Farhan ZulkifliAIA Singapore Premier League

From NFA rejection to Singapore call-up aged 16 - Inside the meteoric rise of Hougang hotshot Farhan Zulkifli

Study. Train. Sleep. Repeat.

Such is the daily routine of Hougang United’s 17-year-old starboy, Farhan Zulkifli, a flying winger fast making a name for himself in the local game.

Currently a student at ITE College West, the young maverick has his sights set on footballing excellence, and subsequently, a post-retirement career in electrical engineering. And he’s determined to succeed, one way or another.

“I never feel satisfied. I always want more. And none of it will be possible if I don’t work hard,” he tells Goal during an exclusive interview.

Ever since he was in primary school, Farhan Zulkifli’s dream of becoming a professional footballer has remained unwavering. Growing up a typically football-mad Singaporean boy, young Farhan has been fixated on the sport for much of his life. 

“Football’s always been my dream, ever since I was young,” the boyhood Manchester United fan continues.

“In primary school my school didn’t have football CCA, so I joined basketball, just to play a sport. But I always had a thing for football. When I finished primary school and joined Queensway Secondary, I didn’t hesitate to join the team. That’s where it all started.”

Training at Queensway under the watchful eye of coach Jasni Hatta, Farhan was given the opportunity to express himself on the pitch, and along with a talented group of team-mates and coaches, managed to take both his game and his mentality to the next level.

“He trusted me, and always said that I would go far in football,” said Farhan fondly of Coach Jasni. “From there, I just continued working hard, and I’m still in contact with him today.”

Aside from representing his school, Farhan was also selected to play for the now-defunct National Football Academy, or NFA. He started off in the NFA Under-15 side, playing alongside the most talented young footballers in the country. Playing well at B-Division level and enjoying his football for Queensway, the young winger looked set to take the NFA by storm and begin working his way through the ranks. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t really happen for him at that stage. Farhan found playing time extremely hard to come by during his time at NFA U-15, and struggled to properly establish himself in the team. A year later, the lack of minutes on the pitch and his subsequent inability to showcase his talent to NFA coaches eventually led young Farhan to the lowest point of his career to date.

“About two years ago, the NFA U-16 team went on a tour of Japan to play some training matches, and I didn’t get selected for the squad. I really felt like giving up,” he revealed.

With the frustration of not playing coupled with the immense disappointment of missing out on the Japan trip, it would take a sizeable amount of willpower for the then 16-year-old to haul himself off the floor. But pick himself up, he did.

Having been described by many of his youth coaches as a player with a never-say-die attitude, Farhan made the decision to keep at it, double down and work harder than ever on improving his game.

“That’s my mentality. I never feel satisfied, I always want more. I was also lucky because I had a supporting family who asked me to continue doing what I’m doing. I’m thankful for them, and I didn’t give up,” he said of his decision to continue playing.

Farhan Zulkifli GFX

Working alongside NFA U-16 coaches Ryo Shigaki and Miur Rafik, Farhan focused on making himself a better and more complete player. Describing them as having played a huge part in his career, he was quick to express his gratitude to them for trusting him and giving him the opportunity to express himself on the pitch, following his disappointing time at NFA U-15.

Close to a year on, his faultless work ethic finally paid off, as Farhan was offered a contract by Hougang United to play for their U-18 side. It was a huge step in the youngster’s career. With Hougang making a host of big-name signings in the mould of Faris Ramli, Stipe Plazibat and more, it was a great time to be joining the northeast club. With head coach Clement Teo also known for incorporating youngsters into his teams, the chance was there for Farhan, if he could rise to the challenge.

“I joined Hougang U-18 first, and I played a few games for them. Then, Coach Clement attended our match against Geylang U-18. He saw me, and talked to Coach Guang, my U-18 coach, for me to attend senior team training. I didn’t hesitate,” he explained.

What happened next was a blur, even for Farhan himself. Having trained with the senior team for a number of months, he received a phone call he couldn’t possibly have anticipated just a year prior.

“I was in Japan, playing a friendly for an Asian Eleven side against a Japanese state team,” he relayed excitedly. 

“When I got back, I got a call from Coach Guang to say I might start against Home United- my first professional start!” he exclaimed.

