Football

Smoker Safee stubs out Lions' hopes

Up on their feet, mere metres away from the tunnel, Singapore fans were pointing and shouting at him.

Their words were inaudible from the media box at the National Stadium, but the vitriol spewing from the stands was palpable. 

A petulant smirk crept onto Safee Sali's face as he walked towards that very tunnel: The Malaysia forward raised two fingers to his lips, then pulled them away, with the satisfaction of a man who stuck one to his critics. 

"This is very, very fantastic feeling, I'm so happy with the win," said the 30-year-old after Malaysia beat Singapore 3-1 in the final Group B fixture, kicking the defending AFF Suzuki Cup champions out at the group stage.  

"There were many problems off the the field before the game... and they (the critics) wanted to disturb our team, but that didn't affect me - what we have here is a team, a team that fight as a unit." 

Safee was plagued by criticism on both sides of the Causeway for being pictured at a late-night supper, dressed in a Malaysia jacket and holding a cigarette to his lips. 

But instead of dragging down his spirits, it seemed to give him a reason to play.

Cigarettes or not, the forward, who spent the last season warming the Johor Darul Ta'zim I (JDT) bench, was smoking hot at the National Stadium last night.

WARNING 

Three minutes from the break, Safee beat Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny with a close-range shot that crashed off the post, but the Lions failed to heed the warning. 

He found space in the Singapore box in the 61st minute, and lashed his volley home. 

While Singapore equalised through Khairul Amri, a controversial penalty and a goal at the death as Singapore searched for the equaliser killed off the tie. 

"I haven't had the best season, but my confidence went up when my shot (in the first half) hit the post," he said.

When asked if there was any special joy in dumping out defending champions, and old rivals Singapore, Safee smiled. 

He said: "Singapore is a nice city, and we are friends with a lot of the Singapore players." 

Lions' midfielder Hariss Harun and, for a shorter period, Baihakki Khaizan, were both Safee's teammates at JDT.

While he will be celebrating this win - and his first goal at the Suzuki Cup - Safee is already looking ahead to the semi-finals, where they will face Group B winners, Vietnam. 

"Thank god for this win, I hope we can continue to fight for 90 minutes 
like we did today, and personally I hope my form carries on into the semis," he said.

But even though he lit up the National Stadium, and helped bring Singapore down in a crumbled smoky heap, Safee is not getting ahead of himself.

"I haven't set myself any personal targets to be top scorer or anything, I just hope we continue to fight with this team... and not let outside influences affect us."

AFF Suzuki Cup