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Back from the footballing wilderness, lqbal Hussain earns Lions recall

SINGAPORE – He was on the brink of hanging up his boots after taking a year off football. 

But, following a creditable comeback season, Iqbal Hussain is in contention for the No. 9 spot – in the absence of the injured Fandi brothers Ikhsan and Ilhan – when the 158th-ranked Lions host world No. 110 Tajikistan in a friendly at the Bishan Stadium on Friday.

The 30-year-old had earned a national recall after racking up six goals and three assists for Geylang International in the 2023 Singapore Premier League.

Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya felt that Iqbal can be an asset as the lanky forward offers a different option up front.

“For an attacking player, it is hard to find a tall and speedy one, and this is something that Iqbal brings to the table. I am impressed with his level of technique but also the height that he brings to the attack,” said the Japanese tactician, whose side will also meet 153rd-ranked Chinese Taipei at the same venue on Tuesday.

Iqbal, whose last call-up was in 2019, was left clubless after leaving Balestier Khalsa at the start of 2022. He spent the year focusing on his business-degree course and spending time with his family. 

The 1.87m forward said: “I just wanted to have a clear mind in terms of what I want for the next step in my life, to make me feel more connected to my family.

“It’s not easy being part of the football industry where there’s a lot of pressure. I just wanted to be away, just relax and focus on my studies for that period…”

During his one-year hiatus, he also kept in touch with the game by joining his friends for friendlies at Turf City, Rainforest Sports Hub in Bukit Timah and at the SIA Sports Club in Changi.

But Geylang coach Noor Ali felt he still had something to offer and plucked him out of the footballing wilderness. The tactician also noted how Iqbal has become a changed person from 2020, the previous time he had played under him.

Noor, 48, said: “I remember in pre-season we were in Penang, 20 minutes into the game, I took him out. Knowing the old Iqbal, he would have reacted differently.

“But instead, the first thing he did was apologise, saying, ‘Coach, I’m still not feeling it’ and I was quite shocked by the way he reacted to it.”

Iqbal said his six-month stint with Chennai City in India’s second-tier I-League in 2021 had changed him “a lot in terms of my daily life and as a professional”.

“I’ve learnt not to take things for granted,” he said, adding that he had teammates who came from not well-to-do backgrounds and gave everything they had to the game.

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While acknowledging Iqbal’s lack of fitness, Noor added that the skilful attacker has shown “character and discipline” and still has “another three to four years” left in him.

“The one thing that he has is his technical abilities and his football brain. That gave me an advantage as a coach because he can play the false nine, as a No. 10 and as a winger,” said Noor, a former international winger himself.

“He has matured a lot, his stint in India has helped him to level up his professional (standards) towards the game. And for me, I can only give him the opportunity, it is up to him to show what he has.”

Tickets for each friendly, priced at $15 for adults and $8 for concession excluding booking fees, are available via fas.org.sg/tickets and sistic.com.sg as well as at the venue on match days.

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