A new beginning for Hanafi

He was once considered the Republic's most exciting prospect.

A fleet-footed attacker, Hanafi Akbar was a major part of the much-vaunted Youth Olympic Games (YOG) team that clinched bronze here in 2010.

Dubbed the "Gelek Prince" for his dribbling skills, he piqued the interest of the Tottenham Hotspur Academy and youth coaches from Italian club Juventus soon after.

But, in the past year or so, the 18-year-old's development has not gone to plan.

Growing pains and part-time work distracted him from football. He began to skip training with the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-18 team earlier this year and eventually quit the team in August.

A few coaches wrote him off at the time, labelling him a "rebel" and too ill-disciplined to succeed.

All that is behind Hanafi now, as S-League club Balestier Khalsa have offered him a new lease of life.

Hanafi signed a two-year deal with the Toa Payoh-based club Tuesday, announcing his return to the game after more than three months of not kicking a ball.

Balestier chairman S Thavaneson did not conceal his excitement about his new young signing, who will join the club's Prime League ranks.

"You will certainly see him make appearances in the S-League next year," said the 65-year-old.

But he added that Hanafi must shape up in order to be successful in the long run.

Said Thava: "Hanafi realises now that he will miss out on football if he doesn't get his act together.

"I've spoken to him and his parents. I didn't beat around the bush - I told the boy what was needed of him, and to put the past behind him.

"All the talent in the world counts for nothing without discipline and motivation.

"He may have been rebellious before, but simply warning him isn't the answer. It's not counselling he needs, but mentoring."

Hanafi declined to reveal why he left the NFA set-up three months ago, except to say that he had "issues with certain people".

Last month, national coach Bernd Stange and Courts Young Lions coach Aide Iskandar had arranged a meeting with him.

On the day of that appointment, Hanafi did not show up and was uncontactable.

"I lost my phone during that period, and I didn't know how to contact them," explained Hanafi.

LACK OF MOTIVATION

"But I want to put all that behind me. My biggest problem was a lack of motivation. I lost the (zest) for football at one point.

"But that's the past. Now, I just want to focus on football and my studies."

Hanafi, who plans to enrol in an engineering course at ITE Central in January, was pursued by several other clubs over the past two months, including Geylang International and Warriors FC.

The forward, who can operate as a winger or striker, opted for Balestier because of the promise of first-team opportunities.

Thava cited former Woodlands general manager R Vengadasalam as the man responsible for bringing Hanafi to the club.

Venga, 53, who recently joined the Balestier management team, will supervise Hanafi's progress.

"All good players are temperamental or difficult in some way; they just need to be looked after correctly," said Venga.

"Hanafi is an immense talent, and now we need to develop that talent. If he blossoms, he will be the sort of player fans pay to watch.

"He's the next big thing in Singapore football, no doubt. The Gelek Prince is about to become a king. Watch and see."


Get The New Paper for more stories.