In the past decade, two goalkeepers have dominated the national spotlight and have been used interchangeably. Don’t get me wrong, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are great keepers. In fact, they are arguably Singapore’s greatest ever custodians in the past two decades. They have put in consistent performances for club and country over the years and have become household names. However, because both Izwan and Hassan have cemented their positions, other keepers have limited opportunities to demonstrate their potential on the national stage. There are other talented shot-stoppers in the league that many Singaporeans are unaware of – Zaiful Nizam and Khairulhin Khalid are some names that come to mind. Among the many Singaporean goalkeepers, however, there are none more underrated than current Tampines Rovers no. 1, Syazwan Buhari. I had the privilege of interviewing him, and it’s a pleasure to be telling his story.
Beginnings as a Keeper and emulating Casillas
Syazwan reveals that he first decided that football is going to be his career when he turned out for the Under-10 youth team of Jurong FC. While he had played for football for his primary school team, it was the experience for playing for a youth team of a professional club that motivated him to become a professional footballer.
“I played in the school soccer team, and I came from a family that loved to play football, but it was the experience of playing for the [Jurong FC] youth team that I made my mind up. Jurong, for me, was the turning point.”
Syazwan wasn’t always a goalkeeper and instead started out an outfield player, but it wasn’t long before he realized his best position was between the sticks.
“After trying every outfield position, I thought I would make a better goalkeeper,” he joked. Syazwan first decided that goalkeeping suited him best when he was in Primary 6 (12 years old). That year, he attended a trial to represent an Under-12 Combined Schools Singapore team for a competition in Japan.
“I went in [the trials as a Goalkeeper], and it was all the way after that, there was no looking back.”
To realize his goalkeeping ambitions, Syazwan joined the Singapore Sports School, where he turned out for the National Football Academy as well. As a national representative, he qualified for the “through-train” programme which enabled Syazwan to skip his GCE ‘O’ Levels and gain entry into Republic Polytechnic.
Growing up, every one of us had footballing idols and Syazwan was no different. He looked up to former Real Madrid and F.C. Porto keeper Iker Casillas a lot because he was a very relatable figure. Both Syazwan and Casillas are relatively short keepers.
“I looked up to Casillas because he’s the closest person I could emulate. He is left-footed. I don’t think he’s the tallest in Europe so he’s the closest I could base my own game on.”
Syazwan’s not wrong. Casillas stands at 1.82m (6ft) which is relatively short for a keeper in Europe. Most players usually tower over the Spaniard and Syazwan finds himself in a similar situation. Standing at 1.73m (5ft 8in), Syazwan is relatively short for a custodian in the Singapore Premier League. However, just like Casillas, Syazwan doesn’t let his physical limitations be a hindrance to how he plays his game. Instead, Syazwan works around his height and has sharpened other elements of his game. His positioning and athleticism (reflexes and diving) are simply exceptional, and, despite his height, he has pulled off some fantastic saves in his professional career.
SEA Games Failure and Making the move from Young Lions to Geylang International
Like most NFA graduates, Syazwan began his professional career at Young Lions. After the formation of Lions XII in 2011, many players had left Young Lions but Syazwan’s decision to remain meant that he was promoted to the starting keeper position. Syazwan flourished for the Young Lions and he put in some spectacular performances across the seasons. His performances were so stellar that he was made the starting keeper for the U-23 team during the 2015 SEA Games.
In a tournament where he was tipped for success, tragedy struck instead. It was the second game of the group stages and Singapore needed a win against Myanmmar to progress to the knock out stages.
“The expectation was high because [Singapore] was hosting it. I think the pressure got to me and I made a mistake that led to a goal which resulted in the team getting essentially knocked out.”
Syazwan’s mistake proved costly because Myanmar went on to win the match 2-1. The final group stage game saw Singapore crashing out of the competition with a narrow 1-0 loss to Indonesia.
After the match, Syazwan revealed that he reached the lowest point of his career and seriously contemplated giving up on football altogether. After all, he felt like he didn’t just let his team down, but the nation as well. On the verge of leaving the game for good, he decided instead to continue his career. It was the immense amount of time and effort his family and him had invested in his career that convinced him to forge on.
“I didn’t come from a very well-to-do family growing up and my parents had to sacrifice a lot to put me through my education in the sports school. If I had given up then, all my efforts and those of my parents would have been wasted. So I decided to continue my career and I managed to overcome this setback and I used this episode to push me to do even better.”
Then, he got an offer from Geylang International, which was a totally different experience for him, but it rejuvenated his career. At Young Lions, Syazwan revealed he could afford to make certain mistakes during his early days because the purpose of that club was developing youth players. Furthermore, when he left Young Lions, he left the club as a leader. Now he wasn’t the designated leader in the club and had many experienced heads ahead of him.
“When I joined Geylang, I had mixed feelings. In Young Lions, I was the captain and I had the authority to give commands and lead the squad. However, when I went to Geylang infront of me, I had Daniel Bennet, Yuki, and Faritz Hameed. I had to change my style. I couldn’t scold my teammates the way I did at Young Lions.”
Nevertheless, Syazwan was thankful for his time in Geylang because the club helped him hone his craft. Senior players would often nag at him and this ensured that he was always on his toes.
