Fahrudin Mustafic will call time on an illustrious playing career this weekend and he tells Kelvin Leong about the three penalties that defined his glorious moments with the Singapore national team.
A partisan crowd at the old National Stadium at Kallang were in full Singlish chorus, belting out chants and boos at the Thais who had staged a walkout in the 82nd minute.
This was after all the biggest stage that Southeast Asian football had to offer — the AFF Suzuki Cup.
Only a 25-year-old midfielder then, Fahrudin Mustafic stood rooted nonchalantly at the penalty spot, refusing to shift his eyes away from the six yards that separated Singapore and a first leg lead in the epic encounter.
The boos turned into a unified roar as Fahrudin bulged the net with a coolly dispatched penalty straight into the top right corner. A perfect textbook penalty.
It read 2-1 at full-time and Singapore took a one-goal advantage to Bangkok, where Khairul Amri’s equaliser made it 1-1 to give the Lions a third regional title after a 3-2 win on aggregate, and Radojko Avramovic, his second Suzuki Cup medal.
“That was the longest 15 minutes of my life, trust me. With 60,000 people there looking at you, the pressure was nothing like I felt before. It was destroying me inside man! I was just trying to focus on the spot,” Fahrudin told FOX Sports Asia.
“Maybe many people don’t know but I wasn’t the first-choice penalty taker for Singapore. First choice was always Indra (Sahdan), second choice was (Noh) Alam Shah and I was third. Indra was out and Raddy had the rule that if the foul was on you, you are not allowed to take the penalty. So the foul was on Ah Long and I immediately realised I had to take it.
“I tell you the truth, for that few seconds after referee blow whistle, I wish it was Ah Long who had to take it! But after that, I wanted it man. The thought ran through my head that if I scored, I will make the whole of Singapore smile. It was always going to be that top right corner. I knew if I hit it perfect, the goalkeeper (Kittisak Rawangpa) had no chance.”
That magical night at the Grand Old Dame was the defining moment in his international career and the man who is popularly known as ‘Farra’ would go on to serve his adopted nation with aplomb for a final tally of 85 caps.
Looking back at his career, the hardman of Singapore football had tears in his eyes, reminiscing the times he went into battle with his Tampines and Singapore teammates, especially Sead Muratovic, who was instrumental in him moving to the Lion City.
“Sead (Muratovic) asked me to come play for Tampines. Yugoslavia was going through war at that time so being an ambitious young boy, I was ready to leave,” Mustafic recalled.
“The following season, I was under Trevor Morgan at Sengkang Marine in 2003 and after one of the games, Raddy came to talk to me and he has been watching me a few games and asked if I am interested in playing for Singapore. My answer was yes, yes, yes straightaway because I saw it as progress and I wanted to.
“Come on, it’s international football, every footballer’s dream is to play on that stage. Especially for me, coming as a Prime League player and someone asks you if you want to play for the Lions, it didn’t sound real but it came from Raddy so it has to be real!”
“To be honest, maybe the first game against Denmark, I was too nervous to even understand the importance of wearing the Singapore jersey. But it was the game against Iraq where we won 2-0, when I realised, this is it! We beat the eventual Asian Cup champions and I told myself from that day onward, this is serious business.
“When you pull on this red (Singapore) jersey, you are not you anymore, you fight for the people, fight for the country and you run even if you cannot run anymore. Win or lose, just run, run, run until you collapse because this is Singapore flag on chest. My country.”
His passion for the game came to another pivotal point in 2012 when Avramovic’s time as lion tamer came under intense scrutiny. Critics claimed that the Serbian tactician had taken Singapore as far as they can go, and while nothing was mentioned before that year’s Suzuki Cup, the players already knew their father-figure was going into his last tournament.
He said: “We knew Raddy was under pressure and the entire team felt we needed to do something for him. We went into that tournament very focused because we wanted to prove everybody wrong and give Raddy the respect he deserved. There was no way we were going to finish that tournament without a place in the final at least.”
And the Lions went on to not only make the final, but to win it with a 3-2 aggregate over two legs. Their opponents in that final? The same dreaded Thais who have become a thorn in Fahrudin’s career as a Lion.
“I hated to play against the Thais because they always had good players in my position. Small but very, very skillful. Players like Therdsak (Chaiman), Datsakorn (Thonglao) and Sutee (Suksomsit). They are always buzzing around you and it was difficult going up against such opponents.
“But that gave me the motivation and to be honest, I didn’t even know I had to retake that penalty in the final first leg at Jalan Besar (Stadium). After I scored, I was running and screaming like crazy to celebrate and then when I was walking away, suddenly I noticed the referee pointing and I had to retake the penalty again.
“But as a professional for so many years, you have that switch in your head where you can refocus quickly. I just walked up to the spot and took the same walk, same routine and same drill I always do for penalties. This time, I was waiting for the goalkeeper to move early because similar to the first one, this goalkeeper (Kawin Thamsatchanan) likes to commit early so I waited and changed side last minute. It wasn’t easy and just like that 2007 penalty, I looked cool outside but I was dying inside man.”
That was the last time Singapore did well at the regional showpiece and the Lions have failed to make it out of the group stages in the last two editions.
While Fahrudin won a brief recall to the national team fold under V. Sundram Moorthy, he knew his time at the international level was up, and instead, focused on prolonging his career with Tampines.
“Speed was never my biggest strength and when I hit 33, I felt it the next day after a game when I struggled to recover as quickly. So somewhere in the middle of this year, I told myself, enough. This is it, I cannot play at the level I wanted anymore.
“For me, I feel that I did my part for Singapore, a country I felt comfortable in since the first day I stepped into this beautiful city.
“I spent 17 years in this country and I have felt nothing but love. From Boss (Teo) Hock Seng, to Raddy, to my fellow coaches and players over the years, I cannot thank them enough.
“I also want to tell the fans that I am only human. I tried my best to do it all for Tampines and Singapore. Winning two Suzuki Cups, I am really happy I managed to play a small part in putting smiles on Singapore people’s faces because I saw with my own eyes how much it meant to Singaporeans.
“When I walked past coffee shops and they recognize me and talk about the Suzuki Cup matches, that made me feel like I did something to make their day. It is hard to explain that amazing feeling when you know what you did on the football pitch has made someone smile.”
Fahrudin will lace up his boots one last time this Sunday at a specially arranged testimonial where a Tampines All-star team will go up against a Singapore All-star lineup. Both teams were selected by the man himself and old comrades like Lionel Lewis, Noh Alam Shah, Aleksandar Duric and Baihakki Khaizan have all accepted his invitation for one last curtain call.
And in typical Farra fashion, his request for the big match will be how the fans will remember him as a combative midfielder who never shirked from a challenge.
“This game is to celebrate football, to enjoy one last 90 minutes with the players who I have had so much happy memories with in the past 17 years. I hope they don’t make me do a speech because I don’t like this kind of things. We just go out and play. Just play. No need for anything else. Enjoy together.” he exclaimed.
*The testimonial match is set for 6.00pm at Our Tampines Hub. Entry is free.