IPOH - When the LionsXII's starting line-up was announced over the tannoys, cheers greeted the names of each and every single Singaporean footballer.
Except for one.
But goal-scoring hero Zulfahmi Arifin has silenced the boos after his starring role in the 2-1 Malaysian Super League (MSL) win over PKNS at Jalan Besar Stadium last Saturday night.
Recalling the unpleasant chorus from a small section of fans, the 22-year-old told The Straits Times: "Coming from our own fans, it was really painful. Of course, I don't blame them - they pay to come watch us play, so if I'm not performing well, it's not fair to them.
"But I'd be lying if I said that it did not affect me."
An accurate passer whose talent on the pitch is matched only by his reticence off it, Zulfahmi has borne the brunt of the fans' frustrations after struggling in midfield this season.
But he answered those doubts with an improved performance that included a stunning 25-metre free-kick goal that swerved and dipped into the top corner.
That brought out a loud roar from the Jalan Besar faithful.
It was his first LionsXII strike since joining the team last season, yet coach Fandi Ahmad is already expecting more. "He doesn't realise his true potential," the 51-year-old said of his charge. "He needs to constantly be told to take his man on, or to play the ball forward quickly."
Zulfahmi will get another chance to impress when the Singapore side take on struggling Perak in Ipoh on Tuesday night.
With skipper Isa Halim set to undergo surgery on a troublesome left heel on Friday, the coach has been left with some questions to answer about his midfield.
"We're trying to groom Raihan (Rahman) for the defensive midfield role and he was superb on Saturday," Fandi said.
"But maybe due to his inexperience, he gave the ball away a number of times.
"So we're looking to Zulfahmi to be more involved and supply the penetrating passes that can open up opposing defences."
The LionsXII are currently eighth in the 12-team MSL with 11 points, while the inexperienced Perak team are lying second from bottom on eight points and winless in their last four matches.
"Our progress is a bit stagnant because we're struggling to deal with the tight schedule and all the travelling," admitted Perak coach Abu Bakar Fadzim.
"After their last result, the LionsXII will come here in a positive mood. My boys' confidence level is down, and that's something I'll have to talk to them about."
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