June 29th, 2019. For the first time in his fledgling career, Farhan Zulkifli’s name appeared on the teamsheet for a Singapore Premier League fixture. He was set to start against traditional big boys Home United at the Bishan Stadium, and he wasn’t about to let that opportunity pass him by.

It was around the 12-minute mark that Home fullback Aqhari Abdullah received the ball just outside his own penalty box. Thinking he had ample space and time, the Protectors No. 7 looked up to scan his surroundings and pick his next pass. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Farhan was on him in a flash, catching Aqhari cold and pinching the ball from behind. A couple of touches took him to the edge of the penalty area, where he unleashed a venomous shot, arrowed towards the top corner. Time seemed to stand still as it whistled through the air, evading the despairing dive of Nazri Sabri in the process. The ball cannoned off the underside of the crossbar and flew downwards towards the goal-line, before eventually nestling in the corner of the net. Cue the wild celebrations from the Cheetahs’ number 43.

“Up till now, I still think of that goal. It holds a special place in my heart. To play in the SPL at such a young age, and even score a goal, feels surreal to me. It was really unexpected,” Farhan enthused. 

Fast forward a few months from his debut, and he’s now made 14 first-team appearances for Hougang and been nominated for the Dollah Kassim Award, a truly meteoric rise for someone who was playing youth football as recently as last season.

“All hard work,” he replied confidently when asked how he managed to rise so quickly.

“I think it wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t work hard. Everything happened so quickly, so it was a good experience for me. I’m thankful for all the opportunities that have been given to me at such a young age.”

Farhan was eventually rewarded for his stellar performances with a senior national team call-up. Although he has yet to make his debut for Singapore, he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to train and work alongside them. A huge source of motivation and strength for young Farhan comes in the form of his parents, who he says have been behind him from day one.

“They’ve always been there for me. Even at my lowest point, they would still be there for me. They played a huge part in my career and my life, so I’m thankful for them. I appreciate them, and one day I hope I can make them proud,” he affirmed. 

He was also grateful for his youth coach Han Yiguang and senior coach Clement Teo, for giving him the opportunity to play at a higher level.

Now, Farhan is taking advantage of his time with Hougang’s senior team to learn from the established stars in the squad, picking up nuggets of invaluable advice over the past year and a half. 

“I learned a lot from Faris and Stipe, in terms of advising me on how to make runs and when to dribble the ball,” he said. “Also Zulfahmi [Arifin], he has been like a brother to me.”

With his aim of earning a first-ever Singapore cap and making his AFC Cup debut on the immediate agenda, Farhan eventually hopes to follow in the footsteps of players like Zulfahmi, and play at a higher level in the Malaysian or Thai Leagues.

"I plan to play abroad, but for now my aim is to be consistent, you know. I want to score more goals," Farhan added.

"But playing abroad has always been my dream. Maybe Asia. Malaysia League, Thai League, something like that."

NxGn SingaporeGetty x Rido Alamsah

Until then, his plan is to knuckle down, keep working hard and see where football takes him.

Despite football seemingly taking the forefront in his life at the moment, Farhan acknowledged the importance of continuing his studies, and revealed he is as determined as ever to complete his studies at ITE, before working on a diploma in a polytechnic. He is eager to continue studying electrical engineering, as it is a field he enjoys greatly.

“Even though football is something I love to do, I have to juggle it with my studies. Both are important, but in Singapore you always need your academics. After football, I’m planning to have that certificate, so it’s easier for me to find work,” he explained.

Being blessed with two supportive parents who have always supported his footballing aspirations, however, Farhan accepted that many young players in Singapore are pressured into sacrificing their football dreams in favour of pursuing higher education, something he sees as regrettable.

“I think it’s important to have trust in your son or daughter,” he said of parents unwilling to support careers in sports. 

“For me, it’s always important to let your son do his thing. If your son has passion in something, you have to make use of it, because there’s no point in doing something if you don’t enjoy it and are being forced,” he continued.

“My message for young players in this country is to stay humble and continue working hard, even if you feel like the whole world is against you. You have to keep your feet on the ground, even if your name is rising. You might be rejected by certain clubs, but continue working hard, always believe in yourself. That’s my message.”