Football: Melbourne City coach impressed with Safuwan so far

Football: Melbourne City coach impressed with Safuwan so far
Singapore international defender Safuwan Baharudin undergoing training with the Melbourne City FC (MCFC). He has signed for the club on a three-month loan, and will be with them for the remainder of the Hyundai A-League 2014/15 season.

Twisted, gnarled trees stand in one corner like ancient, unmoving spectators. Even they seem to shiver as the wind scrapes the face like a cold razor. Footballs lie scattered on the periphery of a lush field.

A man on a raised platform is using GPS to track how far players run. A coach watches, sorting out the puzzle that is football.

In Melbourne's north, tucked into a scenic corner of La Trobe University, Melbourne City are practising and voices cut through the morning silence, calling out names as they ask for the ball.

Josh. Andrew. Pat. Damien ...

And then, amid this Anglo-Saxon directory of names, one name sounds blissfully foreign as it is yelled.

Safuwan.

Just another player for them. A Singaporean pathfinder, first man from his island in the A-League, for us.

Practice done, he stands, polite and confident, as an Australian journalist interviews him. A photographer, smiling as Safuwan's shorts flutter furiously, laughs: "Cold? It's only summer, mate." Yes, but not just any summer for Safuwan Baharudin.

It's Wednesday, six days from when he first dragged his luggage straight from the airport to training, a day for him forever unforgettable. "I never dreamed I'd step into such a league, like a mini-European league." To be in here is a compliment, a promotion, yet also an examination.

"It's demanding," he says. "It's really demanding. You're here as a top player." Not a player as a development project really, but "already here to achieve something big. To make a name". In a different league he must find his different standard.

"It's a different pressure being here, so much media coverage about me for the past 3-4 days. I try not to read most of it. Back home people are watching you, wanting to know your updates. I am enjoying every single minute."

You like it.

And he flashes that grin of his.

"I am loving it."

He likes the "high-intensity" training, explaining "it's an experience where you want to learn something new here". He likes the facilities, the food available after training, the masseur close by, the two cycles in the dressing room to warm up before a match.

Comfort is what sporting voyagers seek, especially Asian ones, else their small complaints can build into homesickness. But Safuwan, who hasn't been here long enough to be frustrated by lack of playing time, has no quibbles.

He has moved to a furnished two-bedroom apartment in the Docklands, he drives a Hyundai as part of his relocation expenses, he's found - with the help of his wife's cousin - that in a cosmopolitan city anything, from nasi ayam to laksa, is available. He is drawn to this city where "no one is rushing for time", except perhaps on its unending fields.

Safuwan's positivity is heartening for he is carrying not just skill with him, but the armour of attitude. Football in Australia - faster, stronger, tougher - must be adjusted to and life in Melbourne must be adapted to. In Singapore, he admits, he can be fussy about food and stay, yet here is grateful for his fortune.

"When I first came here, I told myself automatically, all this nonsense has to go away." This is not his home town, but it is his new town of opportunity.

He told his wife, who is now with him: "Whatever we can get here, we have to really adapt. Whatever comes in our way we have to manage it".

He may be here for only three months, but he adds: "I want to make full use of what I have. And to keep the standard up because when you get back people will expect higher from you."

Safuwan is two players at once: Singapore star yet A-League novice. But it is an apprenticeship that is impressing coach John van't Schip. The lean Dutchman, familiar to Ajax followers - "I played with Fandi (in Holland)," he exclaims - is quietly optimistic about his foreign signing.

"Safuwan has made a very stable impression," said van't Schip. "He reads the game in a good way. His technical ability is more than average (and) he understands things quite quickly." Not given to overstatement, he is not stingy with praise.

Despite Safuwan's introduction to a more bruising football and an accelerated pace, his coach insists: "He has a toughness, he's not afraid." Whether with a tackle, or in telling players what he wants, the Singaporean is not "shy".

Today, City - last in the table last year, sixth so far this season - collide with rivals Melbourne Victory and perhaps Safuwan, in his second game, will spring from the bench to the field.

He is here to play but even as he waits he learns to play.

Transcending football cultures, especially from East to West, requires a resilience and an appreciation that in football difference lies a footballing education. In skill, and in mindset.

As Safuwan says: "It's not just football skills, but how committed you are, how disciplined." Here, coaches can be hard on players, "but it's how they get their message across. Some players may not like it, I don't mind it".

At 23, the architecture of Safuwan the football player is still taking shape, but even as he "appreciates" every moment, the higher he travels in sport, the more ruthless it turns.

In Singapore, for instance, he is aware that people know "what I am capable of". He's allowed a bad day back home, but not here in Australia, not amid elevated talent, not when his coaches only get a "few times to see me".

He must be nervous, excited, unsure, ambitious, all at once, for even as he is only trying to make his footballing life, he has inadvertently become a symbol.

For Singapore, he is a gifted pioneer, whose deeds may release within local footballers a spirit of confident adventure; for Australia, he is an experiment, whose talents will determine if they will look to our shores again.

For a player who resembles a slim, coiled spring, it is a major burden. But, clad in a smile, he looks ready to wear it, this Singaporean playing in a summer Melbourne wind, but hopefully, when it matters, running like one, too.


This article was first published on February 7, 2015.
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