Saifullah Akbar. Remember the name.
The 23-year-old Lion City Sailors midfielder is primed to become the next phenom in Singapore football. Coming up together with the likes of Ikhsan Fandi as part of a new generation of young stars, he carries the hopes of a football-mad nation for the next decade. No pressure, bro.
Technically gifted and creative, Saifullah's talent on the pitch has led him all over the world, taking him on trials with European clubs such as Metz in France and Tenerife B in Spain.
Now a mainstay with local footballing giant Lion City Sailors, he helped the team to their first Singapore Premier League (SPL) title in 2021. Despite his on-field successes, he remains grounded and credits his father for instilling in him a love for the Beautiful Game when he was a child.
A love for football, a love for family
"My dad was the one who introduced me to football when I was five years old," says Saifullah.
"He brought me to the 5-star academy. Before that, I was just playing at the street soccer court. Afterwards, I asked him to bring me down every weekend and that's when I started to enjoy the sport."
Saifullah's father, Akbar Nawaz (shown above) is the current head coach of SPL club Balestier Khalsa and was a big influence on his son's career.
"He himself was a player but wasn’t able to make it as far as he [wanted]. That’s why he probably tried to get me interested in football - but he’s always so supportive of whatever I do," says Saifullah.
Bonded by their love for football and the fact that they are actively involved in the sport, Saifullah and his dad - who used to be a successful businessman - remain exceptionally close.
"He had his own business and was doing really well. But when he saw that I had the talent, he started to let go of his business and go back into coaching - which was a half-salary cut," reveals Saifullah. "That’s his level of commitment to the industry. I think it’s good because now I can talk to him and get advice about football anytime."
It takes a village to raise a child: Apart from Saifullah's father, his entire family - comprising his parents, a younger brother and two younger sisters - has also been there for him since day one. "They have never doubted any decision I've made," says Saifullah.
Dealing with pressure by looking at the big picture
With fame and success comes pressure. As one of the biggest rising stars in Singapore football, Saifullah had been in the spotlight even as a youth player. And the key to dealing with pressure: have perspective, says the midifielder.
"At the end of the day, playing football is something that I love to do. I’m doing it for myself and for my family," he says, adding that he's learnt to manage expectations and blocks them out when necessary.
"I know I can't please everyone. I might play well in this game but not in others. As long as I play well and perform well, that’s most important for the team and the coach."
Social media is such an integral part of football as well, what with clubs having huge fanbases that follow - and comment on - a player's every move online.
"Actually I don’t really read comments on social media. Recently I tried reading a few and they're ridiculous - and I realise why I don’t read comments," says Saifullah, laughing.
"Like I said, you cannot please everyone. They always have opinions. Most footballers are not affected by it."
Training overseas as a youth player made him a better footballer
While he is currently dominating the local game, he still has fond memories of his stints in France, Australia and Spain as a youth player. Saifullah recalls how he was in awe of the intensity on display and how seriously overseas players took the sport.
"When they train it’s like war. It’s like they’re playing the real game," he says, adding that the level of competition was extremely high.
"They have so many players in the country. When we as foreigners come to the side, we’re taking one of the local spots - they don't like that. Even their own local players in training are very aggressive."
But is the gulf in quality between local footballers and those overseas that huge? Saifullah doesn't seem to think so.
"In terms of training intensity and technical ability, yes they are on a different level. They think faster. Their decision making is a lot faster," he says. "But it’s good because playing with better players helps me improve. I believe that not only I, but a few others Singaporean footballers as well, can match up to that level."
Saifullah recalls playing against current Liverpool first-team player Curtis Jones back in 2015 as part of a youth tournament, and how he was on the same level as the future star.
"When [Curtis] went on to make his first team debut for Liverpool, we instantly recognised him and talked in our chat group," says Saifullah, who believes that since he and Curtis were on the same level then, it means greater things are coming for his own career.
"Five years later, Curtis is playing in the Premier League! Knowing that Curtis Jones can play in the Premier League gives me the confidence that I can be somewhere even higher!"
