Prodigal son Hanafi returns seeking redemption
He stole Singaporean hearts at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) when he raised the roof at the Jalan Besar Stadium, then proceeded to break the love affair when he was thrown into Changi prison.
Since the highs of the YOG bronze-medal win, Hanafi Akbar has struggled with discipline and drugs.
But sitting in Balestier Khalsa's Toa Payoh headquarters yesterday, the 22-year-old cut a very different figure as he stands on the cusp of a return to professional football in the S.League.
"It is a little bit sad that I've had to learn the hard way, but I've grown up. It took me four months of being inside to realise just how much time I have lost," Hanafi told The New Paper.
He served a year in prison for drug offences, but having already passed the mandatory 2.4km test, Hanafi is poised to turn out for Balestier tomorrow, when the Tigers host the Garena Young Lions.
Today, he sees football differently.
"I am certain that football is the only way I can make my parents proud, the only way I can make (a living). I know it is my only chance of success," he said.
"I know I've disappointed my parents, I've not been a great son. But I've grown up and I want to make them proud."
Balestier signed him in December 2013 and have kept tabs on the forward ever since.
The club have now served him a challenge.
"We've given him a fresh one-year contract, but he knows that he will not be walking into the team, he will have to fight for his place like everyone else. And getting into the South-east Asia (SEA) Games squad is a challenge we have thrown him," said Balestier chairman S Thavaneson, who believes Hanafi can play a key role for the national Under-22s in August's biennial Games in Kuala Lumpur.
It is a sentiment shared by Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic, who said the youngster's skill, vision and ability to change direction is unique.
"But this is just talent, if he doesn't push, doesn't work hard, that's all it will be - talent," said the coach.
It is a point not lost on Hanafi.
"After I signed for Balestier (on Thursday) my parents were so excited that they couldn't sleep.
"It is pressure for me, but I really want to do them proud."