Life at Tampines: Replacing Izwan, AFC Cup adventures, and Singapore Cup Miracle
At the end of a successful 2017 season, where Syazwan amassed second most number of clean sheets, the Stags reached out to recruit Syazwan, and it wasn’t even a question for the custodian. He signed up with the Stags in a heartbeat. Tampines are arguably Singapore’s biggest club, especially with the decline of Warriors FC in recent years.
“When Tampines came calling, it was a great feeling. As a footballer. You’re always looking to jump to a higher level and improve your game. I’m not saying that Geylang was not at a high level, but Tampines were consistently playing in the AFC Cup [Asia’s equivalent to Europa League] and I saw that as a jump I needed to further my game. The call came in at the right timing for me.”
Even though Syazwan was excited to represent Tampines, he knew he had “some big shoes to fill.” The end of the 2017 campaign saw an exodus of Singaporean players to Malaysia and Thailand, and one stalwart to jump on this bandwagon was none other than Tampines Rovers keeper Izwan Mahbud. Izwan had been the darling of the national team following his heroic displays in a 0-0 draw against Japan in 2015, where he made 18 saves.
However, I daresay that Syazwan has settled in well at Tampines and is relishing new challenges, such as regularly contending for the title and progressing far in the AFC Cup.
“The AFC Cup was really an eye opener for me. I remember our first match [in the group stages in 2018] was against this Vietnamese team, Sông Lam. They weren’t a big city team in the sense of the stadium and atmosphere – it wasn’t what you’d expect, it wasn’t like a big city. But, when they played, it was really on another level. The AFC Cup is really something that pushes you and all local players should strive to play in.”
Syazwan has made it clear that he plans to stay at Tampines. His miraculous displays in the 2019 Singapore Cup Final are a testament to the commitment to his club. During the warm-up drills for the tie, Syazwan unfortunately dislocated his finger. After the team doctor had pushed his finger back into place, he advised Syazwan that he could potentially aggravate the injury if he played the match. However, Syazwan couldn’t afford to pull out of the game for several reasons.
“I took painkillers to deal with the pain but during the game, with the added adrenaline, I didn’t really think about it. That was probably because I really wanted to play. I had the desire and passion to play in my first ever Singapore Cup final.”
Furthermore, Tampines had already submitted the team sheet, and if the keeper pulled out, it would have counted as a substitution. The Tampines team had a congested fixture list before the cup final, and the team was really battered. Given the team’s fatigue, every substitution was more valuable. Feeling that he could cope with the discomfort, he soldiered on.
If results were anything to go by, he made the right decision. Tampines pipped Warriors 4-3 to clinch the Singapore Cup, with Syazwan saving a crucial penalty against Sahil Suhaimi in the process. However, his injury did worsen as a result of playing the full 90 minutes. On top of aggravating the dislocation, he suffered a slight fracture and a partial tear. Thankfully though, it was the last game of the season, and he had the luxury of time to recover. To Syazwan, he wouldn’t let his injury prevent him from winning his first major honour as a professional footballer.
Future and Goals?
Playing for the national team remains a goal for Syazwan, but he is realistic about his chances. Unlike other positions on the field, there is only room for one goalkeeper on the field at all times, and only three keepers are selected for the national squad.
“I’ve represented Singapore in friendly games but never had the opportunity to do so in FIFA ‘A’ games which count towards the national cap. I’m being realistic. It’s not easy to gain playing time if they [Izwan and Hassan] are there. However, for me, even if I don’t get to start but I’m no. 3 and I get to train with them, that’s a good experience for me.”
Even though I believed that his performances with Singapore’s biggest club, Tampines Rovers, may merit him a place in the national team, he begs to differ.
“I won’t say I have a better chance cause I mean, the club doesn’t determine whether you go into the national team or not. At the end of the day, it’s your individual performances. It’s how much I want it.”
Just like many local footballers, Syazwan wants to play abroad and develop his game further. Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny became fan favourites at the Thai clubs they played for, and these keepers have paved a path for other local goalkeepers. However, despite his ambitions of playing overseas, Syazwan is also realistic of the prospect of him securing a move in another country.
“For me, it isn’t easy. As a goalkeeper, you have to play for your national team. If not foreign clubs would just take a local player instead because of limited foreign player slots.”
The Tampines custodian also joked that his height isn’t doing him any favours, and foreign clubs tend to prefer taller goalkeepers. However, Syazwan mentioned that he isn’t ruling anything out and if the opportunity comes knocking, he will take it in a heartbeat. He added that for now, his current goal is to remain at Tampines as long as possible and that means consistently performing at the highest level.
While still young, I couldn’t resist asking him about life after football. Surprisingly, it’s something that he continually contemplates. Currently pursuing a degree in physical education, Syazwan hopes to become a sports trainer or coach to give back to the game when he eventually hangs up his boots. Ideally, he’d love to become a goalkeeping coach, but he understands that such opportunities are far and few.
Regardless of what path he takes, Syazwan certainly has a bright future ahead and more is to come from the goalkeeper. Turning only 28 this year, his best years are yet to come, and that’s saying something, since he’s been stellar thus far. Personally, I believe it’s time to give other players, like Syazwan, a chance in the national team. Thankfully, under new coach Tatsuma Yoshida, more players are getting the nod and having a chance to represent the nation. If Yoshida continues to do offer opportunities to players in the league, I am sure we will see Syazwan between the sticks for Singapore once again.