Zaiful aims to lead Lions’ new-look defence to clean sheet, win in AFF C’ship opener
It is tough being a goalkeeper. You do whatever you can, using any part of your body to keep the ball out, but your mistakes are magnified and you are the easy target when things go wrong for the team.
It may be worse for the reserve custodians, who toil tirelessly in training only to sit on the bench, sometimes for years, before an opportunity arises.
For Zaiful Nizam, that chance has finally surfaced. With first-choice Lions goalie Hassan Sunny suspended, the 35-year-old will start in Singapore’s AFF Championship Group B opener against Myanmar at Jalan Besar on Saturday.
This will be only his fifth cap, second start, and first competitive match for the national team after making his international debut against Brunei in 2015.
He told The Straits Times: “I’m ready to show what I can do. Playing for the country is something every footballer looks forward to. For goalkeepers, the opportunities are limited because only one can play, and I have to make this count.
“It’s not easy to be on the bench for years and not play much, but it’s also important to be positive and ready when the time comes.
“As a goalkeeping department from coach Rameshpal Singh to Hassan Sunny, Syazwan Buhari and myself, we are united, constantly encouraging one another and helping to prepare whoever is starting, because the main aim is to help the team win.”
Zaiful had been in inspired form for Geylang International in the 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, winning the Golden Glove with a league-high nine clean sheets in 25 games to help the Eagles finish fourth in the eight-team league.
In previous seasons, he had also led Balestier Khalsa to win the 2013 League Cup and 2014 Singapore Cup, and played in the AFC Cup in 2015 and 2016.
He also put up decent performances in his four Lions appearances, conceding just twice in 239 minutes across four games, including the 3-1 friendly win over the Maldives on Dec 17.
Hassan, who is a distant cousin of Zaiful’s, backed his colleague to succeed in his place between the sticks in the Asean Football Federation Mitsubishi Electric Cup.
The 39-year-old, who has 100 caps, said: “We were young boys with dreams when we used to meet up during Hari Raya. His grandfather would speak highly of him, and he has grown to become a top goalkeeper in his own right.
“His calmness and shot-stopping abilities are a big part of his club’s top-half finish.”
Despite Singapore having a perfect record of six wins against Myanmar in this competition, both men are not taking anything for granted and highlighted the importance of adapting to the “light and slippery” Warrix ball that will be used for the tournament.
After training with the new ball and watching Myanmar lose 1-0 to Malaysia on Wednesday, Zaiful said: “The ball can swerve quite a bit, but both teams have to deal with the same ball.
“I’ve noticed Myanmar tried shooting from everywhere, so I will have to be alert. Catch or punch? I can’t say now, but when I play, I will know what I need to do. Winning the match is the priority, but I also want a clean sheet.”
Besides Hassan, centre-back Irfan is also suspended and based on the Maldives friendly, he could be replaced by M. Anumanthan in a back three that also features Hariss Harun and Shakir Hamzah.
Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya is unfazed with the seemingly makeshift nature of his backline – Hariss and Anumanthan are originally midfielders while Shakir is primarily a left-back.
The 49-year-old Japanese said: “It is important for goalkeepers to have experience, and Zaiful was amazing in the SPL.
“As for the defenders, it is good we have options capable of playing well in multiple positions. Hariss has quality and experience, Shakir still has so much potential as a leftie with his speed and strength in 1-v-1 situations, and Anu is a strong ball winner with good passing range and ability. I am confident they will step up for us.”
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