a single one of them.
So the big question now is: can this young Malaysia team cope with their new-found celebrity status? The cynics are already saying the players will lose focus once they receive their bonuses, but Safee and Safiq are having none of it.
“This team has a good mentality,” said Safee. “They won the SEA Games and still had the focus to become giants in South-East Asia. It’s actually better for the young players to experience this now, so they will know how to deal with the pressures of winning.”
Safiq added: “We know that we have to maintain our success to keep the fans’ support, and every player in this team wants that.
“There’s more pressure on us now, but InsyaAllah, we can handle it. We’re just going to do what we’ve always done, which is to work hard. That’s all we can do.”
Another Harimau with a flooded Facebook wall is 21-year-old defender Muslim Ahmad, who has been a revelation for Malaysia in the past year.
“I’ve had a lot of new friends now that we’ve won (the AFF Cup)!” joked Muslim. “It happened after the SEA Games too. But then my Facebook got hacked, and I’m only just starting to add friends again. I don’t really use it that much anyway. I just use it for the games.”
Like most of his teammates, Muslim doesn’t do much outside of football. When asked if he had any other hobby, his response was: “Football.”
“That’s my only hobby, I think. I play futsal when I’m off from training sometimes, and I like to go fishing too,” he said over the phone from his hometown in Terengganu.
Meanwhile, Safee and Safiq are fans of video games, but even then, they only play FIFA most of the time.
Occasionally, when the team gets a day off from the coach, Muslim said they go out for movies and shopping.
“I can’t remember the last movie I watched, though. I haven’t had the chance to watch Aku Masih Dara because of the AFF. I’d like to watch that if I had the time,” he added.
Unfortunately, the team only had five days off after the AFF Cup, before going back to the pitch for training sessions.
“But I don’t really feel like I don’t have time to do what I want to do,” said Muslim. “Young players should be disciplined. We should be working hard because we are here to improve Malaysian football.”
On paper, that next improvement for Malaysian football would be the Asia Cup. But Muslim is already targetting a bigger goal for Malaysia.
“This is just my personal dream now,” he stressed, careful not to place any burden on the rest of the team. “But I want to qualify for the World Cup. Brazil 2014. It’s only a dream. But whether I get there or not, I will still work hard.
“Now our main target is qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London. It’s just as hard as the World Cup, but I have faith in this team.”