Madhu not dazzled by stars

Japan have called up a clutch of their Europe-based hotshots for a World Cup qualifier against Singapore at the National Stadium tomorrow. But if there is one Lion who will not be overwhelmed by the star names, it is the floppy-haired, quiet and unassuming Madhu Mohana.

Unlike many of his peers, he does not follow European football.

Case in point: Before the team's first meeting in June, he remembers Shinji Kagawa as "the guy who played for Manchester United".

Speaking to The Straits Times after training yesterday, the 24-year-old centre-back said: "I only knew some of the players after the first time we played them.

"But I don't really care. They're just footballers and we can't give them too much respect. Once we get on the pitch, they are just opponents that we have to stop."

This approach certainly worked in Saitama, where Singapore carved out a stunning 0-0 draw against the Samurai Blue in June.

In front of an expectant 57,533-strong home crowd, Madhu, alongside his colleagues in the Lions' rearguard, valiantly repelled everything the four-time Asian Cup champions threw at them.

Tomorrow, against the same menacing Japan side who have scored 12 goals in their last three games, Madhu is set to partner veteran Baihakki Khaizan in the heart of Singapore's defence once more.

It marks a turnaround in fortunes for the former Woodlands Wellington player, who just last year was culled from the ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup squad on the eve of the competition.

Calling it "one of the lowest points of his career", he said: "I was nursing a hamstring injury but it was still disappointing to miss out. "After that, I went on a short holiday to get my mind off football and it certainly helped.

"I told myself to focus on recovering fully from the injury, work hard and prove myself on the pitch."

Admittedly, luck played its part. With Singapore defender Safuwan Baharudin redefining himself as a midfielder, and fellow LionsXII defender Afiq Yunos struggling with gout, starting spots for both country and club opened up - and Madhu grabbed them with both hands. And he is not about to let go.

The 1.83m-tall player was given time off to celebrate Deepavali with his family yesterday and rejoined his team-mates shortly after lunch.

He said: "I have no complaints. As footballers, we must always prove ourselves and not be complacent. There are a lot of youngsters coming up so I have to set the bar high."

National coach Bernd Stange praised Madhu for having made "great progress" but challenged him to "move further".

The German said: "There are still things he can improve if he works harder. What he did in Japan was a step in the right direction, but now he has to step up and prove that he is a centre-back you can trust.

"Against big teams like Japan, it is a chance for him and the other players to show they can do it.

"I'm curious to see how they will manage that."

One thing the coach can count on seeing tomorrow - another unyielding performance from a defender who has no regard for reputation.


This article was first published on November 11, 2015.
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