Hanafi's making up for lost time
The star forward of the 2010 inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG), who helped Singapore bag a bronze medal, has not kicked a ball for some time. -ST
SINGAPORE - Killing the ball instantly with his first touch, he spins past his marker, sees the goal in the crosshairs and pulls the trigger.
The shot misses the target but it is a nice feeling for Hanafi Akbar just having the ball at his feet again.
The star forward of the 2010 inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG), who helped Singapore bag a bronze medal, has not kicked a ball for some time.
Hanafi, now 18, began to skip training after the success and almost drifted away from the sport in the last two years.
He spent his lost youth with bad company.
But Jita Singh, the Football Association of Singapore's senior head of game development, refused to give up on Hanafi.
He spent hours counselling the rebellious teenager. The move paid off.
Said Jita: "He stopped playing football for a while because of bad company. His coaches, his parents and I counselled and persuaded him to return to football.
"He has just done so and we're hopeful of guiding him back to the level he was before."
Hanafi admitted that he had only just come through a tough period in his life before returning to the squad this year. Even then, he missed the last one-and-a-half weeks of training owing to family problems.
But he is back on the straight and narrow now, training five times a week and playing a match every weekend for the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-18s, also called the NFA Reds, in the Prime League, a competition for youth and the S-League's second string.
He said: "My passion for football is always there as I want to make it my rice bowl. But it wasn't easy to train often with school projects and N level preparations last year.
"Also, I mixed with... the wrong crowd. That led me astray for a while."
Hanafi, a first-year fitness training student at ITE Simei, was reluctant to talk about that period of his life. Luckily for him, another party, national team striker Fazrul Nawaz, also helped to haul him back from the brink.
On his day off, Fazrul would join Hanafi in kickabouts with their Woodlands neighbours at basketball courts. After learning about the youngster's problems, he decided to shake him up from his slumber.
"Hanafi has a bright future and I really think he can go far with his talent," Fazrul told The Straits Times. "It would be a big waste if he didn't make it in football. "I advised him not to miss training, to always listen to his coaches, to go all out on the pitch and don't get involved with bad company."
Hanafi recalled the heart-to-heart talk.
"Fazrul told me that I was in danger of missing out on a career in football if I continued to skip training. That really woke me up."
So Hanafi brushed the dust from his boots and joined the NFA Reds for training at Bukit Gombak Stadium under the watchful eyes of coach Dejan Gluscevic and his assistant, former Singapore winger Steven Tan.
himself, the YOG players were in danger of losing their places in the squad amid reports of disciplinary issues and poor participation during training, with one session attended by just three players last year.
But, on Wednesday, Hanafi joined 24 others at training, including fellow YOG alumni Jeffrey Lightfoot, goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar, striker Muhaimin Suhaimi, midfielder Ammirul Emmran and wingers Brandon Koh and Jonathan Tan.
The team's main assignment is September's ASEAN Football Federation Under-19 Youth Championship, where Singapore are grouped with Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, hosts Indonesia and guests Australia.
Gluscevic is delighted with the turnout, saying: "Maybe they returned because they like the training even though the sessions are very tough.
"I am very satisfied with the players' behaviour and I can see a winning mentality developing. They really care about their reputations and about representing Singapore."
Despite his YOG record, Hanafi is not guaranteed of a place. "I'm happy with Hanafi's effort," Gluscevic, a Serb, added. "He's trying very hard to secure his place in the team."
But as he attempts to reclaim his lost lustre, Hanafi smiled and said: "It simply feels great to be back with the boys.
"My mind is now on football and achieving my dream of turning professional."
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