Words by Tomas Danicek
In the moment I definitely fell in love with Asian football, shortly after the 2011 Asian Cup started, I had nothing else to pass onto my fellow countrymen other than some mere assumptions based on those enchanting yet irrelevant ‘first impressions’.
One of them, however, has somehow managed to survive above all. “You see, Asian goalkeeping school is actually pretty good, minnows included,” I would still claim bravely.
Granted, I have to now amend that statement a little, as I saw young Asian goalkeepers at the U20 World Cup recently, and they were all – perhaps bar Dilshod Khamraev, initially an Uzbek goalkeeper number two – truly awful and well behind the so-called “eccentric and fatally unpredictable Africans” (which is, by the way, one ridiculous stereotype).
At senior level, though, my point very much stands; and it was, in fact, only reaffirmed during these two sets of 2018 World Cup / 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
My first Asian goalkeeping heroes were the chubby Jordanian Amer Shafi’ – to date one of my favorite custodians of all-time, worldwide – and Mosab Balhous from Syria. Of course, there was also the ever flashy Indian Subrata Pal, but my affection to him has always been undermined by the sort of ‘guilty pleasure’ factor. You know, the one when you feel said goalkeeper is not of genuine quality, but you happily adore him nonetheless.
Nowadays, during your typical pub conversation about Asian goalkeeping prospects, you would probably find me throwing names like Kim Seung-gyu (South Korea) or Wang Dalei (China) around; concentrating mainly on the Eastern part of the continent, for a change.
However, it occurs to me I may have been missing something for the whole four-year span, as the best goalkeeping efforts of the past few days were produced by two lads coming from the previously ignored South or South East region – Mohamed Imran of Maldives and Izwan Mahbud of Singapore.
The former excelled against Qatar last Thursday and his performance was so comprehensively sterling, absolutely no one would convince me it was just some one-off fluke from an otherwise lousy net-minder.
Imran read the game ludicrously well, was always perfectly positioned and his workload was by no means just about pulling off some wonderful saves (although he naturally did that too). Qatar seemingly tried out 100 different ways in order to finally beat him, ultimately succeeding in their 101st attempt.
Unfortunately, we probably won’t be seeing many more testimonies to Imran’s talent in the future, as he is already 34 years old and past his peak (which technically makes him even a greater gem, ha!), but his heroics along with those from Shafiu Ahmed – a centre back who’s blocked two shots in rather spectacular fashion – were simply stunning on the day, and so it would be criminal not to mention him here as well.
Anyway, the other keeper I’ve pinpointed for you, the much younger Izwan Mahbud, represents a completely different and even more intriguing case…
First things first: was Izwan’s terrific performance that much unforeseen? Not at all.
Albeit he set up his international career in a shaky manner, through a 5:3 win over Malaysia in the second round of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers (in 2011), he’s managed to establish himself as the designated starter pretty quickly and hasn’t exactly lingered in that role without any tangible success either.
He may have been helped by injury to his fierce rival Hassan Sunny in the run up to the 2012 Suzuki Cup, but that doesn’t change anything about his key role in the eventual Singaporean run for the gold medals, directly following a first round exit in 2010. Izwan was excellent mainly in the second leg of the final, when he helped his team significantly to keep the score tight – headed to a satisfactory 0:1 loss that allowed the Lions to celebrate nonetheless.
Even better, now 24-year-old custodian has long been a fixture on the club scene, too. His first minutes in Singaporean top flight came in 2009, when he was still a teenager, and he’s been getting regular starts ever since 2010 – with the transfer to LionsXII (Malaysian Super League club based in Singapore) being no setback in his development whatsoever.
