Izwan ready to report for guard duty in Japan or Australia

Izwan ready to report for guard duty in Japan or Australia
Singapore's goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud (R) saves the shot from Japan's Shinji Okazaki (L, background) during their 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match at Saitama Stadium in Saitama, north of Tokyo June 16, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

Izwan Mahbud's evening of dominance and delight was preceded by doubt and disbelief.

Hours before Singapore's World Cup football qualifier against four-time Asian champions Japan on Tuesday, the 24-year-old goalkeeper awoke abruptly from a pre-match nap at the Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo.

Turning to room-mate and winger Nazrul Nazari, he asked: "Are we really playing Japan?"

Later that night, it would be Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa and his star-studded squad who would be sleepless and wondering: "Did he really make those saves?"

Izwan was quite simply a colossus between the sticks, pulling off 18 stops that left AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda bewildered and Mainz hit-man Shinji Okazaki screaming in frustration.

His heroics in the 0-0 draw silenced 57,533 fans at the Saitama Stadium and stunned millions more watching across the region, for Japan's clinical attack had plundered 11 goals in their previous three matches.

Izwan's perfect game was honoured by a flurry of memes, YouTube clips and the attention of selfie seekers at Haneda Airport.

But he was so nervous before kick-off that he kept his head down in the tunnel to avoid looking flustered in front of his more illustrious opponents.

"It was only after a few saves that my confidence grew and I felt I belonged on the field with those big names," said the soft-spoken National Football Academy graduate at a Puma event.

The highlight of his saves was a breathtaking one-handed reflex parry from a Shinji Okazaki glancing header, scrambling the ball away just before it could cross the line.

Japan's veteran coach Vahid Halilhodzic later said he had "never seen a goalkeeper stop that many shots before".

In that form, Singapore assistant coach V. Sundramoorthy added Izwan "would have stopped some of the world's best strikers".

Amazingly, he would not even have played had Hassan Sunny recovered fully from a shoulder injury.

The 31-year-old had regained the No. 1 jersey last year as Izwan lost his form and focus with the LionsXII, who finished eighth in the Malaysian Super League after lifting the title a year earlier.

"Maybe I got a bit complacent, maybe I lost my concentration, but it was a good reminder never to let my guard down again," Izwan recalled wryly.

During his slump, the Manchester United fan went back to basics, studying videos of idols Peter Schmeichel and David de Gea for their positioning around the six-yard box, handling of crosses and overall distribution.

It was good to take a step back to reflect and re-learn the esoteric art of goalkeeping.

Izwan had been fast-tracked into Singapore's goal at the age of 19. In just his third international cap at a hostile Bukit Jalil Stadium before 90,000 fans, arch-rivals Malaysia were conquered 6-4 on aggregate in a memorable World Cup qualifier in 2011.

A year later, he stepped in for an injured Hassan to guide Singapore to a record fourth ASEAN Football Championship.

Even if the clean sheets have dried up in recent months, Izwan remained a jocular figure in the dressing room.

He is known for pulling funny faces and breaking out into spontaneous dance moves to leave team-mates in hysterical fits.

"But when he steps on the field, he becomes a monster - big hands, loud screams, absolutely dominant in the box," said Singapore vice-captain Hariss Harun.

After skippering the LionsXII to an unexpected Malaysian FA Cup triumph last month, Izwan is said to be a target of big spenders Johor Darul Takzim, who already have Hariss and fellow Singapore players Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak on their books for their two sides.

However, following the miracle in Saitama, he now holds out hope of testing himself on a bigger stage further ashore.

"If a club from Japan or Australia comes calling, I would be stupid not to consider it as I'm still young," said Izwan.

"For now, I have to keep playing well for the LionsXII and not get complacent.

"And I hope there're no more nightmares before big games."

This article was first published on June 21, 2015.
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