The scoreless draw between Japan and Singapore on June 16, 2015 provided an early injection of drama to qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with both fans and observers stunned by the result at Saitama Stadium.
Perhaps no player benefited more from the clean sheet than Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, whose blockade of the usually-potent Samurai Blue attack earned him rave reviews and an offer of a trial from J.League side Matsumoto Yamaga.
With the sponsoring support from Epson Singapore, the club made good on its promise in December, welcoming the 25-year-old LionsXII star to their training facility to the delight of fans and local media.
In an exclusive interview with Football Channel, Izwan spoke to Cesare Polenghi about his star turn, training with Yamaga, and his hopes for Singapore players in the J.League.
-What do you remember of your memorable 0-0 draw against Japan?
I remember the Japanese team attacking for 90 minutes (laughs). We were under pressure, we were parking the bus. They kept coming down the flanks and attacking. They were taking every shot, crossing every ball. In the end it was a lucky day for me. We worked as a team; the defense helped me a lot, and they were tired after the game. We drew against Japan and it was a good start for the campaign for us. It was really a match I treasure.
-Have you watched the game on video?
I watched it again, because I always look at my mistakes, where I can improve, what I can do better. As a player you can’t be satisfied; there’s always someone who wants to take your place. That’s why I have to work harder. You have to level up.
-Did you feel like your career changed as a result of that match?
I never thought about the future after that game. We were happy that we drew against Japan, because it was a big achievement for Singaporean football. After that people told me to wait for my time, and I’ve been waiting until now.
-What’s your impression of Japan and its people?
They are very friendly and polite, always smiling, very welcoming. And [the players] give 100% in everything they do.
[The J.League] has great facilities, very good quality pitches… it’s the little things that make the difference. If you have a good relationship with the players, they will give 100%. Japanese football is some of the best in Asia. It’s a good model for Singapore.
-Are there any Japanese players or clubs that you like?
I like Shunsuke Nakamura because of his free kicks. I’d play Winning Eleven and buy him for my club. I also like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, they way they proved that Asians can play in Europe. It’s a good motivation for us, to push to play for Asia. I’ve learned a lot from them.
-How about the language?
For now it’s fine, but I’m trying to learn the player numbers. Two of the keepers and the coaches speak a bit of English, and the other goalkeepers usually explain what we’re doing next.
-If you come to Japan will you learn the language?
I think I have to learn now; whether I’m playing here or not it’s a good stepping stone. You have to learn every language if you’re a footballer, because you never know where an offer will come from.
-Could other Singaporean players come to Japan?
A lot of players are very good, and some like Safuwan [Baharudin] are good enough for Japan or any other Asian league. If you go overseas, a better league will teach you how to become a better footballer. You need to be at 100% every time. It’s good motivation, to have to be better than the local players in every game.