Sailors Abroad: Lion City Sailors Under-11 Team shines at Gothia Cup

The Lion City Sailors’ Elite Under-11 team left an indelible mark on the Gothia Cup earlier this year between 17 to 22 July, finishing in joint third-place in the 7-a-side tournament – in which 50 teams from 21 nations competed in. 

The Gothia Cup is an annual international youth football tournament held annually in Gothenburg, Sweden, one that has grown into one of the largest and most prestigious youth football tournaments in the world since its inaugural edition in 1975. The tournament typically spans a week and includes not only football matches but also various cultural and social activities, making it a holistic learning experience for participating youth.

The young Sailors clinched five resounding victories en route to the semi-finals, including an 11-1 victory over Swedish side Kungsbacka IF 2. For Head Coach Kevin Tan, it was his charges’ adaptability and resilience that brought a smile to his face. 

“The kind of matches and playing styles we encountered wasn’t something we’re used to in Singapore. Witnessing the boys rise to the occasion brought me a real sense of pride, especially the way we were able to adjust to what our opponents were doing out on the pitch,” said a satisfied Kevin.

“The adaptability – and the final results, of course –  was great to see,” he added. 

Kevin believes the experience has had a transformative impact on his players, perhaps most notably in the collective mental toughness.

“In some matches, the opposing players were much bigger and played with considerable physicality, but our boys rose to the occasion, embracing the challenge. They didn’t back down, and that kind of mental fortitude was fantastic,” said the 29-year-old coach, who drew from the example of the quarter-final encounter that pitted his team against Costa Rican side Futbol Consultants Edson Soto. 

The young Sailors kept their heads up, found an equaliser in the closing moments of the game to make it 4-4, and went on to prevail 15-14 in a dramatic penalty shootout to earn the right to play in the semi-finals. 

It was in this match that Kevin’s young charges faced their toughest test and were felled. A hard-fought battle against Chilean side Academia Sebastian Roco as they lost on penalties this time after the game ended 3-3 in regulation time. 

But even in defeat, there was a bright silver lining. 

“Despite playing in a semi-final  – possibly the biggest match of their lives  – everyone in the team stuck to our principles and philosophies. We kept doing what we have always worked on in training, we didn’t change our game plan just to get a goal even in a desperate situation,” said Kevin, who broke into a smile as he thought of the match that brought on bitter-sweet memories.

“The boys consistently kept faith in one another and our philosophy too, and were resolute in ensuring that their opponents never got an ‘easy’ game,” he added, with pride in his voice. 

The Gothia Cup was more than just a football tournament for these young Sailors. 

“Staying with my teammates and competing alongside them was really a happy experience for me,” said 11-year-old Sho Tay-Takayama Xiangyu, whose recollections matched the observations of his coach Kevin. 

Said Kevin: “The boys watched over each other and made sure to remind each other to do essential tasks, like coordinating meals and navigation when we were out in the city – it was clear that they actively supported one another. 

“What really impressed me was how the players themselves actively encouraged one another to strictly follow the lights-out schedule so that the team would be able to get ample rest and perform better in matches.”

While the Gothia Cup provided a platform for the boys to grasp important football – and life – lessons, on-field memories remained top of mind. 

“Securing third place was something I didn’t think we could achieve, because I was expecting to have to fight against strong teams with very big players,” said Sho, who will step out with the team again when the PUMA Youth Champions League kicks off in September. 

“The entire tournament was thrilling. I enjoyed the excitement of playing in front of larger crowds. And I’m really proud of how, as a team, we fought for each other and managed to play to our style and even achieve results.”


I feel like a kid again: Izwan Mahbud back and ready to rediscover old groove

It was just a Centre of Excellence Under-21 (COE U21) League match, far from the big time bright lights of Saitama Stadium 2002 where he leapt into the spotlight with that performance – a 17-save showing to help the Singapore national team to that famous 0-0 draw with Asian giants Japan eight years ago. 

But it was wildly important to Izwan Mahbud. 

The COE U21 match on 10 August ended with the Lion City Sailors securing a 4-0 win over Balestier Khalsa’s U21s. It was Izwan’s first game in between the sticks in nine months. 

He put in an assured display, a clean sheet, while also chalking up an assist with his signature classy distribution to set up Anaqi Ismit for the game’s opening goal. All in all, it was a good night for Izwan.

