UiTM FC player Dirga Surdi did it his way and took the road less travelled to professional football, by opting for amateur clubs over youth teams.
21-year old UiTM FC attacker Dirga Surdi is an anomaly in the Malaysian league. Unlike most professional players in the league, the Sabah-born player did not go through the conventional sports school and youth academy route taken by many current Malaysian pros.
For reasons he can’t quite explain, Dirga said that he never enrolled at a sports school, preferring to attend a regular secondary school in his family’s city of residence Subang Jaya, Selangor instead, while playing amateur and semi-pro football in the state’s many amateur leagues.
“It’s hard for me to say why, but I never even applied to attend a sports school. Not that I didn’t want to, but it never occurred to me to study there. At first I only played for my secondary school, before joining FA Selangor League’s Teleflow FC when I was 15. At the same time I also played for SA United and Subang United in the amateur and social leagues.
“I never attended open trials for pro clubs’ President’s Cup (U-21) teams either, just for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to be noticed there. There’d be hundreds and thousands of kids there all with the same idea! My coach at Teleflow; Badrul Hisyam (coincidentally JDT player Azrif Nasrulhaq’s father) always told me to be patient. You can still go far even without joining a pro club’s youth team.
“I am where I am today thanks to these clubs and coaches; Coach Zainul who was there for me since I was only a boy, Coach Nazri, Coach Bad, and the then-Fuerza head coach Nazrulerwan Makmor,” explained Dirga in a telephone call with Goal.
His patience and hardwork was repaid when his career trajectory took a meteoric rise in 2019.
“After the end of the 2019 FA Selangor League season, I briefly joined third-tier side Puchong Fuerza (now Manjung City) after passing the trials. It was with them when I played in a friendly against PDRM, and I guess they saw something in me.
“I received a telephone call after Fuerza’s last game of the season, a Selangor Champions League match” he related. “The caller said ‘Is this Dirga? I’m a coach at PDRM, would you like to play in the Malaysia Super League with us?’
“I immediately hung up! I thought it was my mates trying to get one on me with a mean prank, because Fuerza had just been knocked out of the quarter-finals. Thankfully he reached out to me again, this time through Whatsapp, and I realised from the profile photo that it wasn’t a bad joke and called him back to respond to his offer.”
According to Dirga, even other offers and issues surrounding the Cops at the time could not change his mind.
“Around the time, I also started receiving offers from President’s Cup teams (U-21 teams of Malaysian league clubs). Of course I went with the Cops because playing in the top tier among the 12 best clubs in the country is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for lower league footballers like me.
— Football Selangor (@FootballSEL) December 5, 2019
“Even their wage payment problem from the previous year, which the management themselves reminded me of, could not deter me from joining. I wasn’t going to let the chance of playing in the top tier slip from my hands,” he told Goal.
The jump to professional football also necessitated some getting used to on Dirga’s part, as someone who came through the lower league ranks.
“It was quite a jump for me because in the lower leagues, you’d train maybe once or three times a week. It’s understandably hard for the players to train together regularly because they each have a regular job. But at PDRM I trained twice a day because it’s a professional team, and the training is a lot more high-intensity. I also had to catch up on the tactical side of the game, such as where to dribble and where to release the ball early. It’s not an aspect that is emphasised on in the lower leagues.
“I was listed on the matchday squad against Sabah, and at first I thought I was going to just start from the bench. Instead I was chosen to start in what was our first match of the season! I was nervous, but everyone helped me kept my cool and we came away with a 0-0 draw.”
Dirga Surdi (holding the pennant) just before PDRM v Sabah on 1 March 2020. Photo by Sports Regime
While the Cops would end the 2020 season in relegation, the attacker who managed nine league appearances out of 11 matches in the truncated season would go on to prove that he is not just someone who got lucky to be signed by the worst team in the Super League.
For the 2021 season, Dirga has signed with UiTM, the 2020 Super League surprise package under former Malaysia U-23 head coach Frank Bernhardt.
“While I was waiting for a contract extension offer from PDRM, UiTM offered me a three-day trial spot.” he explained. “I attended it and they did end up offering me a contract, which I accepted because of their facilities and just how well they are run.
“For now, my objective is simple; I just want to make the first eleven regularly first. My immediate concern is to find my footing at UiTM.”
Playing for better teams in the future is of course his dream, but he also harbours the desire to play for one particular Malaysian team.
“Everyone wants to play for their home state team, and for me it’s Sabah FC. It’s my dream. If I get an offer from them, I’ll go.”
Ending the interview, Dirga expressed his gratitude towards grassroots football in Selangor which allows talents like him to be honed outside of the professional league set-up, and suggested that more players try their luck playing in amateur leagues held in the state.
“Amateur players need to look after their attitude; things like punctuality, hot-headedness. Sometimes these lower leagues develop a bad reputation of having players who get into a fight after only being lightly touch, you know? They need to be professional even before playing professionally because they are being observed, even if they don’t know it.
“If they have a chance to play in the Selangor Champions League, they need to do so. Teams taking part in it are made to field at least two U-21 players, and I know that pro clubs do scout there. That’s why I think very highly of the competition and that Selangor is a prestigious state for grassroots football.”