The physiotherapist tells Goal.com Singapore how she came to take on the role of caring for the Singapore national team football players
By Afifah Ariffin
In a rejection letter written in 1994, Sir Alex Ferguson had snubbed an application by a female physiotherapist to work with Manchester United, claiming that “my lads won’t like that”. The letter was leaked almost two decades later to The Mail and sparked off a sexism debate in the traditionally male-dominated world of football.
But of course, times have changed since then. Football has been more accepting of women working professionally in the sport, with the likes of Eva Carneiro (Chelsea’s first team doctor) and Sian Massey (an assistant referee) proving that women can indeed stake a claim in the game.
And Singapore should be proud that we have had two consecutive women taking on the role as the national team’s physiotherapist to nurse players back to their prime.
When I met with Nurhafizah Abu Sujad last week, it was hard to identify this sweet lady as the resilient rock behind the Lions. Her job as the team’s physiotherapist may pose many challenges, but don’t let her petite frame and shy demeanor detract you from her capabilities.
Hafizah is also the designated physiotherapist for Malaysian Super League side LionsXII but unknown to many, her initial career choice was of a different profession.
“Actually, I wanted to be a nurse,” she revealed. “But one day, I was playing netball and got injured."
“The physio who was treating me at that time was actually what inspired me to become one myself.”
The former national netball player began her career as a physiotherapist with the Singapore Sports Council and was originally assigned to other sports, such as netball and rugby.
Her first opportunity to work in football arose in 2011.
“Hwee Koon (Yeo Hwee Koon, then-physiotherapist for the Lions) needed help with the Young Lions going into the SEA Games, as she was busy handling the national team with the World Cup qualifiers in 2011, so she requested for my help,” Hafizah recalled.
A year later, she was approached to take on the role as the national team’s physiotherapist after Yeo’s departure. With her already deep passion for football, she thought: “Why not?”
As we spoke about the difficulties of being taken seriously as the only female attending to a group of men, all she did was to shrug it off with a smile.
Hafizah reassuringly stated that her time with the Lions has been pleasant thus far, adding that she is well received by the players and is affectionately known as “Fiza” or “Kak” to the younger players, which means sister in Malay.
“Initially I was a bit apprehensive because we have senior players and I thought they would be quite resistant to me,” she said.
“As I got to know them better, it (working with them) went [more] smoothly.
“Surprisingly, I don’t have any difficulty being the only female in the team. They don’t treat me differently. Everyone is nice to me and treats me like a sister. They take care of me, and yet still respect me professionally as their physiotherapist.”
Being the team physiotherapist for both Singapore and the LionsXII is an arduous task. Her work demands that she ensures that all players are constantly at their optimal fitness levels for their matches. But while her job requirements are strenuous, Hafizah takes everything in her stride.
A typical day for Hafizah and her team can begin as early as 8a.m. in the morning, and stretch all the way into the late evening. On game nights, her schedule extends till much later.
“The games start at 7.45p.m and we are usually at the stadium about four hours before the players arrive,” she elaborated.
“We come in to set up ice baths, arrange their kits and prepare recovery products like protein shakes. Upon arrival, players will report to me about any injury or discomfort, and I update the coaches.”
On top of that, she also has to travel with the teams on all their away games. While it has been tough, she tries her best to maintain a balance between work and family.
“There has been some discouragement to stop travelling, but I take it as a challenge,” the mother-of-two confidently stated.
“It does take a toll and there are a lot of sacrifices to be made, especially by my family, who miss me badly. But what’s important is how I balance my time between my job and my family, who have given me plenty of support.”
Hafizah’s enthusiasm and passion for her work is admirable, and her love for football runs in the blood; her brother, Hafiz Abu Sujad, is also a player for the LionsXII, having joined from the Young Lions at the start of this season.
Ultimately, she plans to eventually set up her own practice in the future to provide better treatment opportunities for the local football scene.
Beaming with hope and enthusiasm, she said: “Helping these boys get back on their feet after an injury is what truly gives me the satisfaction in this job.”