There are many faces behind every league success and it is no different for Johor Darul Ta'zim FC (JDT) after they clinched their fourth consecutive Super League title last Saturday. Safiq Rahim, Marcos Antonio, Gabriel Guerra and Gonzalo Cabrera are the star faces of the title-winning squad that deserved the most of the accolades but there's also one gem that often gets overlooked.
Like Fazly Mazlan in the seasons before, this season saw JDT promoting one from within and in Afiq Fazail, they may have just unearthed the next player that would be a household name for years to come. The former Johor Darul Ta'zim II player was given the opportunity in the top tier in 2017 and has not disappoint.
Starting the season with a place on the bench, Afiq knew that he had to bid his time and put in the hard shift during training for him to earn the trust of the coaches. Substitute appearance in the final 10 minutes of matches gave him his first taste of Super League action and by the end of February, he would be one of the first names on the team sheet when fit.
"I'm very happy to be champions, for myself and also for the team. I will continue to try to help the team further," Afiq told Goal after helping his team to the title.
"Looking back, I don't quite believe it myself that I was able to play so many games. but when the coach gave me the chance, I gave my best. I'm thankful to the coaches for giving me the opportunity to play however many minute it were."
A defensive midfielder by trade, Afiq sits at the base of the midfield and is often the first point of moves starting from deep. His game doesn't require him to be flashy nor extravagant. What Afiq does in beautiful simplicity - is to keep the ball moving and be the conduit switching from defence to attack.
Him dropping deep to collect the ball, a move that splits the centre backs on either side of him, which ultimately allows the full backs in Fazly, S. Kunanlan or sometimes Azrif Nasrulhaq the opportunity to push further up field in attacking positions.
Despite having played closed to 50% of the total minutes that JDT have played thus far in securing their fourth straight league title, Afiq doesn't let his new-found fame get to his head. The humble 23-year-old knows that he still has plenty of room for improvements.
"There are of course plenty more for me to learn from the seniors and for me to improve on my game," he added.
With Ingnacio 'Natxo' Insa playing alongside him, Afiq will have plenty of opportunity to observe from up close one the most efficient midfielder in the league. A great role model for Afiq to be a sponge to absorb all the knowledge and nous from a player with extensive experience playing in the European scene.
One thing that has been missing from list of achievements this season is the elusive national team call-up. Many have indicated that his performance this season has warranted a place in the national squad but that hasn't been the case, at least not yet.
The incredible character of Afiq's personality doesn't allow him to feel all is lost, in fact it only served as a motivation for him to continue to improve and be better.
"That is down to the coach. If he thinks that I'm worthy, of course I'll be thrilled. But if not, then it is down to me to continue to improve and change their minds," urged a determined Afiq.
At his age, time is definitely on the side of Afiq. As one of the unsung heroes of JDT's league-winning season, Afiq doesn't always get the credit he deserves from the broader audience. But if he is to continue on this upward trajectory, it would only be a matter of time before he eventually becomes a staple of the national team as well.