Versatile Hafiz boon to LionsXII

SINGAPORE - A nippy winger, an industrious full-back and a tenacious defensive midfielder. Three very different footballing roles, but all can be filled with some aplomb by the same person in the LionsXII team - Hafiz Sujad.

While most of the spotlight has been on striker Khairul Amri and captain Isa Halim, it is Hafiz's understated versatility that has been a vital factor behind the LionsXII's encouraging start this Malaysian Super League (MSL) season.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the 2-2 away draw with big-spending Johor Darul Takzim on Tuesday.

The 23-year-old started the game as the left-winger, switched midway to left-back to cover for injured Shakir Hamzah and left the pitch as a hero after grabbing the second-half equaliser.

No wonder then that coach Fandi Ahmad described his charge as a "priceless and selfless" member of the MSL champions.

The former national captain said: "I know that, wherever I put Hafiz, he never complains and gets the job done for me.

"Utility players like him are every coach's dream, but they sometimes don't get recognised for having a football brain."

In the case of Hafiz, the Beautiful Game runs in his blood.

Not only can he count Fandi as a cousin, but fellow Malaysia Cup legend Mohamed Noh is also his uncle, while father Abu Sujad was a former national left-back. Elder brother Nadzi also played professionally in the S-League.

Hafiz himself had skippered the Courts Young Lions in 2012, after being left out of the inaugural LionsXII squad.

Nowadays, he is considered a mainstay for club and country, even though his position remains in flux.

Slotting all over the field is no easy feat. For example, covering for Shakir in the backline was not just a matter of dropping 10 metres behind.

"Your body positioning changes instantly because, as a full-back, more players are running right at you," explained Hafiz.

"I have to keep fighting against instinct - up until then, it was a more attacking and penetrative mindset."

Of late, he has embraced the left-winger slot, which is in fact a throwback to his Singapore Sports School days.

At last month's SEA Games in Myanmar, Hafiz's hassling of opposing full-backs and ability to thread accurate low crosses contributed to Singapore's bronze medal showing.

While he also enjoys playing in central midfield, which gives him plenty of opportunities to showcase his ball-winning ability, his main ambition is to just be in the starting line-up.

"If coach needs me to play as goalkeeper, I'll do it too, but that may not be a good idea," said the chirpy youngster.

His name will undoubtedly be among the first on the teamsheet when the LionsXII host Pahang in an FA Cup second-round tie tomorrow.

Revenge is on the menu at Jalan Besar Stadium as they lost 0-1 to the same opponents in Kuantan in a league clash two weeks ago.

Should the LionsXII progress, the trophy is a realistic possibility as the second-tier's PDRM or PBAPP await in the quarter-finals.

With Shakir rated at 50-50 to recover from a quadriceps injury, fans could have yet another glimpse of Hafiz's versatility.

Fandi said: "The boy rarely makes the headlines and I think he doesn't want it either.

"But I hope fans realise that players like him are what makes our team tick."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg


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