Thanks for everything, Safee Sali

The ballroom at Sofitel Kuala Lumpur Damansara this morning was charged with emotion.

Just as footballer Safee Sali was about to address those present, he choked. Tears started to well up in his eyes, but he soldiered on.

Seated next to him was Datuk Hamidin Amin, who attended the event, not just as the FA of Malaysia president, but as Safee’s “long-time friend”.

Safee, one of Malaysia’s most prolific strikers in its modern era, announced his retirement from football. This comes after close to two decades of mesmerising fans with his unique brand of football.

Having turned 39 on Jan 29, Safee admitted it was a tough decision to make, but knew that his time was up, as his body couldn’t take competitive football anymore.

This was a man who was often compared to the late Datuk Mokhtar Dahari in terms of sheer brilliance.

Built like pugilist, Safee was a juggernaut on the pitch. His sturdy form packed an explosive punch as he charged on the field. It earned him a fearsome reputation among his adversaries.

He is also well-known for his humility. Despite having won every single domestic trophy available, which cemented his rock star status, Safee’s feet were both planted firmly on the ground, which endeared him to his fans.

Even Hamidin spoke of the similarities between Safee and Mokhtar, with regard to their lack of ego and vanity.

The Kajang-born was instrumental in aiding Malaysia in winning the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Cup for the first time in 2010. He also picked up the Golden Boot award for scoring five goals in the regional competition.

Malaysia has not won the AFF Cup since.

He has come a long way since spending time with former Kuala Lumpur FA teammate, Saiful Amar Sudar. They would meet regularly at the latter’s Sri Melaka flat, near the Kuala Lumpur Football Stadium in Bandar Tun Razak, Cheras.

Safee made his name with Selangor FA and later went on to be the first Malaysian to land a gig with an Indonesian side – Pelita Jaya. Hamidin was instrumental in getting Safee out of Selangor FA as the footballer still had a contract with the association then.

Safee went on to play for several other teams, including Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT), with his final season last year at Kuala Lumpur City FC.

The Southern Tigers are expected to throw him a farewell bash after its match against Terengganu FC in the Sultan Ahmad Shah Cup this Friday.

There’s even a comic book series, SS10 Super Safee Sali, themed after Safee. He also has non-fungible token (NFT) projects.

Safee singled out Akmal Rizal Rakhli and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha as the two individuals whom he was comfortable with upfront. Both those players also created memorable moments in Malaysian football.

When asked about his immediate plans, Safee said: “It would be to go for a short holiday with my wife and family in Indonesia”.

“I’ll then return and start as a pundit with Astro Arena.

“It’s a tough decision to make, but I just have to move on with the next chapter of my life,” he added.

Among those present to support Safee this morning were former international and FAM assistant secretary-general, Yap Nyim Keong, national football and futsal player Steffi Sidhu, and Professional Footballer Association of Malaysia (PFAM) chief executive officer, Izham Ismail.

Safee is also PFAM president.

So what’s next for Safee?

High on the agenda is setting up a football academy, and even owning his own football field. Safee is eager to focus on the grassroots.

He also seemed eager to slip on his new ‘boots’, as a pundit, when the Malaysian football league season starts this Friday, saying that it will be a great way for him to share his insights and knowledge about the game.

But more importantly, is his upcoming documentary – ‘Sepuluh’ – that is set to raise eyebrows.

“There have been those who supported me, there have also been those who did not appreciate me,” said Safee.

“I don’t want to spoil a memorable day like today, talking about this (those who did not appreciate him). All will be revealed in my upcoming documentary.”

As the guests began to slowly peter out of the ballroom, and workers started to bring down the banners and decorations, it was evident that today marked the end of the iconic career of another Malaysian footballer.

Safee is no Mokhtar Dahari, to be sure. Both are from different eras, and faced different challenges.

Having inked his name in the scoresheets 204 times locally and abroad, Safee is certainly an icon for this generation of football fans.

It may take some time before Malaysia sees another prolific striker who will fill those rather big boots.

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