Floorballer Hafiz Zubir’s Finnish stint paying dividends
His coach at Classic United says he can develop into a top-tier player in the No. 1-ranked floorball nation
Singaporean floorballer Hafiz Zubir's gamble a year ago to test himself in the sport's top-ranked nation is starting to pay dividends.
Since signing a one-season deal with Finland's Classic United last September, the forward's career path has been fraught with challenges.
However, he continued to push boundaries, earning another season's contract at the third-tier club and a recall to the national set-up.
The 30-year-old did not take long to repay the faith shown in him, getting on the scoresheet in United's 10-6 season-opening win over Mailattomat on Oct 3 in Group A of the Suomisarja.
"I took it (playing in Finland) as a challenge, I just wanted to push myself," the Tampere-based Hafiz told The New Paper.
"I have won quite a few titles in Singapore (six with Black Wondersticks), so I wanted to move to push my boundaries and get out of my comfort zone.
"Also, last year, I was dropped from the national team, so I didn't want to sit around and pity myself."
Hafiz enjoyed a great start to his overseas stint 12 months ago, bagging a goal on his home debut, but the financial burden was beginning to take a toll.
With a pay packet absent from his initial deal and a protracted visa complication hindering Hafiz from securing a job, his gamble had begun eating into his savings.
"It was getting tough, but I weighed the pros and cons. I thought about my goals and I felt I had to persevere," he said.
And that was exactly what he did. Focusing on why he moved over 9,000km away from home, Hafiz worked his socks off to merit 12 appearances for United, contributing six goals and three assists.
It was the kind of form that clinched him a national-team spot for the World Floorball Championship (WFC) qualifiers in March, with coach Lim Jin Quan also impressed with Hafiz's eagerness to keep abreast of team tactics.
"His aggression, tactical movement and finishing are three areas where progress has been most evident," said Lim.
"He was called up due to his ability, and how quickly he was able to adapt to the team's tactics and gel with the team. This was possible because of his willingness to consistently communicate with the coaching team and his teammates to stay up to date with the tactical changes."
While Hafiz put in a Man-of-the-Match display in the 7-6 friendly loss to Australia in February, his hopes of representing Singapore competitively again suffered a blow when the qualifiers were scrapped due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Then came the double whammy. Within days of returning to Finland, he learnt that the league had been annulled, possibly damaging his chances of earning a new contract.
With his savings depleting and the prospect of furthering his floorball career in tatters, Hafiz found himself at a crossroads again.
"I felt I didn't get a full season (to prove my worth)," he said.
"The purpose of my coming here is to challenge myself and to play at a higher level... I felt that the fulfilment wasn't enough... so I stayed."
To sustain a longer-term stay, Hafiz managed to secure a job as a marketing influencer with software developer, Third Wave International.
Taking up a job unrelated to the Nitec course (Engineering in building services technology) he completed at ITE College (East) and working long hours to compensate for his floorball training highlight Hafiz's resolve.
"It is what it is," he said casually, when asked about juggling his responsibilities.
Easing the financial burden was a huge relief, but it was not as satisfying as signing on for a second season, as Hafiz felt he had more to achieve.
"I have evolved as a player," said Hafiz, who has represented Singapore in three WFCs and was also part of the 2015 SEA Games gold medal-winning squad.
"I'm fitter and better suited to the pace and intensity of the game in Finland. I am technically better, like my ball handling, and my decision-making has improved as well.
"As a forward, knowing when to shoot or pass is key."
United coach Vesa-Matti Virtanen, who took charge in May, was effusive in his praise of the club's first Asian import.
"Hafiz is a competitive floorballer, a great goalscorer, who is eager to develop his skill set," said the 42-year-old Virtanen, who is also the assistant coach of top-tier SC Classic, with whom he has won four league titles and three cups.
"Since I've come in, he has improved on his shooting, passing and ball control, and I believe his development will continue.
"He has a good chance to become even better. His current level is that of the (Finnish) second or third tier and, if he keeps it up, he can go further (to the first division)."