Izwan Mahbud: “Living overseas made me more mature and professional”

Singapore’s top goalie talks about his upcoming season with Trat FC, learning Thai and why he doesn’t change his boots.

Goalkeepers are known to be larger than life. They’re said to be wired a little differently, with a little madness to their method. They, after all, willingly take up a thankless task on the pitch. Balls come at them at high speeds, any mistake can lead to conceding a goal and they almost never get the joy of scoring a goal.

Izwan Mahbud is not like most goalkeepers. As I sat with him at a cafe to discuss his upcoming season in his new club, Trat FC in Thailand’s first division, Singapore’s first choice goalie came across as someone who was soft-spoken, even a little introverted.

Prior to Trat FC, Izwan spent 2 years in Thailand’s second division with Nongbua Pitchaya FC, a club which is based in a mostly agricultural province. Like his personality, his footballing journey has been a little different and unconventional. But sometimes, different can be good.

We find out how Singapore’s best goalkeeper found new purpose in Thailand, on cultural differences and why he still wears his adidas X17.1 after all these years.

Editor’s note: This interview was done a few days before Izwan Mahbud left for pre-season in early January 2020.

BOOTHYPE: How are you getting ready for pre-season with Trat FC? It must be exciting moving up one division and playing at a higher level.
Izwan Mahbud: I am looking forward to island living after 2 years in a farm-like area. They expect me to be fit by 3 January when pre-season starts. I’ve kept my body ready by continuing my gym routines, daily 5k runs, keeping my leg power strong to make those jumps and leaps.

BOOTHYPE: How did you settle on Trat FC as your club of choice?
I received some queries from across Thailand. But the Trat FC club owner really believed in me and seemed to want me to lead the team. At my previous club, we played Trat when they were in the second division. They scouted me at that time and maybe they were convinced of my ability. It’s also a good challenge to move up to a higher level in the first division. Trat were very firm in their offer. They saw me not just as a player but as a person. The club owner is very nurturing and they want to take care of me as a family. That’s important to me.

BOOTHYPE: What are your season’s expectations with Trat?
To keep as many clean sheets as possible, stay injury-free and play every game. I think Trat’s looking to secure a mid-table finish though everyone wants to finish as champions. Thai football can be quite unpredictable so expect the unexpected.

BOOTHYPE: This is not your first time playing in Thailand. What were your 2 years with Nongbua Pitchaya FC like, considering it was your first time living overseas for your career?
The first two months were a struggle. It was my first time away from home and having to pick up a foreign language. But pre-season helped me get to know my teammates and that helped me settle in. It wasn’t easy too as I was one of 14 new players who signed with the club that season so there were a lot of us who were new and adapting. It made me more mature in handling my professional life.

BOOTHYPE: How did it make you more mature?
The club was based in a rural, farm town so there was not much to do. So my daily routine focused on my morning runs followed by my gym workout. I go home, cook up my own lunch, take a nap and then go to training at the club. After training, it’s back home for dinner and rest by watching Netflix or call home. There were not much distractions and it allowed me to focus on fitness and football.

There’s nothing much in the town, perhaps a Tesco? The next nearest city was Udon which was a 45 minute drive from where I was.

I was also a foreign player and I felt that I had to outperform the local guys. Thai Division 2 clubs are given a quota of five foreign players and only one of them can be allowed to be of ASEAN nationality. I took up the ASEAN slot so there is pressure on me to perform and justify my position. I also feel like I’m representing Singapore so I have to be a great example of what a Singaporean is.

I feel fitter and stronger but that comes naturally as I had to change my mindset in how I conducted myself daily at work. I am more disciplined and serious every day.

BOOTHYPE: Did you bring any of this new mindset back to the Singapore national team?
When I was in my mid 20s, I was playful in training despite giving 100%. Some coaches didn’t always agree with my playfulness. Now that I’ve had my 2 years in Thailand, I now know where the line is with the jokes and I’ve become more professional. I leave the jokes for outside the field and stay serious during the entire training session.

