In 2018, the winner of the NxGn award for the best teenage player was Justin Kluivert. In 2019 it was Jadon Sancho. This year saw Real Madrid's Rodrygo picking up the gong.
It's a list of who's who in the world of football, names that almost all football fans are aware of despite their relatively young age. What is special this year was that a Malaysian appeared on that list for the very first time since it's inception back in 2017, and only one of three Asian players to make the grade.
Luqman Hakim is the first Malaysian to make the list and while the prodigious forward is cast into the eyes of the world, he's already a household name in the country since his exploits for the Malaysia Under-16 national team back in 2018.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Goal , Luqman was ecstatic to be grouped together with the likes of Rodrygo, Ansu Fati and Gabriel Martinelli - calling the nomination a big confidence booster for him in his fledgling career.
"I'm very grateful for this award. This is a surprise and I never thought I would be named among the best 50 teenage players in the world. This is certainly a big motivation for me to keep moving forward in my career," said Luqman.
It was the Mokhtar Dahari Academy (AMD) under the National Football Development Programme (NFDP) where Luqman first made an impression, under the tutelage of Lim Teong Kim. The former Malaysian international was then the director the programme who saw the potential that Luqman has.
Lim is no longer part of NFDP and has since moved back to Germany after failing to get Malaysia into the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup and subsequent reveal of his massive pay package. But while the public's opinion of the former Bayern Munich academy coach may have soured, it is not a feeilng shared by Luqman.
"My relationship with coach Lim Teong Kim is very good. He is someone very special to me. It doesn't matter to me what others may think of him. For me, he's the best. When I was nothing, he was the one that made me into something. He taught me everything one by one. Anyone who has ever worked with him will know what he's capable of.
"There's a lot that I learnt during my time at AMD. In terms of discipline, being independent and so much more. As we lived together and trained together, I learned to understand others better. It is a progressive thing where I picked up many skills on and off the pitch."
As a forward, Luqman has a lot to live up to compared to the past and current Malaysian greats like Mokhtar Dahari, Azman Adnan and Safee Sali. The 18-year-old is only at the nascent of his budding career and if he is able to continue on his current trajectory, he may yet be able to stand side-by-side with those famous names.
In the current top two divisions of the professional game in Malaysia, almost every single team in the Super League and Premier League use import players as their main striker. There in itself present the biggest obstacle for someone like Tan Cheng Hoe to find the right individuals when it comes to the national team.
A fact that Luqman admits hamper the hopes of any young strikers in the country but the Kelantan-born is hoping more will embrace the challenge and not lose psychological game.
"Yes it is true that most of the teams in Malaysia use foreign players as their preferred strikers or forwards. And all I can do is to take up this challenge and not have the mindset that I can't compete with these imports. To me there is no giving up and seeing myself as inferior to them.
"Humans are the same - we have feet, they have feet. Perhaps some have too low an impression of themselves. If we look at other countries, they mostly value their locals more than the foreigners but it is the opposite here. Here the imports are prioritised and the locals are left behind. As a player, we have to believe we can be better.
November last year saw Luqman receiving a baptism of fire when he made his bow the Malaysia Under-22 in the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. Ong Kim Swee called up the youngster and was suitably impressed to give him one of the tickets to the competitions in Philippines.
It wasn't the best outing for Malaysia in the competition, knocked out in the group stage after finishing below Myanmar, Cambodia and Philippines in Group A. But Luqman himself was selected to started in three of the four matches Malaysia played then, reaping the full benefits of experience under a very trying situation.
"I was very thankful to coach Ong Kim Swee for giving me a chance to play at a higher level. I respect all the players and they are very good. We were focused but we made mistakes on the pitch and that is normal for any footballers. I learned a lot from the seniors such as Danial Amier, Syamer Kutty, Adam, Irfan and Syahmi.
"All of them showed good mentality and it was a real experience for me because it was by first time with the U23s."
Not even Luqman himself would argue that his performance against players who were a few years older than him were anything but less than impressive. He found it difficult to cope and only managed to show glimpses of his precocious abilities, and in fairness so did the rest of the team.
But he had made his mark in other tournaments, suitably enough for Belgian club K.V Kortrijk to announce that they will take a punt on him. A period of acclimatisation with English Championship club Cardiff City FC was even planned but situation beyond everyone's control forced the plans to change.
With the on-going global pandemic due to the coronavirus, Luqman has to shelve that plan for the time being and has since signed for Selangor 2 in the Premier League in a bid to get training and competitive matches under his belt while waiting for the situation to improve.
"If things improve and I manage to go to Belgium, I want to do my best there and show everyone that Malaysians are really good footballers. Even when I was under coach Lim, I was the one who always answered yes to the question - who wants to play in Europe. It has always been my ambition to play there. If I was not able to do that, then I'm looking to play in the big leagues in Asia, the highest level that I can possibly achieve.
"If it doesn't improve, it means I'm staying here with Selangor 2, who I am also grateful for taking me on. I will be focus to do well for them and finish my contract with them. If I perform, then maybe there's a chance that I will be able to get into the Selangor team under coach B. Sathianathan," explains the ambitious Luqman.
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