Faiz Subri can bend it like Beckham but will he become an Asian star?
It's not often that a Malaysian player gets mentioned in the same breath as David Beckham. But Faiz Subri's feat in winning the FIFA Puskas Award had his Penang coach Ashley Westwood reminiscing about his days playing alongside the world's most famous footballer more than two decades ago.
On Monday night, Faiz Subri became the first Asian to be honoured for his scoring feats at the FIFA World Football Awards after his knuckleball free kick against Pahang from February was named goal of the year.
The set piece produced the kind of bend and swerve once associated with former England captain Beckham, inspiring the popular 2002 film, Bend It Like Beckham.
Westwood, who took over as Penang coach last month, crossed paths with Beckham when he came through the Manchester United youth system, playing in several reserve team games together in the 1994-95 season. He agreed that Faiz, like Beckham, has a rare skill, but could take a few pointers from the United legend to take his game to the next level.
"I still remember David Beckham tying a tyre to the crossbar at the Cliff training ground and practising for hours and hours in the evening," Westwood told ESPN FC.
"That's probably the message for anybody, even Faiz. If you want to get to the top and be consistent, you have to practise, and work hard. Even the greats like David Beckham did that, day in, day out."
Faiz returned from Switzerland on Wednesday to a hero's welcome at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Penang will be in preseason action on Friday against Cambodia's Nagaworld FC, but the reluctant superstar isn't likely to play a part.
The challenge for Westwood, who won two I-League titles with Bengaluru FC, is to get Faiz to replicate his Puskas-winning form on a regular basis in the 2017 season. Last year, Faiz was rarely a game-changer as Penang finished 10th in the 12-team league, avoiding relegation in the final weekend of the campaign.
What isn't in question is the prodigious natural talent that the 29-year-old possesses, both from set pieces and in open play.
"Faiz has demonstrated that technique from free kicks once or twice in training in the four weeks that I've been in charge," Westwood said.
"He has a short backlift and gets really good power. He's a technical player. He's quite pacey, he tends to run effortlessly across the grass. He manages to commit defenders, and beat opponents one vs. one, fairly easily, so he's a good threat.
"But to step up to the next level, Faiz has to do it more consistently. He just has to get a little fitter. He has to apply himself, and be a constant threat throughout a game, rather than being in and out of games, at times."
Last week, a friend sent Westwood an old programme from a Manchester United reserve team game against Derby County from Jan. 1995, exactly 22 years ago. The match, in the Pontins League Division One, featured Beckham plus Gary and Phil Neville, with 18-year-old Westwood on the bench.
Westwood agreed that Beckham and Faiz had the unique ability to provide a potent weapon when it came to their prowess from dead-ball situations.
"They had slightly different techniques. Beckham was someone who would whip it, get it up and over, and down the wall, while Faiz strikes with power and tries to get some movement that way," he said.
"The whip and technique were what Beckham showed time and time again for England, and at Manchester United, Real Madrid and his other clubs."
Despite being part of the 1995 FA Youth Cup-winning side, Westwood left Man United later that year to join Crewe Alexandra. He'd play more than 400 senior games in English league football as a defender, including the 1999-00 season with Bradford City in the Premier League.
At the FIFA Football Awards earlier this week, Faiz revealed his desire to one day play in Europe. But the reality is that the Kedah-born forward is still yet to fully establish himself in Malaysia. He's twice been called up to national squads, but has yet to earn a senior cap, despite a high turnover of players amid Malaysia's recent decline.
"After this, many young kids will want to be like Faiz, and try to emulate the same sort of recognition he has now achieved," Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee told ESPN FC.
"This goal does not guarantee a national berth, but I hope it will motivate him to do better for the 2017 season."
Faiz's Malaysia Super League campaign begins on Jan. 21 when Penang travel to Selayang Stadium, near Kuala Lumpur, to face Selangor.
Expect the Selangor goalkeeper to pay extra attention when Faiz stands over the ball for his first free kick of the season.
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. An ex-World Cup & EPL host, he has also been a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.