Izwan impresses in Japanese trial
Despite tough conditions, goalkeeper Izwan impresses in ongoing trial with Japanese club
REPORTING FROM MATSUMOTO, JAPAN
Fingers numb, toes stiff, nose dripping, it wasn't just Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud who found the going tough on Day 3 of his training stint with J2 League side Matsumoto Yamaga yesterday.
At the Karigane Football Centre, the temperature fell to five deg C as snowflakes fell in the 20kmh winds and even the 100 fans and media who gathered to watch the 25-year-old train were heard exclaiming: "Ko rudo (cold in Japanese)!"
The fact is, goalkeepers already generate less heat than outfield players on the pitch.
In such punishing weather, muscles receive less oxygen, and the body becomes less coordinated, while the ball becomes harder to handle.
But Izwan is made of sterner stuff, as he told The New Paper: "It is better for me to experience the worst conditions and come out knowing I can do it."
Indeed, after reaching the ground ahead of the other players 90 minutes before the 2pm (Japan time) session, he spent almost half an hour to put on two tights, a sweater, a jacket, neck warmer, leggings and the customary kit, gloves and boots, before warming up on the pitch.
The drills he participated in were vastly different from what he had been used to in Singapore.
For example, the four goalkeepers in training engaged in few rounds of "monkey", using their hands to flick passes and keep the ball away from the man in the middle.
Next, they had to dive and stop a shot with their hands before adjusting their bodies to make a clearance kick.
They then had to make saves off not just with the regular-sized footballs, but also off smaller balls the size of grapefruits.
As he repeated his flying saves, Matsumoto Yamaga goalkeeping coach Honma Yasutaka couldn't help but exclaim "Subarashii!" which means wonderful in Japanese.
Izwan also put to use some of the Japanese terms he learned on this trip, shouting "migi" (right) and "hidari" (left) as he commanded the defence ahead of him in a two-sided game afterwards.
Despite limited time with his new teammates and having to deal with the biting cold, Izwan showed he was at ease with the ball, and even won the crossbar-volley challenge as the team warmed down.
After fielding autograph and wefie requests against the howling wind, he said: "It's tough. The weather, language, type of football and food are different from what we are used to in Singapore, but I can get used to this.
"The coaches and players tried to communicate with me in English and there were even fans coming from Yokohama, which is three hours away, and it's a big motivation for the players to train hard."
Matsumoto Yamaga fan Toshihiro Ishii, a 43-year-old factory worker, said: "We think he is good enough to play for us.
"If he has ambitions to play in Europe in the future, he has to overcome these wintry conditions because it's tougher in Europe.
"After his performances against Japan, where he made so many top saves in both the 0-0 draw and the 3-0 defeat, he has many fans here who hope he will play for us."
But the final say lies with the Matsumoto Yamaga officials, who are likely to make a decision after this morning's friendly match against Matsumoto University.
Goalkeeping coach Honma Yasutaka said through a translator in Japanese: "Izwan is good in shot-stopping and awareness, but still needs to improve in his footwork and positioning.
"If he can adapt in terms of the weather and communication, he can fit into our team.
"With the J.League trying to market itself to Asean, it will be good to have a Singaporean on board but, of course, it has to boost our club's performance too."
Izwan said: "Of course, I want to come here and achieve something, but it is ultimately up to the club. I have given my best during my time here and it has been an eye-opening experience."
l David Lee's trip is sponsored by Epson Singapore.
From a benchwarmer to a top custodian
From the first time he came into contact with a football when he was six, Izwan Mahbud had just one simple dream - to be a striker like his dad was for his team Stable Boys.
But Anderson Primary School did not have a football team then and, when he moved to Fuchun Secondary School, he found himself mostly on the bench, although he did find some joy scoring for Woodlands Sunday Boys.
However, in a Friendship Cup semi-final against the Home United Under-14s, his Fuchun team were short of a goalkeeper and Izwan had to fill in between the sticks.
It was an unspectacular match which he did not remember much of, except that it ended in a draw and he missed the decisive penalty which he still kicks himself for to this day.