I used to sleep late but now, I’m ready for bed by 9pm. People forget that recovery is one of the most important aspects of a sportsman, not just the training. I hope, through my conduct, I can be a good role-model to the younger generation in the Singapore team.

BOOTHYPE: Does the foreign quota mean you were closer to the foreign players whom you could possibly relate better to?
I was friendly to everyone but I developed quite a good friendship with Ramon Rodriguez, our Brazilian centre back. We’ve become brothers, best friends even. He’s left Nongbua and now is looking to find a club.

I feel like I’m representing Singapore so I have to be a great example of what a Singaporean is.

Izwan Mahbud

BOOTHYPE: Is language a big barrier?
Yes, especially when you lived in a rural area like I did. I learnt from my teammates. It starts with the bad words but I soon picked up basics for football. “Left”, “Right”, “Press, push up”, “Man on!” were some of them.

BOOTHYPE: What were some big differences between Singapore and Thai football?
In Singapore, when the goalkeeper wants to come out for the ball, we shout “keeper” or “mine!”. In Thailand, it’s quite the opposite. The defender would clear the ball if I shouted those words. In Singapore, we shout “away” to inform the defenders to clear it but if I did so in Thailand, they would move away. So I had to pick up some differences in footballing culture.

The Thais are technically much better than Singaporeans. But tactically, the Thais lose their shape about 60-70 minutes as fatigue sets in. Singaporean teams are not there yet technically, but we’re tactically disciplined.

The Thais are physically small but fast. They’re clever in possession and like to play short passes. But they’re a fan of the early cross to get behind the defensive line due to their speed so I have to always be ready to come out and win the ball.

The facilities in Thailand are much better of course due to the investment in the sport. From the coaches to the kitman, they even have a separate pitch for training. I love that they have firm, natural grass here in Thailand as compared to the harder artificial turf in Singapore. The quality of the pitches here are all very good.

The game has changed because everything starts at the back.

Izwan Mahbud

BOOTHYPE: You’ve had a good career. If you had to set up your own 5-a-side team based on players you’ve played with, who would make the cut to the “Izwan Mahbud team”?
In goal, Irfan Fandi. I know he’s a defender but he loves playing goalie in 5-a-side. And he’s got the size to do it as well.

I’d like destroyers in defence so those 2 positions go to Hariss (Harun) and Raihan (Rahman). Raihan can whack everyone while Hariss can do a bit of everything from deep and control the game.

Gabriel Quek is very nippy so he gets in the team. As a forward, Ramon Rodriguez from our time at Nongbua. I know he’s a defender but he’s Brazilian and I expect some skills from him! I’m the super sub, shouting at my team from the sidelines.

BOOTHYPE: You’re an adidas athlete. What boots and gloves do you have on?
adidas passes me the Predator to play in. I like the Predator, it’s soft and comfortable but I absolutely love my black out X17.1 and I still wear them to training and my games. I like that the X17.1 is a bit more narrow and wraps my feet snugly. I can’t wait for the new Predator 20 though.

For gloves, I’m using a hybrid cut model – the adidas Predator Pro Hybrid. I’m not very particular about the cut but what’s most important to me is that the latex and grip are good. I only use the top grade version for the matches as the latex is super soft. When you remove the plastic from the latex, you have to be very careful. That’s how soft it is.

BOOTHYPE: Finally, besides your gear, what makes a good goalkeeper?
There is a stereotype that goalies are mad. But honestly, the most important thing about ‘keepers is that we have to be brave and firm with our decisions. I’m a chill guy but on the pitch, you have to show your authority, even with senior players. We’re here to limit mistakes.

To the kids considering themselves to be a goalkeeper, I think it’s a good time to be a goalkeeper despite the reputation as an unglamourous position. Look at the likes of Ederson and Alisson, you’re one of the most important players in the team. The game has changed because everything starts at the back.

Thank you to Izwan Mahbud and his amazing agent, Ash Hashim, for spending time with us on this interview. We wish Izwan all the best in his new adventure at Trat FC.

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