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Suzuki Cup: May the four be with them

The Straits Times by WANG MENG MENG

The Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup is not only a biennial regional tournament, but it is also a chance for the national football teams in South-east Asia to regenerate by giving young players a platform to shine.

As the Lions head into Friday's Group B opener against Indonesia at the National Stadium, interim national coach Fandi Ahmad will also provide a sneak peek into the possible future spine for Singapore.

Four young players, seen as eventual stalwarts in the squad by the backroom staff, will be getting their chances to justify that faith.

Centre-back Irfan Fandi, midfielder Jacob Mahler and forwards Iqbal Hussain and Ikhsan Fandi, form the youthful quartet that hopes to impress and forge long careers in the red shirt.

Iqbal, the oldest of the four at 25, is determined to make full use of his first call-up since 2016.

"I cried when I heard the news (on Sunday). I told my dad (Hamid) and he cried, too. He knows how much it means to me," the Hougang United forward told The Straits Times.

"I doubted myself a lot in the last couple of years, I felt maybe I was not good enough for the national team and even thought of a career change, like becoming a coach.

"My dad's dream was to play for Singapore. He only played socially, but he was so passionate about the game. As I grew up, I wanted to live his dream. Hopefully, I can stay in the team for a long time."

HAPPY COACH, PROUD FATHER

Ikhsan has the energy and talent... Irfan has the physical attributes of a good defender.

FANDI AHMAD, Singapore's interim national coach, on his sons' strengths.

  • FAB FOUR

  • IRFAN FANDI

    AGE: 21

    HEIGHT: 1.89m

    POSITION: Centre-back

    CLUB: Young Lions

    CAPS: 17

    GOALS: 1

  • IQBAL HUSSAIN

    AGE: 25

    HEIGHT: 1.86m

    POSITION: Forward

    CLUB: Hougang United

    CAPS: 5

    GOALS: 0

  • IKHSAN FANDI

    AGE: 19

    HEIGHT: 1.83m

    POSITION: Forward

    CLUB: Young Lions

    CAPS: 8

    GOALS: 3

  • JACOB MAHLER

    AGE: 18

    HEIGHT: 1.85m

    POSITION: Central midfielder

    CLUB: Young Lions

    CAPS: 2

    GOALS: 1

Armed with a fierce left foot and a bag of tricks, Iqbal suffered heartbreak when he was dropped from the 2015 SEA Games squad over a perceived lack of discipline.

After earning the last of his first three caps in a friendly against Hong Kong in 2016, he was never called up to the senior squad again.

But Fandi believes in the player's talent and rewarded him with caps against Mongolia and Cambodia last month.

Former Lions forward Noh Alam Shah, now a player mentor for the Suzuki Cup squad, said that it is now up to Iqbal to build more self-belief.

The 38-year-old said: "Iqbal is intelligent, has technical ability but he needs to believe in himself. He has a good work ethic now and he has to step up to take his chances."

Mahler certainly grabbed his chance in the 2-1 friendly win over Cambodia last month.

Coming on as a second-half substitute with the Lions trailing 1-0, he timed his run into the box well to meet a set piece with a scuffed shot that bounced into the net for the equaliser.

That capped a rapid rise for the Temasek Polytechnic second-year aerospace electronics student, who was playing for the national Under-18s just a year ago.

He told ST: "I started 2018 playing for the national U-18s and will end the year going to the AFF Cup as the youngest player in the squad. It's an incredible honour and I am very proud to be part of the team.

"We want to progress out of the group stage and lift the trophy."

Alam Shah believes the teenager can go on to become a vital player for the Lions, saying: "Jacob is a rare talent who could turn out to be a great player. He has mental toughness and humility.

"He is a good midfielder who is very solid in covering ground. But, to be a great midfielder, he needs to run box-to-box and score. Once he gets into the habit of scoring, he can be the complete midfielder."

While Iqbal is the comeback kid and Mahler is the new kid on the block, Fandi's sons Irfan and Ikhsan have nailed down starting XI places since winning their first caps under former coach V. Sundram Moorthy.

Fandi insisted that there was no favouritism on his part and his boys made the squad on merit.

The 56-year-old said: "There are no complaints from the senior players and I'm glad to see Irfan and Ikhsan getting guidance from them."

Centre-back Irfan, 21, admits that having a father who is revered as one of Singapore's finest players can be a burden, but it is a challenge he has to rise up to.

He said: "There's a bit of pressure but we (the Fandi brothers) just focus on ourselves. We have fought hard to be part of the team."

Ikhsan, 19, added: "I hope to turn the pressure into something good. When I don't score, I can get frustrated, but I am starting to learn that I cannot possibly score in every game. My father gives me lots of advice on how to use my body and pace against defenders.

"It feels good to score my first goal for Singapore (in the 1-1 draw against Mauritius) and my target now is to score even more and provide assists to my teammates."

Fandi believes his sons can serve the national team for a long time to come.

He said: "Ikhsan has the energy and talent. Besides, there is a limited number of players who are strong, fast and can play as out-and-out strikers.

"There is only (Khairul) Amri apart from Ikhsan. His reading of the game has improved and he has been playing very well this year.

"Irfan has the physical attributes of a good defender. In the past, he would clear the ball blindly but now, he is more composed.

"He copes well under pressure and, hopefully, he can improve even more and be a real beast at the back for us."