Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) secured their 7th straight Malaysia Super League title on Friday, their very first within the confines of Sultan Ibrahim Stadium but the title retention also had an emotional significance for one player in particular.
In the 4-1 win over Sabah which gave JDT an unassailable lead over Perak saw Safawi Rasid scoring twice, including one picture-book goal from long range which he celebrated by lifting his shirt over his head. In doing so, he revealed a special message written on his inner top - “I will miss JDT family”.
Safawi promptly followed that goal with a second one for him and JDT’s fourth of the match that could turn out to be his last ever involvement with the Super League. That is because JDT has announced that Safawi will be making the long-awaited move to European football linking up with Portuguese side Portimonense SC in a season-long loan deal.
Four years ago Safawi accepted JDT’s courting to move there from T-Team FC, a decision that has seen him improve leaps and bounds in his game and now the time is right for him to make another jump forward. A move that will see Safawi turn from a local player in a domestic league to becoming an import player in a foreign league, one which is likely to have his fair share of detractors.
Explaining the decision-making in this exclusive interview with Goal, the 23-year-old is acutely aware that there will be many doubters but is more than determined to prove people wrong.
“When I took up football, my mindset was that one day I would like to play abroad, to play in Europe. Everyday we can see stars play there, so it’s always been a dream of mine to also have the same opportunities,” he told Goal.
“It would also have been good had the move been to one of the top Asian footballing countries and I realise this is a big jump but I need to always challenge myself as a footballer to be even better. Everything will be new there for me from the surroundings to the weather. I need to adapt quickly on all aspects. Training wise there shouldn’t be an issue and it’s up to me to prove that they weren’t wrong in signing me.
“I take everything in my stride. Before when I moved here to JDT from T-Team, people were also questioning whether I have what it takes to be at a big club like JDT. For sure the people over there will be wondering the same about me, whether I’m good enough to play in the Portuguese league.
“It will not be easy but the onus is on me to make sure that I’m able to give it my best effort and ensure that the head coach, media and the fans there are able to see what I can do.”
To do that and in trying to prove to the critics, the Malaysian international will have to essentially be better than his current level. A new set of coaches, a different training routine and a different atmosphere must be used to his advantage - to be a dry sponge and soak up all the new learnings and guidance that will be put forth to him.
With his current team mates in Nazmi Faiz and Syamer Kutty Abba having prior experiences in Portugal, Safawi has also used the opportunity to pick their brains and have a good grasp of what to expect once over there.
“There will be lots for me to learn but I really want to take this season-long opportunity to improve my game, adjust to the increased physicality as well as the different way of life compared to what I’ve known here in Malaysia. I’ve spoken to Nazmi and Syamer of course. They told me that the gameplay is faster over there and everyone is expected to give 100% even in training. What I can do is to be ready from the first training session to the last.
“Food is one of the things people mention as the reason why our players return from overseas but I’m sure there are other factors as well. I’m sure that every country has halal food but of course what is over there will be different from what is here. Again it’s about adapting and this will definitely not be used as an excuse by me.”
As a player, Safawi is a fulcrum of both his club side as well as the Malaysia national team. A strong-willed player with an insatiable appetite and desire to win. Fans will remember him driving his team on and constantly pushing himself to his physical limits not from a selfish standpoint but for the good of the team.
He’s a player who’s willing to sacrifice his own game if the coach and team requires him to perform a different function - most notably with the national team as can be seen with his operating on the left instead of his preferred right hand side. More than most, Safawi has made the decision to accept this loan deal because he does not want his current level to be the limit. He has the hunger to be more.
“Moving to JDT has given me a chance to learn from experienced quality foreign players as well as from the senior players - who have all been very helpful in my progress as a player. But as a player the moment you feel content, then you don’t belong in the game. We need to constantly strive to be better, to improve.
“That’s where I am. I’m nowhere near satisfied with what I’ve achieved or the level of my game yet. There’s still much more for me to take on and learn from the game. For now my target in going there is first to find my feet, find the right rhythm and ultimately push for a place in the starting line-up.
“It’s a chance for me to show to a different audience my quality as a footballer and who knows if the next opportunity might come from this loan move that allows me to extend my stay in Europe,” said an enthused Safawi.
The door of opportunity is now ajar and it is up to Safawi to crack on and push it wide open. For now Portimonense is an incredible stepping stone and he is desperate to grab the chance with both hands.