But former national goalkeeper Yakob Hashim, who was coaching Home's U-14 team then, saw enough athleticism and potential in the scrawny lad to ask for his contact details and passed them on to another former international Kadir Yahaya, who was then coaching the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-15s.
Although Izwan initially found it hard to appreciate the art of keeping balls out of the net more than banging them in, his strong work ethic meant he kept improving in his new role.
Also having a profound impact on him were Kadir's prophetic words: "With your goalkeeping talent, you can get paid to do something you like, why waste it?"
Within just a decade, a heartland dream has blossomed into an international ambition for the 25-year-old.
Rising through the ranks of the NFA after being recruited by Kadir, and then impressing with the Courts Young Lions, Izwan was handed his national debut against Taiwan four days after his 21st birthday and has gone on to collect 38 caps - one of them coming from the 0-0 draw with the Samurai Blue in June that catapulted him into instant fame in Japan.
With the help of the Football Association of Singapore and Epson Singapore, Izwan has flown 5,230km to Japan in a bid to convince Matsumoto Yamaga to make the first J.League offer to a Singaporean footballer.
If he does pull it off, Izwan could very well be the only footballer born in the Asean region to play in the J.League, even if the area is currently represented by Holland-born Indonesian Irfan Bachdim (Consadole Sapporo), Japan-born Malaysian Tam Sheang Tsung (Kataller Toayam), and Brazil-born Timorese Munilo and Fellipe Bertoldo (Nagano Parceiro and Oita Trinita).
"After I experienced playing in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) with the LionsXII in 2012, I started thinking about playing overseas," said Izwan.
"When I saw Hariss (Harun), Safuwan (Baharudin), Shahril (Ishak) and Baihakki (Khaizan) getting offers and doing well with foreign clubs, I started to believe I could do it too.
"It would be a big accomplishment if I do get to create history by being offered a J.League contract. It would be a great opportunity for me, something to make my family proud.
"But, more than that, it would open the door for footballers in Singapore and South-east Asia to play in Japan and show the world that there is talent in this region."
With his 18 saves against Japan in that World Cup/Asian Cup qualifier at Saitama, he has earned even the respect of Asian superstar Keisuke Honda, who praised Izwan on a Fuji TV programme three days ago.
Even as he is getting used to being mobbed by hero-hungry Japanese fans awestruck by his flying saves, Izwan insists the nature of his work, as well as his trusted family and friends, help keep his feet on the ground.
"One day I can keep a clean sheet, the next game I concede four goals," he said, referring to the recently concluded MSL season where he almost single-handedly denied AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta'zim in a 0-0 draw, but subsequently lost 4-0 to Selangor.
"I don't think I'm a star. I see myself as part of a team, where everyone has a job, and I'm responsible for keeping a clean sheet.
"The Japanese media wrote that I'm god-like, but I'm still human, I still make mistakes. What I can do is continue working hard, and I will because I'm never satisfied. There's always room for improvement.
"I'm also thankful for my parents, Kak Fizah (national team physiotherapist Nurhafizah Abu Sujad) and the LionsXII backroom staff for always reminding me to be humble." - DAVID LEE
10 things about Izwan
- Izwan Mahbud comes from a family of six, and is the third of four siblings. He has an older sister, an older brother and a younger sister.
- His favourite food is any chicken dish his mother cooks, especially ayam masak merah.
- If he wasn't a professional footballer, he would have been a chef.
- Izwan kept 35 clean sheets in four seasons as the LionsXII goalkeeper. This past season, he contributed nine shut-outs in 36 matches for his club.
- A big fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, Izwan studies his shooting technique on YouTube and dreams of scoring in a professional match. He attempted two free-kicks for the LionsXII in the 2013 Malaysian Super League-winning season but struck the wall both times.
- He started 10 games for the national team this year and kept four clean sheets, which include the first half of a 4-0 friendly defeat by Qatar.
- Izwan made his international debut against Taiwan four days after his 21st birthday and has since earned 38 caps, keeping 13 clean sheets in various starts and substitute appearances.
- He wears size 9 gloves and 8.5 (UK) boots.
- A Manchester United fan, Izwan's favourite footballers are predictably David de Gea and Peter Schmeichel.
- Not bootlicking, but his favourite country is Japan.