Photo Credit: Football Association of Singapore
When he led the Singapore Under-23 National Team out onto the National Stadium pitch earlier this March, it was a surreal moment for Illyas Lee.
Having dreamt of doing so ever since he watched football matches at the Old National Stadium, captaining the side for their friendly against the Indonesians marked a significant milestone in his career.
“It was a massive privilege to play for the Under-23s and captaining the team was a bonus,” the 22-year-old recalled. “With the game being played at the National Stadium, it was a big moment for me as I have always dreamed of playing there as a kid.
“At that time (in the past), the matches were always sold-out and those experiences got me sold on the idea of being a professional footballer.”
It was also a swift turnaround for Illyas, who only made his professional debut last May when he was with the Young Lions despite having been part of Warriors FC’s Prime League set-up since 2015.
“I spent a lot of time on the bench when I was with Warriors,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play and in 2016 I signed (for Young Lions) late in the season and sat on the bench for the last two games of the campaign.
“At the start of 2017, I had to overcome an ankle injury before playing. Thankfully, we kept a clean sheet (against Brunei DPMM) that night. I felt happy of course but I was sure better things were ahead of me.”
He was right. Signed by Hougang United FC in the off-season, Illyas has quickly established himself as a regular in Philippe Aw’s starting line-up for the inaugural Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL).
Illyas has started all five of their matches and his Head Coach has been impressed with the former National U-16 captain’s professionalism.
“He looks after himself well off the field; at Hougang, we are preaching professionalism and Illyas is one who has displayed that,” he said.
“Besides Illyas, we have nine other U-23s fighting for places so Illyas needed to perform in training. He has done well justifying his five starts.”
Signing for the Cheetahs was an easy decision for Illyas, who believes firmly in the club’s vision as well as his own ability – so much so that he has chosen to focus on the sport full-time for now.
“The biggest sacrifice (I’ve made) would be to defer my studies to be a professional footballer,” he said. “I was supposed to begin my studies in August 2017 after my National Service, but I deferred to play in the SEA Games.
“I have decided to defer another year as there is a possibility of playing in the Asian Games this year. At the moment, I just want to pursue the life of a professional footballer.”
Learning to play “the right way” at Hougang appealed to Illyas, who also highlighted the club’s willingness to spend on enriching backroom staff, emphasis on sports science and hardcore Hougang Hools fanbase as other factors.
“I signed for Hougang to be a first-team player,”he said. “Even if there wasn’t an Under-23 rule, I would expect to be starting because I believe that I have the ability and because I work hard every session to win and to keep my spot.”
While Hougang only have three points to date and sit second from bottom in the table, it is still early in the season and Illyas is targeting AFC Cup qualification.
“As a player you want to play in the bigger games against better opponents and being on that stage would be fantastic for the club and me,” he added.
Similar to major milestones, setbacks are part and parcel of being an athlete and Illyas cites failure to qualify for the SEA Games semi-finals last year as his biggest to date.
“It went out the window when we lost to Malaysia in our second game, even though, we were leading,” he said.
But he prefers to maintain an optimistic mindset and to learn from such experiences.
“Believe in the grind and that things will go your way,” he said. “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”
That is reflected in the two footballers Illyas names as his idols, Sergio Ramos and John Terry – “tough tacklers, fighers and good goal-scoring defenders” whom he hopes to emulate.
Besides his on-field exploits, the Hougang number 15 shares a passion for flying and is a huge fan of watches as well, particularly from the 60s and 70s.
“I have always been interested in planes and flying and I do hope someday, I can pursue my interest as a pilot, commercially or privately,” he revealed.
“I’m a huge fan of watches (too); I have a collection of my own that I post on my social media accounts daily. I believe there’s more to watches than just telling time, like the engineering behind them, the movement and of course, the designs.”
Aw believes that Illyas’ attitude towards the game will be the key for his development and backs him to shine this year.
“He has a very positive attitude towards learning and makes great effort to improve his game,” he said. “Illyas still needs to improve the short passing game and the ability to play penetrative passes (but) by the end of this season, I’m sure he will improve by leaps and bounds.”
Illyas is striving to prove his Coach right and has set himself an even bigger goal.
“I do hope to earn a national team call-up this year and to play in the Suzuki Cup,” he said. “There’s still some time to go and I will definitely need to prove myself.
“I am looking forward to the chance of donning the National Team jersey… I hope this opportunity will come soon. It will be a bonus if I could captain the Singapore National Team!”
With hard work and dedication, there is no reason to doubt that another significant milestone lies in wait for him in the near future.
After all, the Lions’ AFF Suzuki Cup opener against Indonesia at the National Stadium is barely six months away.