IN THE LINE OF FIRE
As he walked towards the team bus after the LionsXII's 0-0 draw with Terengganu last Saturday, Zulfahmi Arifin heard the fans chant.
"Balik (Go home in Malay) Zul," were some of the milder cries that rang out at the North Entrance of the Jalan Besar Stadium.
It was painful, because it came from fans of the LionsXII.
Speaking to The New Paper yesterday, the midfielder claimed he had read worse comments online.
"I've noticed on social media sites that whenever the LionsXII have a bad game, my name and Isa's (Halim) get mentioned.
"I don't want to say what the fans write, but they're basically criticising our performances."
Zulfahmi is a man under pressure.
The 22-year-old has been below par in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) this season.
The champions are in ninth spot in the 12-team competition after four games and travel to ATM in Selangor for a game on Saturday.
Zulfahmi, the playmaker with the sweet left foot, is not sure if he will start this time.
In the Terengganu game, he had another outing to forget as he struggled to impose himself in central midfield, rarely getting on the ball in the attacking third.
The playmaker was duly replaced by coach Fandi Ahmad at half-time.
"Of course, I was disappointed when I heard (the heckling) near the bus," said Zulfahmi.
"I knew I had a bad game but that sort of thing never helps a player; it only makes him feel worse that his own fans are shouting at him.
"It's not just the fans, coach Fandi is also expecting a lot from me as well.
"I know, as one of the starters, I need to perform. It's like I'm putting more pressure on myself every game - which is making things harder."
Fandi has asked the fans for patience.
"They must understand that Zul is a young player and he didn't play much last season," said the 51-year-old coach.
"As a replacement for (former LionsXII vice-captain) Hariss Harun, there is a lot of pressure on him at the moment.
"Zul will need a bit of time to regain his confidence."
WHO WILL START?
Fandi claimed he had yet to decide if Zul would start on Saturday.
A straight swop would see former Tampines Rovers midfielder Firdaus Kasman, who rejoined the LionsXII after featuring in the side in the team's debut season in 2012.
Firdaus, 26, joined the team during the tail end of pre-season last month and was told that once he is ready, he would play.
"But whether he will start or who he will replace, that's too soon to say," said Fandi.
For now, Zul and team captain Isa are determined to fight for their places. Isa said Zul needed to "take the criticism on the chin and become stronger for it".
"Fans have a right to their opinions. They are, after all, paying to watch a game," the 27-year-old said.
"But players are also human; nobody plays badly on purpose.
"Zul seemed really down after the Terengganu game, but he has to use the criticism positively.
"I think, in time, everyone will see him back at his best."
I know, as one of the starters, I need to perform. It's like I'm putting more pressure on myself every game - which is making things harder.
- Zulfahmi Arifin (right) M'SIAN SUPER LEAGUE