There are few and far in between stories of Malaysian players moving abroad to any country in the world to play football, let alone ones that can be deemed as successful. But Safee Sali’s Indonesian adventure between 2011 and 2013 can only be considered that as he stuck away 27 league goals in two seasons of football there.
In 2010, Safee crushed the hearts of Indonesian fans when he scored in both legs of the final of the AFF Championship when Malaysia met Indonesia in the final, helping Harimau Malaya to a historic first triumph at the biggest football competition in Southeast Asia.
But just a few months later, the striker would be returning to Indonesia with a lot of trepidation as he decides to venture away from Selangor and out of Malaysia to further his footballing education. However the then 27-year-old Safee was adamant it was the move he wanted and took a massive leap of faith.
“Personally I have always wanted to play outside of Malaysia because I wanted to expand my horizon and there’s so much to learn by being in a new country playing football. I wanted to gain that experience and learn new things to give myself a new challenge in my career.
“Of course I was aware that I scored the goals that crushed their dreams in the Suzuki Cup final and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when the offers came in. There were some strong words and threats made online at that time that were directed at me in the aftermath of the AFF.
“So I seeked the advice of those who have played there like Baihakki (Khaizan) who told me not to worry and that I would enjoy playing there because the crowds were always huge. That was something which I also know because I’ve been fascinated by the Indonesian league for some time, so my mind was made up.
“At that time there were three clubs that offered me. Yes, Persib Bandung was one of the clubs too. But I thought that Pelita Jaya offered the best opportunity for me to get more game time, on top of them being located in Jakarta which is where I wanted to be. That is why I ended up accepting their offer,” Safee told Goal.
But despite his excitement and desire to play in a new team and a new league, just like any other player, there was a period of adaptation needed for Safee to get into his groove. Scoring seven league goals in his first season, he had a decent time in his debut season there.
Impressed by what he had shown the season before, Safee was given the captain’s armband in the 2012 season and that saw him producing an even bigger impact in front of goal. While Pelita flattered to deceive in the competitions, Safee himself was on fire and racked up 20 league goals that year.SS10
“At first it felt kind of awkward to be there, training with a new set of team mates and a new environment. But they were very welcoming to me and in no time, I got used to the routine there. When you take a step back, whatever you think about the quality of the players here and there, we are almost similar in how we want to approach the game.
“But it really struck me how much the fans over there are behind their team. If over here, the big teams get constant good support or when a team is winning there is more crowd, over there it is every single game. Even when we are training there is good support from young to old.
“They are the enthusiastic type of fans and some might say fanatic. They are just crazy for their team and when you are one of their players, it feels really great to be walking out to a packed stadium, even if sometimes it was a bit difficult for us players to communicate on the pitch because of the noise.
“I can’t say who was my toughest opponent during my time there but the toughest place and team to play against was definitely Persipura Jayapura who had Boaz Solossa playing for them.”
Despite having already seen the impact of Malaysia’s best players in that period learning and improving in a different league, it did not see any other player following suit and replicating Safee’s path in plying their trade outside of the country.
It is only now, more than nine years since Safee made that move that more Malaysian players are now harbouring the hopes of leaving the shores of Malaysia to play their club football and the former international thinks that is simply down to the difference in thinking.
"In my opinion, our players do not go over there because of how they think. In their mind, they think what’s the point in going over to Indonesia or they may think that comparatively, Malaysia has a higher league standard. But I think most don’t because they are scared.SS10
"They are comfortable being and staying in Malaysia and they are afraid to leave that comfort zone. They are just not prepared to take the next step and seek improvement in their game, which can happen because of all the challenges that come with playing abroad, even at a league that can be considered slightly lower quality than ours."
Safee would move to Arema in 2013 but was soon forced to leave the Indonesia league because FIFA was already looking to ban football in the country at that time and he had to seek other measures to continue his playing career. So when the chance came to join Johor Darul Ta’zim on loan, he accepted it.
As someone who has played in both countries, Safee is well placed to understand the cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia. The unruly scenes at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium when the two countries met in the World Cup qualifier in 2019 may have been shocking to some, it was something which Safee knew was always a possibility.
However the now 36-year-old believes that it is still a game which players from both countries should still be looking forward to play in because of what the fixture means to the fans and for good or bad, the electric atmosphere that is generated during the match.
“One thing we have to understand is that the fans over there, as I have said, are fanatical about their team. Even more so when it comes to the national team because that is when the patriotism really kicks in. It is not my place to tell fans how to act but of course I’m hopeful for better circumstances.
“As for the players, I would say that despite how it looks, those are the games that you want to play in. Leave the other matters to the organisers and the security. Fear shouldn’t be on their mind. They should be thinking about how to play the game according to the coaches instructions and above all else, enjoy what is an incredible atmosphere to play in,” he explained.
In the last two seasons, more and more Malaysians have started seeking playing opportunities abroad with Norshahrul Idlan Talaha going to BG Pathum United and Dominic Tan to Police Tero FC, both in the Thai League 1 but Safee would always be remembered as the trailblazer for what he did.