On the contrary, Izwan’s comet has been steadily rising up to the point where he can be utterly relied upon week in week out. Teo Teng Kiat, Singaporean journalist who writes for ESPN FC Asia and other outlets, assesses his progress as follows:
“He’s definitely a more confident figure now and is much more commanding at coming out for crosses and aerial balls. Brave too, never afraid to put his body on the line. Earlier in his career he was perhaps a little nervous at times and susceptible at free-kicks but he’s more complete now.“
Asked about how the national team star has fared most recently, Teng Kiat then paints an uncannily familiar picture to anyone who tuned in to watch Tuesday’s game versus Japan: “He’s emerged as more of a leader now this season and has kept the LionsXII in games (or at least helped keep margin of defeat down) with several top-class saves – and this happens almost every game, so his consistency is right up there. He’s always been consistent for both club and country.”
It indeed appears Izwan Mahbud thrives in difficult circumstances and doesn’t even seem to be limited by his smaller build. He’s decisive, confident on the ball (Teng Kiat mentions he’s also taken some free kicks in the past) and boasts reflexes as sharp as the finest Swiss knife. In other words, he looks like a real deal.
As improbable as it may sound to a casual Asian football observer, though, this situation is nothing new to Singaporeans. In fact, their goalkeeping academies have already been quite dependable and consistent over the past decades.
Back in the days, Singapore didn’t have their own national league, while they were assembling a national team featuring foreigners and functioning as a de facto club side. That doesn’t sound very cool and fancy, I tend to concur, but first, you’d imagine their hand was somehow forced, and second – it served its own purpose. Like that, you see, they could enter the Malaysia Cup and start beating local clubs for fun, more or less.
At the beginning of the 1920s, Singapore won four out of the first five editions, including three consecutive ones, and they very much remained an immense powerhouse till post-World War II era; clinching such ‘hattricks’ at some points during the 1930s, 40s as well as 50s. And even later on, when gold medals meant scarce pleasure for Singaporeans, goalkeepers usually stood strong.
Net-minders like Ahmad Wartam (father of the legendary striker Fandi Ahmad), Wilfred Skinner, Edmund Wee, Eric Paine and David Lee – all named by my dear consultant – basically cover the whole interval between the 1950s and 1990s. The latter was part of the crew that won the 1994 edition, right before Singapore withdrew from the competition.
More recently, you could consider at least Lionel Lewis to be a widely recognized Singaporean goalkeeping legend. In 2006, after all, the former Man City trainee became the first ever Southeast Asian player (outfield ones included) to be nominated for the Asian Footballer of the Year award.
Sure, Lewis didn’t even come close to win it, but the main outtake here should be the mere information that Singaporean goalkeepers had already been able to make their mark all across the continent even before Izwan Mahbud came up with his mindblowing saves against Shinji Okazaki and Keisuke Honda.
Sadly, future may not be so bright for Singapore in this respect; even though Izwan himself is still young enough to hold onto his starting berth for another 10 years. “After Izwan, it’s difficult to see where the next top goalie is going to come from. There aren’t many prospects right now in the junior ranks, with U23 stopper Syazwan Buhari probably the best of the lot,” Teng Kiat issues a bit worrying heads up.
As for the Singapore national team as a whole, there are arguably more reasons for optimism at this particular stage. For instance, Izwan now kept two clean sheets in two qualifiers after registering just a single one in his previous 14 competitive starts.
Yet, while responding to my overly enthusiastic questions, Teng Kiat refuses to get carried away: “Well at the end of the day, it’s only one point and there are still six more games to go. This result will be useless if we go on to screw up against Afghanistan, Cambodia and Syria.”
On the other hand, there was still one undeniably positive thing Teng Kiat couldn’t miss out. “I would be hesitant to say that something’s changing – there are still many problems within Singapore football in a larger scale. But it wouldn’t be fair to say this was a fluke either, as the players were incredibly disciplined and played their part. (…) This is something we haven’t seen on a regular basis recently and I’d just hope that we can build on this.”
Indeed, especially in the first half, Japan were restricted to a couple of random opportunities rather than some constant, irresistible pressure. And for that – if nothing else – Singapore definitely deserve some credit.
After such a disastrous 2014 Suzuki Cup overseen by the very same coach, 67-year-old German Bernd Stange, bright-ish future seems to be an option going forward. And that counts for something here, for sure…