Keeping his eyes on the (local) prize
While the European dream remains, Saifullah is fully focused on defending the SPL title going into the new season. Now that he is no longer chasing the title but defending it instead, it requires a different mindset.
"We’re going to be even more focused than we were last season. Like people say, it’s easier to win the title than to defend it. We cannot take the foot off the pedal. We have to maintain our focus and not take anything for granted," he says.
Only in his early 20s, Saifullah is cognizant of the importance of having more experienced players such as Hariss Harun and Shahdan Sulaiman around to give him advice because younger players tend to get distracted and are not as focused as the senior ones.
"They have gone through the downside of football and they wouldn’t want me to go through it," says Saifullah. "I talk to them a lot. They always say, never take training lightly; treat it like it’s your last. Always push yourself."
Saifullah hopes to use his recent experiences at the AFF Suzuki Cup, playing in front of home fans at the National Stadium, to spur him on for the coming season.
"It was an amazing experience because I hadn't played in the Sports Hub since before my national service enlistment, so I was excited to play and have a good campaign," said Saifullah. "It was a full crowd at every game - 10k and sold out. It was nice to play in front of the home fans."
Early NS enlistment taught him a few life (and career) lessons
Speaking of national service, Saifullah's experiences in the army can be used as a shining example for pursuing sporting excellence while still fulfilling one's NS duties. While he pushed for early enlistement at the age of 17 (so that it wouldn't adversely affect his playing development), he is candid about the challenges he faced initially as one of the youngest recruits in the unit.
"I wanted an eight-five vocation so that I could play football in the evenings but I ended up getting the opposite," recalls Saifullah. After his Basic Military Training (BMT), he was posted to an infantry unit as a rifleman, which was full-on soldiering, and a vocation that only allowed him to book out on weekends.
The deep yearning to play football once put him in the crosshairs of his officers when he tried to break the rules to do so.
"I almost got severely punished because I tried to lie about taking an MC but I got caught. I spoke to them and explained to them my reasons. But at the end of the day, I still had to get punished and got 21 days SOL (stoppage of leave)," says Saifullah.
His in-camp punishment gave him time to reflect, and Saifullah decided to make the best of a situation which he couldn't control, and concentrate his efforts on doing his best to serve the nation.
"I went through all the training and on all the overseas missions, and eventually started to enjoy myself," says Saifullah who added that he even started getting along well with his commanders.
"You just have to do your best and people will appreciate you."
Saifullah and his mates performed so well that his unit won a "Best Unit" award. The best part: he was allowed to take leave to participate in a football tournament.
"My time in NS taught me that whatever I do has to be genuine and sincere. Keep pushing during training and control the things you can - like the amount of effort you put in training, your professionalism, your image," says Saifullah.
Gathering the lost sheep of local-football fandom
With the rise of Lion City Sailors, exciting times are ahead for local football. Saifullah hopes that the club's new star signings, participation in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Champions League, and raising standards amongst SPL clubs will bring back football fans who have not followed the local scene in a while.
"It's not just the Sailors, I think other clubs are doing their part to match us. For example, Hougang Utd signed a former Crystal Palace midfielder (35-year-old Andre Moritz), and Tampines is securing players with five-year contracts," said Saifullah.
"All the clubs are doing what we can to bring Singapore football forward. They are trying to match us (Lion City Sailors) instead of the other way round. Everyone will try to push each other and that’s how you improve the league."
The Lion City Sailors are also assembling a star-studded squad for the upcoming season with the likes of Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne and South Korean international Kim Shin-wook among the new additions.
"I hope we will do enough to pull the fans every game to have a full stadium (at Jalan Besar)," says Saifullah. "Last season, we had a fully-packed stadium at every game. Hopefully, the league can up the current capacity of 1,000 spectators."
With shiny signings, the inclusion of international stars on the team, and our main man Saifullah on the LCS team, this could very well be the jump-start that the local football scene needs. See you at Jalan Besar Stadium!
Catch the Lion City Sailors in action at their next game, the 2022 AIA Community Shield vs. Albirex Niigata on Saturday (Feb 19), 5.30pm at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
This article was first published in Wonderwall.