Meet Steffi Sarge Kaur, the incomparable Queen of Free Kicks in Malaysia and defiant captain of the women’s national team.
Representing your own country has never been an easy task. It doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in — the pressure is and will always be there. It’s even more daunting when you’re the captain of the Malaysian women’s football team. For Steffi Sarge Kaur, however, it’s a challenge she won’t back down from.
“Hey, how are you?”, she greets everyone with a smile upon arriving on set of her cover shoot for the inaugural LSA100. Shaking hands and taking names, she affirms her position in the room. More than just a sportsperson, Steffi also takes pride in the fact that she has to lead by example anywhere she goes.
The national skipper, here for her inaugural cover feature, isn’t outwardly expressive at first but she lets her warm and comforting approach do the talking. As a female footballer, Steffi is an inspiration for many — in and outside the world of sports. After all, the veteran has devoted 16 years of life representing the nation through the game; bringing awareness one small step at a time.
“It’s nice to see many girls playing the sport because there’s a progression in women’s football now compared to previous years,” the superstar asserts, grinning with joy. Though she maintains that the job isn’t done, it’s a sign of relief that her effort (together with the rest of the squad) is paying off.
During her time on set, the 34-year-old Malaysian athlete shares about her life as a professional football player, the challenges she have faced, and the upcoming goals or plans in her career — all these while I stare and listen in awe. Look dad, I’m in the presence of a football superstar!
Love at first kick
Like many children out there, Steffi had a dream. For her, it all stemmed from the time she spent as a young girl watching the Olympics with her parents. Growing up, it was all about discovering herself — be it through the world of sports or understanding her personal Chinese-Punjabi-Siamese background.
“I have loved sports from a really young age. When I was a kid, I said to myself after watching the Olympics that I aspire to be in the opening parade representing my national team,” she conveys, reminiscing the beginning of it all.
Truth is, at that moment in time, Steffi — a jill-of-all-trades — did not just do one sport. Instead, she made her presence known in a wide array of activities, from badminton and hockey to netball. Eventually (like duh!), she ended up living her dream through football.
She explains: “It’s love at first kick for me, if I may. I started playing football when I was eight after following my father to a field. There, I saw him playing and being the playful person that I was, decided to start kicking around a ball that was laying around. That’s how I fell in love with the sport”.
Till now, she emphasises that the support of parents has been crucial in her career. “My parents are forever my number one fan — being there for me since day one,” Steffi declares, widening her grin in an explicit display of gratitude.
The rest is history. More than a decade later, she’s become a force to be reckoned with; both on and off field.
A dream that transcends borders and cultures
Similar to many other sports, football tournaments decide where you lie in terms of ranking and reputation. That’s why athletes train and push themselves so hard, especially when you have the nation’s support and attention. Last year, Steffi made a return to the Malaysian women’s national football squad after a hiatus where she took up professional futsal instead.
“I got my call up and captained the team since 2021. Age is really just a number in a way. I worked really hard and I don’t take things for granted. I do whatever it takes to earn my place in the national squad,” she expresses.
A role model to the younger players in the team, Steffi pinpoints representing Malaysia at the ASEAN Football Federation Women’s Championship in the Philippines as her biggest accomplishment this year.
“We played in the same group as teams such as Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines as well as neighbours like Singapore and Indonesia. We might have finished at fifth place in the group but it’s a huge achievement especially being among superstars,” she quips. With glistening eyes, she notes that among her memorable moments during the tournament was scoring a free kick against Indonesia.
Alluding to the fact that age is indeed just a number for her, Steffi expresses her dream to represent Malaysia one final time at the next SEA Games. “If that happens, it will be my fourth time playing for the nation. So far, I’ve been in three SEA Games and in two different sports — futsal and football,” she states.
It’s a small but promising change
Through her years in the sport as a female footballer, she has built up a barrier towards naysayers. She knows that it can be challenging for women to be taken seriously in the world of sports, what more football.
“One of the biggest challenges as a woman in the sport is to break through the perception that you won’t be good or you can’t play because of your gender. The truth is — girls can play and they play very well,” she declares. No longer just a male-dominated sport, the athlete notices small but important shifts in the way society views gender in sports. “With social media especially, there is a lot more awareness towards women’s football. It’s important!”, expounds Steffi.
Although it’s true that the belle epoch has been slowly but steadily moulding into a more optimistic playing field for all regardless of background, the skipper feels that so much more can be done. For starters, Steffi believes that it’s really important to establish professional leagues for female footballers in Malaysia.
“It’s good to have more women’s leagues because from there, we can select great players and place them in the Under-21 team as well as the senior squad. That’s where you can scout the players, train them well, and call them up to represent Malaysia,” she suggests. The athlete understands that a lot needs to happen for that to come into fruition but if an opportunity arises, she’s ready to explore the possibilities — by helping out through consultation and leadership.
For context, the Malaysian football system currently comprises four different tiers for professional men’s football. In order from highest level to lowest, they are Malaysia Super League (M1), Malaysia Premier League (M2), Malaysia M3 League, and Malaysia M4 League.
Let me be the beacon of light
Whether it’s coincidental or fate, one can’t help but notice that Steffi’s journey of self-discovery is a lot like exploring the terrains of a football field. It’s all about taking the time to find your footing in a place or position where you belong; be it as a forward or a centre back.
“I’ve always believed in myself and my potential. If I want to achieve something, I work really, really hard for it because I know, one day, I will get to where I want,” she declares with spirited flare, as she realises her right hand is now in the form of fist.
Backing down and giving up are not options for the player. “Don’t give up because that would really be the end. A full stop in your journey. That’s my advice to everyone, especially to young girls,” she conveys.
With great experience comes great maturity and pressure to be an ideal example. She understands why many look at her for guidance but she asserts that she doesn’t want anyone to emulate her to a tee.
“I don’t want them to pressure themselves to feel like they need to be like me or a certain player. I want them to do whatever they are doing now. Be true to your own capabilities,” Steffi answers. However, three main attributes remain as necessary as ever for every aspiring footballers. “You’ve got to have discipline, commitment, and passion,” she pounds, adding to her message.
While her journey of self-exploration via her love for sports has been extensive, it’s clear that she still feels the fire burning. The adoration for football is still alive and well, embedded in her very spirit. However, when’s it all said and done, Steffi is sure of how she wants to remembered.
“Let me be known as a captain and a leader of the Malaysian women’s national team who led by example — both on and off the field. I hope, at the end of everything, I will remain a beacon of light and strength to my team mates. Finally, it would also be amazing to know that the work my fellow peers and I have put in has contributed to a massive change for women’s football here in the country,” she expresses as she lets out a deep sigh that transcends thoughts and emotions.
Our little conversation comes to a sweet end as we take off exchanging our favourite gin-based drink of choice — which might just include Negroni and Gin&Tonic.
LSA100: 100 Malaysians, 100 Milestones
Lifestyle Asia KL introduces LSA 100, an annual list that recognises Malaysia’s most influential names and celebrates their talents, contributions, successes and milestones. As the bellwether of style, travel, design, entertainment, business, sports, and more, these 100 Malaysians represent the next generation of go-getters who are paving the way for sharing their know-hows with the world through the power of digital media. LSA100 comprises five categories namely The Rule Breakers, The Joy Sparkers, The Dreamcatchers, The Rocketeers and The Explorers. Find out more about LSA100 Class of 2022, HERE.