When the squad list for the Malaysia national team for the mixture of one international friendly and the home-and-away leg of a vital World Cup first round qualifier against Timor Leste, one boy from Serian, Sarawak was over the moon at the first chance of linking up with Tan Cheng Hoe’s team.
Rodney Celvin Akwensivie had been on the radar of the national team set-up after consistent performances for first Sarawak then PKNS FC. Ong Kim Swee was the first to give him a chance and he was part of the Under-23 squad in training for the 2018 Asian Games.
While the then 21-year-old made the final squad to Jakarta, he had to watch from the bench as a Malaysian team handed a rare defeat to Son Heung-min and his eventual gold medal South Korean side. Having got a taste of what international football was like, Rodney kept his head down and continued to put in the hard shift for The Red Ants in the domestic league and soon forced TCH to give him a call-up.
Rodney had revealed during the pre-season that breaking into the national team was one of this targets for the season. And when he did just that, we manage to get Rodney to describe exclusively to Goal just how it all went down getting whiff of the news.
“My target this year has always been to get into the national team because I wanted to keep improving,” explained Rodney to Goal. “When the Airmarine Cup came along, I was hoping to get selected but when I saw the list, I was very disappointed.
“Maybe it wasn’t my time yet but I wasn’t going to give up hope. Then a few weeks before the list for the qualifiers was announced, someone from FAM contacted me to get my passport details. That was when I suspected that I might finally get in. From then on, I started to get really excited and kept waiting for the list to come out. When I saw my name on the official list, I still couldn’t believe it.
“My family was excited for me, my friends were all congratulating me. It wasn’t easy to reach that level and every player wants to play for the country. It’s not easy to get the faith from the head coach like I did.”
Despite the air of positivity surrounding Rodney will the call-up, he was eventually dropped from the final squad to face Timor Leste but it doesn’t take away six years of hard work for the powerful centre back. Born to a Ghanaian father and a Malaysia mother, growing up wasn’t too difficult for Rodney. Although there were times when it was harder to get a right first impression from strangers but things had a way of working themselves out.
Affectionately known as Bonai, a nickname his friends back in Serian gave him after seeing his resemblance to former Indonesian player Titus Bonai, Rodney has grown accustomed to being referred to that, having flirted with being called Effa Owona (a former Negeri Sembilan player).
“Growing up wasn’t that difficult actually, despite my appearance and background. When people first saw me and wanted to talk to me, they always wonder whether to speak to me in Bahasa of English because they fear I may not understand.
“But once they know me, it was really no problem at all. I wasn’t always the biggest in the class. When I was younger, I was still tall but rather skinny. As I grow older, I started looking very muscular.”
Unlike other players who dreamt of being a professional footballer from a very young age or during their primary school years, Rodney only really thought about taking up football seriously when he was 16 year of age. He was part of the school team for the inter-district and inter-state competitions and was immediately hooked by the game.
A place at the Sarawak Sports School quickly followed and even though he only had year of school left in him, did not turn down the offer. His performance caught the state eye and in 2014 he was put in the Sarawak Under-19 team before moving the President Cup (U21) team just a year later. 2015 also saw Rodney being given a chance to train with the senior team towards the end of the season.
“Throughout my time through the ranks, I’ve received a lot of encouragements from the more senior players. Perhaps they saw something in me and wanted to help me along. The coaches were also very much in the same manner, with their guidance towards me. So that got me thinking that these people are helping me and I need to repay their faith in me by working my hardest.
“I needed to work more and be more disciplined so that I can become the player that they all believe I can be.”
But it was in 2016 when a new start for Sarawak that saw the experienced K. Rajagobal taking over as the head coach, that Rodney finally saw the path that he imagined just six years before. Here was the coach that had guided Malaysia to their only AFF Championship triumph back in 2011 who has shown his capability and readiness to give youngsters a chance in his team.
A mutual admiration of each other’s qualities was apparent right from the start and it was that trust and relationship built up between the two that saw Rodney following Rajagobal to PKNS at the start of the 2018 season, and the rest is what they say, history.
“The first time I met him was one of shock. This was an ex-national coach who did great things with the national team and I was just a newcomer who had just joined the senior team. I was excited to work with him, to see what it is like going through his training. I have enjoyed my time with him. Sometimes he’s serious, sometimes he jokes but his style is always professional.
“For me, I understand what he wants from the players and he also understand what I can bring to the team. I’m certain that the longer I work with him, the better player I can become. With his experience at the highest level, he knows what is right and what he can do to help players,” enthused Rodney glowingly at his mentor.
Still very young, Rodney is certainly among the crop of established young Malaysian centre backs currently getting their opportunites in the Super League and as well with the Malaysia national team. Time is certainly on his side and no one will betting against Rodney one day finally being the opportunity to represent his country of birth should he continue in the same upward trajectory his career has shown thus far.
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