Saturday, 23 May 2015

Malaysia FA Cup final: Singapore's Izwan returns to where it all started

By Kelvin Leong(ESPN)

Izwan Mahbud returns to Bukit Jalil where he launched his international career. Photo credit: Football Association of Singapore

Taking a deep breath and with slowed steps, we made our way down the tunnel, to the vibration of 90,000 stomping Malaysian fans throbbing above our heads.

It was July 2011 and the much anticipated return leg of the World Cup qualifying round in Kuala Lumpur, with Singapore holding a 5-3 advantage from the first match on home soil.

Earlier, when we boarded the team bus, the tension was culpable. As police escorts ushered our vehicle down the highway, fans decked in yellow and black were waving flags and scarves, giving us the thumbs down. A certain Aleksandar Duric lent forward to a young Izwan Mahbud and said: "No need to look outside. Focus. We are together."

Izwan nodded and stared straight ahead, replaying the tactical details that coach Radojko Avramovic and Lee Bee Seng had drilled into him during training.

Izwan Mahbud won the 2012 Suzuki Cup and 2013 MSL titles. Photo credit: Football Association of Singapore

Once at the stadium, he suited up but during the pre-match pitch inspection, he was walking slower than usual.

The sound was electrifying, banners were unfurled with Malaysian motifs and it was game on.

Izwan was chosen ahead of first choice goalkeeper Lionel Lewis and the young starlet put in a man-of-the-match performance, despite having laser flashlights shone into his eyes from the crowd.

"It was scary at first," Izwan told ESPN FC. "But I knew this was my time to shine. Lionel was not 100% fit and coach Raddy put faith in me to start, even though I only had two international caps before that. It was an atmosphere I never experienced before in my young playing career. But once the game started, all I thought about was to make sure not to let anything get past me. No time to think about anything else."

Since that fateful night at Bukit Jalil where it ended 1-1 -- 6-4 to Singapore on aggregate -- Izwan has matured beyond his years. He was part of the subsequent World Cup qualifying campaign before lifting the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup. He also won the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL) title with LionsXII.

At the age of 24, he has already earned 27 caps for Singapore and was made vice-captain of LionsXII for this season.

"Everything happened very quickly." Izwan said. "After that game at Bukit Jalil, my football career just took off. And since I'm part of LionsXII, there hasn't been much downtime to look back and think. At my age, I'm just happy to play as many games as I can and continue to develop by learning from Hassan [Sunny] and my coaches like Fandi, Bee Seng and Nazri [Nasir].

"I have become a much better player in the past three seasons. Having to face big crowds in the different Malaysian states also makes me realise how important it is to keep yourself calm and not let the fans affect or distract you. Once you let the atmosphere get into your head, you lose focus and as the last line of defence, I cannot afford that."

On Saturday night, Izwan returns to the hallowed ground of Bukit Jalil as part of the LionsXII contingent for the 2015 Malaysia FA Cup final against Kelantan.

At the age of 24, Izwan Mahbud is already a veteran of the national team. Photo credit: Football Association of Singapore

At the other end of the pitch, Malaysia's national goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat will be between the sticks for the Red Warriors so this could turn out to be a battle to see which custodian can produce the goods to lead his team to victory.

Izwan added: "Fahmi is Malaysia's top goalkeeper. He has a lot of experience and is a big game player. I've always liked his goalkeeping style and in this game. Both of us will have to deal with a lot of factors which makes it hard for a keeper.

"The noise level in the stadium makes it almost impossible for defenders to hear your commands. Knowing the Kelantan fans, it will be loud, very loud. Together with our traveling Singapore fans, communication with Madhu [Mohana] and the rest of the defenders will have to depend on hand signals. But we have played together as a team for a long time now, so we know each other's game and we can use that to our advantage."

In what will be the LionsXII's first Cup final since rejoining Malaysian domestic football in 2012, the sense of excitement has been building up on both sides of the Causeway, with more than 90,000 spectators expected to pack into Malaysia's National Stadium.

This could prove to be a daunting task for visiting Singaporeans.

"Coach Fandi asked us to go out there and enjoy the game, something I agree with," said Izwan as he removed his gloves after his final training session at Bukit Jalil.

"The pressure is there but we must also remember why we play the game. Our passion and love for football can be a motivational factor and that is a good starting point when we make our way out. Defence needs to be tight in what will be a cagey affair and our attackers must take their chances when they come. [Khairul] Amri and [Khairul] Nizam are in good form and our midfielders like Izzdin [Shafiq] and Faris [Ramli] have the ability to pick them out."

Having emerged from the 2011 encounter with his head held high, Izwan will be hoping for a euphoric return as LionsXII look to get past Azraai Khor's Red Warriors, at the same iconic venue that effectively launched his career.

"This is a Cup final, two good teams will come out trying to win," Izwan said. "Football is a funny game, you never know what is going to happen. So let's go out there, be ourselves and not worry about the crowd."

Kelvin Leong, a Singapore-based Editor for ESPN FC, is former media officer for the Singapore national team and ex-regional editor of

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