By Kenneth Tan
After putting in much-improved performances over the past couple of matches, the 22-year-old is not keen to rest on his laurels
SINGAPORE, 29 March 2014: The season is barely three months old, but it has already been a rollercoaster ride for LionsXII midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin.
Taking over from former vice-captain Hariss Harun, he started the season on a good note with his involvement in goals against KL DRB-Hicom in the Malaysian FA Cup and Selangor FA in the Malaysian Super League (MSL).
However, he struggled in the middle of the park in successive home matches at the start of February, and as a result, he was dropped from the starting eleven for the next two matches. What was perhaps more stinging was the fact that the 22-year-old took the brunt of the criticism on social media platforms once things went wrong.
It was something which Zulfahmi himself did not expect coming but has since taken it in his stride.
“I didn’t really expect that (criticism),” he reflected after Thursday evening’s training session.
“I thought people will be more patient. After all I did not play much last season until the SEA Games campaign and now, I’ve just started playing regularly.
What I’ve learnt from this is just to ignore (the criticism) and put it to one side; everyone has their own opinions and I cannot blame them. At the same time, I told myself that criticism is good for me because more people will judge you when you become more successful.”
As someone who demands the best out of himself for every game, Zulfahmi readily admitted that his displays this season have not been up to par – be it by his own standards or those which Coach Fandi Ahmad has set for him.
Despite that, the latter has always kept his faith in the playmaker’s ability. Thus the man himself is eager to step up his game further in the upcoming games.
“I’m not happy with my performances so far,” he revealed.
“What ‘Abang’ (Fandi) has set for me is quite reasonable – he wants me to be more confident, take more responsibility when going forward, always demand for the ball and dominate the midfield. Basically he wants me to be ‘bossy’ when I play.
In terms of goals, he wants me to hit five goals which I think is not easy. I’m a player who prefers to pass to my teammates to score. But he has so much faith in me and I need to repay that.”
At least he is one down in hitting the goal tally which coach Fandi has set for him. A first-ever goal for LionsXII in the form of a stupendous 25-yard free-kick raised the roof at Jalan Besar Stadium and set the tone for a crucial 2-1 win against Selangor PKNS the last time out.
Scoring just once prior to that goal in his professional career so far, it was clear how much that goal meant to him as he went straight to the bench to celebrate with assistant coach Nazri Nasir.
Zulfahmi revealed that the 43-year-old, as well as national team coach Bernd Stange, has been pivotal in lifting his spirits while he was facing the barrage of criticism.
“It was one of the best moments of my career,” he said.
“When I was feeling down, Nazri was the one who came to me to motivate me and told me that he believes in me. Thus after scoring, I went straight to him and thank him for the faith in me.
Also Coach Bernd has been telling me to do extra training for free-kicks. He told me he has never seen players who can take good free-kicks here except for Shahfiq (Ghani).”
Following captain Isa Halim’s injury which will rule him out for rest of the MSL season, Zulfahmi has been restored to the starting eleven and will likely to play his third game in seven games on Saturday against PBDKT T-Team.
With this being the first season which he has been featuring regularly in, he admitted that he is still trying to get used to such a hectic schedule.
“It’s definitely not easy to cope, especially the flights to and fro,” he shared.
“But we can’t use that as an excuse (not to perform) because we’re professionals. We just have to be more disciplined to cope with playing three games in a week.”
In Isa’s absence, coach Fandi is likely to pair Firdaus Kasman with Zulfahmi in the middle of the park for most of the matches. It is a partnership which the latter is excited about and hopes to see sparks fly between the two of them.
“Everyone has been asking me that same thing – How is it like to cope without Isa?” he mused.
“It’s the same thing at the start of the season where people were asking how we were going to cope without Hariss. I think basically I need to maintain my usual role and not expect much from my partner.
I like to play with Firdaus, we’re the same type of player and he’s my good friend off the pitch as well. To play together with him is a fantastic opportunity.”
Confidence is currently returning to the LionsXII camp, with two straights wins and being just two points off the pace at the top. However Zulfahmi is keen not to take the challenge of T-Team too lightly.
“There’re no easy games in the MSL because everyone wants to beat us,” he stated.
“Playing at home, we really need to take control and play good football in order to win over the fans. We know we’re capable of that.”
This game against PBDKT T-Team will kick-off at 7.45pm tonight at Jalan Besar Stadium. Tickets for the game remain available for this game and you fans can get them via TicketBooth. For those who are unable to obtain tickets, you can catch the game ‘LIVE’ via StarHub Channel 201 (SuperSports Arena).
Do support the boys as they aim to get their third win on the trot!