Young Lions skipper Illyas rolls with the punches
Young Lions skipper bounces back from a series of setbacks, hopes to inspire team to first win
|HOUGANG UNITED||GARENA YOUNG LIONS|
During the Singapore Under-22 team's 1-0 win over India in a July friendly, some eyebrows were raised when Illyas Lee strode out onto the pitch wearing the captain's armband.
After all, he did not even start the year as a first-choice player for the developmental Garena Young Lions outfit that play in the S.League, owing to injury and then a failure to break into the team.
But, instead of shrivelling under the responsibility, Lee blossomed.
As the 21-year-old launched himself into challenges and dominated in a defensive midfield role, one respected local coach in the stands was overheard saying: "It's been a long time since I saw a Singapore age-group captain putting himself about and winning 50-50 balls like that."
Recalling that day, Lee admitted he was surprised to be handed the armband, although the responsibility also lifted his game.
"I only found out when I walked into changing room before the game, because usually our kitman puts the armband on the captain's kit," he said.
"It was a morale boost for me, because it showed coach (Richard) Tardy had trust in me.
"In fact, early in that game, I took a bad knock in the ribs, but with the armband, I told myself I had to shake it off and keep fighting. So I did."
Bouncing back from setbacks has become something of a forte of Lee's.
I guess you've just got to learn from every low point and pick yourself up. You can't just stay there and sulk. You always have to bounce back stronger - that's my belief.Illyas Lee
In 2009, he was cut from the national Under-14 squad that took part in the Asian Youth Games.
But, by the time the Youth Olympic Games came around a year later, he had fought his way back into the squad that captured the imagination of a nation as the team reached the competition's semi-finals.
However, because of suspension, he had to sit out the 4-1 win over Montenegro that sealed a bronze-medal win, for receiving a red card in the 2-0 semi-final loss to Haiti.
In 2011, he captained the national U-16 team at the Lion City Cup in place of injured regular skipper Jeffrey Lightfoot.
While Lee helped the team reach the tournament's final, he missed a spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out as the U-16s lost to Brazilian side Flamengo.
When The New Paper pointed out to him the roller-coaster nature of his career, he replied with a smile: "I guess you've just got to learn from every low point and pick yourself up.
"You can't just stay there and sulk.
"You always have to bounce back stronger - that's my belief."
Perhaps it was no surprise then that, just before the current Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League season began in February, Lee was dealt another blow when he picked up an ankle injury.
It delayed his ability to take the S.League's mandatory 2.4km fitness test.
With the help of painkillers to fight through the pain, he passed the test a month later, but then found it hard to break into a settled side.
Clawing away, he eventually earned his chance with the Young Lions in May, in the 0-0 draw with 2015 S.League champions Brunei DPMM.
Since then, he has featured regularly for the side.
By the time the Singapore U-22 team travelled across the Causeway for the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur last month, Lee had earned himself a starting spot.
However, the team were knocked out at the group stage after defeats in their first two matches, by Myanmar (2-0) and Malaysia (2-1).
Said Lee: "We came back disappointed, of course.
"We did our best, but it wasn't good enough
"But we showed we were not far from (the level) of Malaysia, who were finalists.
"If some things went our way, it would have been a different outcome.
"But now we're back, we are all still very motivated at the Young Lions, because we want to get our first win.
"We have to fight for our future and career, and show what we can do."
With regular Young Lions captain Shahrin Saberin out injured, coach Vincent Subramaniam - who replaced V Selvaraj in July - has put his faith in Lee to continue as captain.
Subramaniam, who coached the senior national team from 1998 to 2001, said: "At the Young Lions and national U-22 team, we are trying to develop not just players, but also captains in the team.
"For example, previously we had Amirul Adli and Shahrin Saberin, and during the SEA Games, Irfan Fandi as captains.
"With Shahrin now out through injury, I feel Illyas has set a good example both on and off the pitch in terms of his leadership and professionalism.
"He is also popular with the other players, so he's a good player to be developed as captain."
Lee, who completed his National Service last month, now wants to focus on forging a career in football.
Turning 22 in December, he will be too old to play for the Young Lions in the S.League next season, so he will have to earn a contract elsewhere.
He said: "I hope to play overseas, and hopefully the opportunity is out there for me.
"I was supposed to start my studies (in mechanical engineering) at Nanyang Technological University right after the SEA Games, but deferred it for one year to play football.
"Football is a short career, and I want to make sure I make the best of it.
"Hopefully, with good performances, I can eventually be called up to the national team."
"I guess you've just got to learn from every low point and pick yourself up. You can't just stay there and sulk.
You always have to bounce back stronger - that's my belief."
TONIGHT'S OTHER FIXTURE:
- Warriors FC v Geylang International