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AN ex-colleague once asked if it matters to readers what the lead story on a page is.

For former national footballer Zulkifli Norbit, 71, it does.

One such article appeared in Malay Mail on June 21, 1978, three years after Zulkifli finished his illustrious nine-year career with Selangor.

The strike was not even his best or most important — mind you, he scored in the 3-0 1968 Merdeka Tournament final win over Burma which ended an eight-year title wait.

He once netted all the goals in Selangor’s 4-1 Malaysia Cup victory against Armed Forces.

But that one paper clipping is safe in his collection as the piece featured prominently with an emphatic headline — Zulkifli nets the winner.

That solitary goal came in Sultan Sulaiman Club’s Selangor Premier League win over SCRC.

“That’s why I hardly missed buying Malay Mail,” said Zulkifli at his home in Ampang, where he still keeps the paper’s write-ups from the 1960s to 1980s.

“The writers even covered lower division and club matches.

“They never condemned us, only constructive criticism. They knew what the players were capable of. These types of reports helped us improve.”

By his own admission, Zulkifli is not someone who remembers journalists well.

The late Tony Danker, a Malay Mail sports reporter during Zulkifli’s playing years, was an exception.

Zulkifli said: “Danker is one of only two or three fresh in my head.

“How could I forget? He was always at the ground before us!

“The only time I scored four, Danker was there to record it.”

Zulkifli started playing for Selangor aged 15 and made his senior debut four years later in 1966.

The eldest of the famed Norbit brothers — winger Shah and midfielder Jamaluddin were also internationals — Zulkifli earned his first cap in 1968 against Western Australia.

He was also part of the Harimau Malaya team that qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The last of his 80-plus caps came against Everton in a 1974 friendly.

Zulkifli, whose teammates included some of the country’s best footballers like Datuk M. Chandran, Datuk Mokhtar Dahari and Wong Choon Wah, counts having played alongside the late Tan Sri Ghani Minhat his biggest blessing.

“Easily the best Malaysian to have kicked a football,” said the six-time Malaysia Cup champion with a thumping conviction.

At the height of his career, Zulkifli was known to be the fastest winger in Asia —he ran 100m in 11.3s.

In 1983, he turned a coach but retired 23 years later, with his last job coming at KL Plus.

Malay Mail is a paper close to Zulkifli’s heart.

“I kept a lot of articles. Some ex-teammates took a few but never returned,” he laughed.

“For footballers of my era, Malay Mail was the ultimate. It was the first paper I looked to buy the day after a match.

“May you continue telling great stories.”