And it meant everything to the 33-year-old custodian. 

He suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that was discovered in November 2022, with the recovery process ruling him out for the majority of 2023. Indeed, the Sailors have just one Singapore Premier League (SPL) game left to play before the curtain comes down on the season. 

And he had to overcome a psychological barrier as well. 

“If I’m completely honest, there was a bit of nervousness. The ground at Hougang Stadium was a bit hard and bumpy, so there were some things playing in my mind, like ‘What if I landed wrongly?’,” said a candid Izwan. 

“But after the first few minutes, I slowly got into the rhythm; I put my focus solely on helping the team instead of thinking about anything else. After the first save and the early assist, a relief swept over me and that helped me to calm down and play the game. 

“I was so happy to be back on the pitch playing the sport I love. It was like I was a kid just starting to play football, when you just go out there to enjoy, with no pressure,” he added. 

“It was awesome.”

And understandably so. It was a long hard road back for Izwan after that injury that followed an innocuous incident. 

“During training, I just went for a punch and I landed awkwardly. That was when I felt something in my knee, but I didn’t think much of it – I tried to walk it off and continued training,” he shared. 

However, persistent pain thereafter meant he went for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and it confirmed his worst fears: he had suffered the first ACL injury of his career and will be ruled out for at least six months. 

Coupled with a debut season with the Sailors that was not exactly smooth sailing, the injury was most definitely the last thing that he wanted. 

On the day that the Sailors went up against German giants Borussia Dortmund in a gala friendly at the Jalan Besar Stadium, Izwan went under the knife – with mixed emotions.  

“It was devastating when I found out it was an ACL; it felt like the whole world just collapsed on me – definitely one of the worst moments in my career. To be honest, last year wasn’t my year at all, I didn’t play that many games and I didn’t do as well as I could have,” he reflected. 

“I saw negative comments online and that’s part and parcel of football. I just have to take it in, convert the negativity into fuel to work harder, because that’s how you become a better football player.

“I was looking forward to a better 2023, but maybe God has other plans for me – maybe he wants me to sit down, be more humble, hit the reset button, and start all over again.”

That is exactly what Izwan did.

He braced himself for the long recovery process – from being on crutches in the first few weeks to focusing on the progressive rehabilitation program set out by the physios. 

He stayed positive and worked diligently in the gym to regain the strength in his quadriceps, despite the long and hard road. 

“I saw Hariss Harun who suffered two ACL injuries, and there were other friends who saw their careers ended after ACL issues. So, from the start, I was mentally prepared that it was going to be a long journey for me,” he said. 

“The hardest part was probably midway through. After much rehab work, you feel like you’re getting there, but you’re still not medically cleared and have to follow various protocols. You want to push and you know you can do certain things already, but at the same time the physios advise you not to risk things. 

“I guess the worst bit was seeing your teammates out there enjoying themselves on the pitch, while I was often alone in the gym. You can’t help but wonder: ‘When can I join them?’. I know I belong out there and I want to kick a ball so badly, but I couldn’t. It was so frustrating and I had to learn patience.”

There was finally light at the end of the tunnel as Izwan got cleared for field training in late May – some six months after undergoing knee reconstruction – and he is gradually getting fitter. 

The experienced custodian was named on the bench against Tottenham Hotspur and the recent Hougang United game, and he is now feeling fully fit and ready to make up for lost time. 

With crucial matches in the Singapore Cup and the club’s second foray into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League coming up, Izwan is working his socks off to pull on the Sailors’ shirt again. 

“Whether I play or not is up to the coaches, but I’m giving everything to show them that I’m ready for selection right now, and that I’ll be worthy if given the chance,” said a bullish Izwan. “The club is going all out to do well in the Cup and the Champions League, hopefully I can play a part in that.” 

A Singapore international who won the AFF Championship in 2012, with 54 international caps under his belt, Izwan is certain he has a lot more to give. 

“I still have a lot to offer. I know my abilities and I want to get back to my old self. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me during the recovery process, especially our fans who continue to send me kind words of encouragement. 

“This is like a fresh start in my career and I want to take full advantage of this second chance. 

“I would also like to say – ‘Gambatte (fellow ACL victim), Kodai Tanaka’ – you’ve been very strong mentally and I hope we can play on the same pitch soon.”