Football: Birthday surprise for Anumanthan

Brunei DPMM's Rodrigo Gral (left) in action against Courts Young Lions's Anumanthan Mohan Kumar (centre) during their S-League football match on 5 April 2012.

SINGAPORE - On Sunday was his 19th birthday.

But no other presents will be bigger than what Singapore football coach Bernd Stange has handed him - a national team call-up.

Courts Young Lions (CYL) midfielder Anumanthan Kumar could barely conceal his excitement when The New Paper congratulated him in a phone interview on Saturday.

"I was shocked when I heard about the news, and then I felt so happy," he said.

"I didn't see it coming because my team are at the bottom of the table.

"It's not going to be easy to play with the senior national players. I'm going to do my best to step up and work hard to prove myself."

On Saturday, TNP broke the news that Stange is set to give surprise call-ups to a few young players, such as CYL duo Anumanthan and 20-year-old Iqbal Hussain.

There could also be notable omissions, with midfield stalwart Mustafic Fahrudin, playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman and in-form striker Shahfiq Ghani looking set to miss out on the national team's centralised training that started on Monday and ends on Friday.

For Anumanthan, this is an opportunity he has been waiting for since he first started playing football as a seven-year-old against older boys who "bullied" him by making him a ball-picker.

Since then, he has blossomed into a combative midfielder who is able to hold his own among more senior players.

After being selected for the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-14s, he was then fast-tracked from the Under-16 to the Under-17 side that went for a training stint in Perth.

In April last year, he made his CYL debut against men almost twice his age, when he played against Balestier Khalsa.

Anumanthan was also shortlisted for TNP's Dollah Kassim Award in 2010. Also in Stange's 21-man squad are fellow nominee, LionsXII winger Faris Ramli, and 2011 winner, FC Metz youth forward Adam Swandi.

LionsXII assistant coach K Balagumaran, who has coached both Anumanthan and Iqbal in the NFA, said: "Anu is a very hardworking and determined player, who keeps his game simple with one-touch passes. "He is also a ball-winner who can take players on and beat them in one-on-one situations."

Like Anumanthan, CYL forward Iqbal was also surprised to hear of his inclusion.

Balagumaran described the lanky player as one who is "versatile", can play on either wing or as a striker, and has good technique with both feet.

"Both of them are good players who can have good futures. They must be ready to take these opportunities and challenges."

Iqbal, who has four league and cup goals in 23 games for S-League clubs Gombak United and CYL, said: "It is every young player's dream to play for his country. To be called up is a great honour and I will do my best."

Candidly, Iqbal admitted to being overwhelmed when he was with the LionsXII in the first half of the season, before his move to CYL.

He said: "I was training and playing alongside stars like Baihakki (Khaizan) and Shahril (Ishak). I was so starstruck that I lost confidence.

"After joining Young Lions, I was playing with friends and teammates I was more comfortable with, so I started picking up form again.

"But the LionsXII experience was a good one and hopefully it will lessen the pressure on me when I train with the national team."

Interestingly, while they have earned their first senior national team call-ups, both Anumanthan and Iqbal were not involved in last night's match between the Singapore and Indonesia Under-23s.

However, the duo are in V Sundramoorthy's 39-man shortlist, and Anumanthan had played in the 1-1 draw with Indonesia in Solo last month.