Already a star for Malaysia, Syafiq Ahmad now wants to shine at Johor Darul Ta'zim

Syafiq Ahmad is hoping the impact he has made on Malaysia's national team will translate to success at JDT. Adek Berry/AFP

At Johor Darul Ta'zim, the giants of Southeast Asian club football, 24-year-old Syafiq Ahmad is largely considered a fringe player for a side that is aiming for seventh straight league title. Yet, the young attacker is one of the first names on the national team's squad list and has been key to Malaysia's recent success.

Last year Syafiq had a breakout campaign in international play where he scored five goals for Malaysia -- including a brilliant header to open the scoring against semifinalists United Arab Emirates in the joint-qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup -- to go along with a hat-trick and two assists against Sri Lanka in a friendly.

"It was really like a year of revival," Syafiq told ESPN. "I think it was my best season to date after turning professional."

Syafiq's play is one of the reasons Malaysia are currently second in Group G of the World Cup qualifiers with nine points. They sit two points behind reigning Southeast Asian champions Vietnam and one point ahead of rival Thailand.

"We have a good chance to progress to the next stage if we can maintain our momentum and strive to play even better than last year," said Syafiq about Malaysia's chances as they take on UAE, Vietnam and Thailand in their final three ties.

For as much of an impact Syafiq has in international play, it has been a different story at the club level.

After coming through with Kedah in 2015 at 19-years-old, Syafiq scored 15 goals in 76 games over the course of three campaigns. He then joined JDT when they came knocking in 2018.

Syafiq has found playing time hard to come by since and, so far in 2020, he has one start in four Malaysia Super League matches. Of the two AFC Champions League matches JDT played this year, Syafiq clocked a total of just 14 minutes.

"I think I have to be more physical because the physique is important, especially when you are playing in the AFC Champions League," Syafiq said. "I am also working hard to improve my weaker foot and stamina."

That is not to say Syafiq has had no impact while for JDT.

When the Malaysian outfit shocked Kashima Antlers of Japan to record their first-ever win in the ACL in May last year, it was Syafiq who popped up with the winner in the 69th minute to mark the historic night.

"Playing against the defending champions of Asia was an honour and the feeling was even better to score and win the match for my team," Syafiq said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that moment in my life."

JDT head coach Benjamin Mora has noticed Syafiq's progress.

"He has become our first choice for a substitute in the attacking front and can also be a starter in some of the games," Mora told ESPN.

Mora pointed to Syafiq's versatility and his ability to fill multiple positions from midfielder to lone striker. He added that Syafiq needs more experience and playing time to achieve his potential.

"Syafiq is young and eager to learn and has a great fighting spirit," Mora said. "He only needs to understand the game and his role at different times, and what the team needs from him a little better."