Singaporean forward Iqbal Hussain eyes a longer stint in India
S'porean recaps memorable I-League sojourn, is fielding interest from ISL clubs
When Singaporean attacker Iqbal Hussain signed up for Chennai City last December, he could not have imagined that his playing debut would see him double up as a de facto coach.
But the Bollywood and Kollywood aficionado showed his acting chops, playing the role of stand-in coach to a T during Chennai's season-opening 2-1 win against eventual I-League champions Gokulam Kerala.
Just hours before the game, Chennai's Singaporean coach, Satyasagara (formerly known as K. Balagumaran) was informed that a one-match ban carried over from last season meant he would not be able to take his place in the dugout.
With his assistants quarantining and his team largely comprising inexperienced Indian players who had stepped up from the reserves and a trio of Serbs he had just recruited, the 56-year-old turned to Iqbal.
He first coached Iqbal at 15 at the now-defunct National Football Academy, and then later at Gombak United and Hougang United.
Iqbal, 27, who is back in town and serving his 14-day quarantine at Swissotel The Stamford, told The New Paper: "It's my first time playing without any coaches at the bench...
"I took the warm-up and everything, because there's no fitness coach. Coach told me the procedure, the warm-up session, the possession game and the shooting drills.
"We were down 1-0, but one good thing about these local players is they will listen to you when you have experience...
"We kept on fighting. In the changing room (before the) second half, it was 1-1, and I said, 'We can do this. If we do this, we can create a big talk(ing point) in this league if we can win a game without any coaches.'
"We won 2-1 and we celebrated like hell, as if we won the league."
Iqbal also had a solid season in his primary role as a player. In his 10 matches, he recorded two assists and bagged three goals in the club's last three matches to help them stave off relegation.
Before his hot streak in front of goal, an article on the I-League website last month referred to him as one of the league's top playmakers, having racked up the most key passes and the third-highest tally for passes into the penalty area.
Aside from calling Iqbal the best individual and team player in his squad, Satyasagara said the wiry 1.86m attacker was like his deputy on the pitch.
"He was like another assistant coach for me," said the former national women's team coach, who was promoted from assistant coach to replace compatriot Akbar Nawas at Chennai last December.
"Because he knows how I want to play, like when I want to play 4-3-3 or 4-4-2. He will talk to the local players and tell them, you must go here or go there. (For) some games, I made him captain...
"As a coach, I don't have 10 eyes to see everything, so when he tells me things from the field... it is good. In the future, he can be a very good coach."
Iqbal's immediate playing future, however, could lie in India. Both he and Satyasagara told TNP that there have already been offers from clubs in the more lucrative Indian Super League (ISL), the nation's top-tier competition.
Satyasagara believes his protege, who earned the last of his seven Lions caps in 2019, can "easily" play in the ISL.
He also revealed that Indian Arrows coach Shanmugam Venkatesh, who is an assistant in Igor Stimac's national set-up, enquired about Iqbal's international availability.
Iqbal could have been eligible to play for India via his late grandfather, who was born in Tamil Nadu, had he not featured in more than three "A" internationals for Singapore.
He said: "It's a nice feeling knowing another country sees something (in me)...
"Definitely, my plan is to go back there. If coach (Satyasagara) wants me, I'll be there for sure, but he wants me to go to the ISL and I got a few offers from ISL clubs...
"But, for now, I'm going to talk to a few SPL (Singapore Premier League) teams and ask to join in training to keep my fitness up."