Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has so far produced plenty of surprises, which have drawn increasing attention from across the continent and beyond. And Singapore's goalless draw against Japan on the most recent matchday was arguably the most unexpected result of all. Indeed, the south-east Asians defied all odds in Saitama as they held the hosts who are some 100 places above them in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
In fact, the draw ended Singapore's long wait for a result against the Japanese as it marked their first FIFA World Cup qualifying point against them in six outings. It was also just their second draw in a total of twenty-three meetings in all competitions - the last dating all the way back to 1981 when they held the Japanese to a goalless stalemate in a home friendly.
While it was a match which will go down in history, Singapore fans are aware that the feat wouldn't have been achieved had it not been for Izwan Mahbud's heroics between the sticks. The 25-year-old goalkeeper pulled off 18 saves as he kept the star-studded opponents at bay. Notably, Mahbud flung himself to palm away Shinji Okazaki's header just before it crossed the line shortly after the interval, before he also denied Keisuke Honda in brave fashion moments later.
"It is definitely one of the most memorable games in my career," Mahbud told FIFA.com. "My team-mates share the same sentiments because Japan are one of the top footballing countries in Asia. It was really something for us to pull off such a result against such a team filled with so many European-based stars on their home ground. This game came as a big boost to our confidence."
From the Cubs to the Lions
Mahbud has proved to be one of the best keepers in the region through his outstanding displays, but few know that he was once a forward. Born to a footballing family, Mahbud trained as a striker during his childhood with his father who was a former amateur footballer, but an accident saw his role changed forever when he played in a youth tournament.
"Our goalkeeper was unavailable for a match and we were in desperate need of a goalkeeper," recalled the LionsXII goalkeeper, who helped his club to both the league and cup titles in the 2013 Malaysian Super League season. "I volunteered. I was spotted by Kadir Yahya, who was then a coach with the National Football Academy. This ended up in a trial with the national U-15 team. I passed the trial and was selected."
Singapore has never gone further than the third round of World Cup qualifying. Our goal is to try to go further than that.
Mahbud thrived in his new role with the junior side, who are nicknamed the Cubs. He went on to join the national U-23 side before earning his first international cap with the national senior side, known as the Lions, in a friendly match against Chinese Taipei in 2011. His FIFA World Cup qualifying debut came soon when he started against Malaysia on the road to Brazil 2014. He excelled as they edged the traditional rivals over two legs to progress to the third qualifying round for the first time.
Mahbud was a reserve as Singapore disappointed in last year's AFF Suzuki Cup by failing to progress beyond the group stage as defending champions. But he earned a starting place in the 4-0 opening Russia 2018 qualifying victory against Cambodia, before helping his side to the history-making draw against Japan.
"I am not tall, but I have good distribution and reflexes," said the 1.8 metre keeper, whose idol is Denmark’s iconic former No1 Peter Schmeichel. "I can stay cool, calm and I can maintain my focus during matches. Having said that, I would not be where I am today without the guidance of all my coaches.”
The next qualifying test awaiting Singapore is an away game against in-form Syria, arguably their key rivals for a possible second qualifying place behind Japan. A victory there will strengthen Singapore’s lead in a group which also features Afghanistan.
"We have played against Syria before and we know what it is like to play against them," Mahbud remarked about the upcoming match. "We shouldn’t be afraid of them. Syria beat Afghanistan 6-0 in the opening matchday while we thrashed Cambodia 4-0. This game is to be played on a neutral ground so we must try to make use of this opportunity to get a good result. Singapore has never gone further than the third round of World Cup qualifying. Our goal is to try to go further than that."