Written by: Kenneth Tan
The last thing Zulfairuuz remembers prior to the sickening collision is a car hurtling at full speed towards him. Next thing he knew, he was lying on the road – with his motorcycle flung 10 metres away.
“I was going back home that afternoon after seeing a doctor at Mount Alvernia Hospital for my MRI review … then this car beat the red light (to do a right turn) and hit the front of my motorcycle,” he recalled of the incident, which occurred seven months ago.
“It happened so quick and I had no chance to avoid (a collision). I don’t even know who drove the car. What I got from the TP (Traffic Police) was the license plate and all I know is that it was a private hire car.
“The impact knocked me out and I only regained consciousness a while after landing. Once I woke up, I tried to move my legs, but they felt ‘locked’. I was wondering why I couldn’t move until some onlookers came to me and said to me ‘your hip is fractured!’”
“I was left lying there until the paramedics arrived. At that moment, I thought my football career was over.”
Ironically, a visit to the hospital to fix his right hip – which he injured while playing for Hougang United in a Prime League game a month prior – had ended in the serious traffic accident which more than aggravated it.
Zulfairuuz had to undergo hip reduction surgery which left him on a month’s MC (medical certificate) before returning in August to do some light pool training with Hougang fitness coach Dirk Schauenberg.
The road to recovery was a tough one – more psychologically than physically – according to the 23-year-old.
“I couldn’t kick with my strong (right) leg, so I simply trained with my left during the post-recovery,” he said.
“The more frustrating and hardest part was when the doctor gave me clearance. Everybody thought I could do the same high-flying dives which I did previously, but I was actually still in a state of phobia.
“Even now when I dive (for the ball), I’m like scared something will pop out; I was told that this can happen if I hadn’t recovered well. But if I don’t (dive), how do I know if I did a good recovery?
“I just kept going because all I know is that I want to get back to playing football and try to be No.1 again.”
The determined Zulfairuuz would make a quicker-than-expected return, eventually making the bench for Hougang’s final two S.League matches of the 2017 season.
The youngster is clearly determined to get his career back on track and during the off-season, Zulfairuuz even took the initiative to gather fellow goalkeepers Heng How Meng (Hougang Prime League), Eko Pradana Putra (Home United), Hamzah Fazil (former Balestier Khalsa) and Zaiful Nizam (Balestier) to do some personal training.
Zulfairuuz’s talent was identified from a young age, handpicked by goalkeeping coach Lim Queen Cher at the age of 15. The 1.82m custodian then made his S.League debut for the Young Lions three years later in 2013.
Zulfairuuz was called up into the Singapore Under-22 squad under Richard Bok two years later and produced a stunning display between the sticks to keep their Laotian counterparts at bay in their opening qualifier for the AFC Under-23 Championship (forward video below to 2:11 for a stunning reflex save).
“It was just instinct lah,” he reflected. “All I knew was that I want to keep my opponents from scoring in my first official international game for the country.”
And that he did, with the game ending 0-0. Zulfairuuz then had his first consistent run of games in the S.League under Philippe Aw at Home United in 2016, making a total of 10 appearances.
But, playing at the highest level proved to be a bittersweet experience as Zulfairuuz made a couple of errors which directly led to goals, suffering a loss of confidence as a result.
“The pressure playing in the S.League can be quite jialat (bad), especially for a young goalkeeper,” he shared.
“Whatever you do will be scrutinised. If some top keepers do that (make errors), people may say ‘aiya, every keeper makes mistakes’. But when you’re a young keeper, everyone will hantam (criticise) you.
“When you’re down, only those who are close to you will come and give you words of encouragement – the rest no. I’ve learned to accept that fact and just come back stronger.”
Currently waiting for reports from the hospital which will allow him launch an injury claim against the other party in the accident, Zulfairuuz cannot wait to get back into action and repay the faith of Aw – who has handed him a contract extension despite not playing any minutes for the senior team in 2017.
“I’m more than grateful to coach Philippe for giving me the opportunities at Home and Hougang so far,” he said. “Now I’m fit again, I really want to push for my spot in the first team.
“I know I have two good keepers (Khairulhin Khalid and Ridhuan Barudin) ahead of me, but my job is to keep them on their toes.
“Everyone’s been pushing me to get back stronger, including coach Queen Cher (who’s now at Hougang), so I don’t want to let them down.
“The phobia (of aggravating the hip injury) is still there, but I just want to get back to playing and enjoy the feeling of making saves to help my team again.”