He is known for his physical and technical prowess on the pitch and his Bollywood-inspired social media videos off it. Soon, Singapore forward Iqbal Hussain could well be showcasing one of his trademark dance celebrations in India.
On Tuesday, the 27-year-old made the biggest move of his football career when he inked a short-term deal with Chennai City to become the first Singapore-born player to sign for an Indian club. According to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), India is ranked 15th in terms of club competitions, four rungs ahead of Singapore.
The former Geylang International forward flew to Chennai on Friday, and is set to become only the third Singaporean to represent an Indian club after England-born John Wilkinson played for Salgaocar in 2013 and Nigeria-born Precious Emuejeraye played for Churchill Brothers in 2017.
Other Singaporeans currently contracted to overseas clubs include Johor Darul Takzim’s Hariss Harun (Malaysia); Jerv’s Ikhsan Fandi (Norway); Samut Prakan City’s Izwan Mahbud, Suphanburi’s Zulfahmi Arifin, and BG Pathum’s Irfan Fandi (all Thailand).
Iqbal did not hesitate to reunite with coach Satyasagara (formerly known as K. Balagumaran), having worked together at Gombak United in 2012 and Hougang United in 2016.
“It really makes a difference when you have a coach who believes in your ability,” he said. “I have always wanted to play overseas but obstacles always came up at the last minute.
“I just want to step out of my comfort zone, prove my worth at a higher level and contribute to Chennai City.
“It is amazing I will be doing so in a country where my great-grandparents were from.”
In the recently concluded Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, he played 13 games, starting four times due to the ruling that senior local clubs have to start three Under-23 players. He scored twice to help the Eagles qualify for the AFC Cup by finishing as the third-best local team, and fourth overall.
He said: “I want to thank Geylang for taking me in when my move to (Thai League 1 club) Sukhothai collapsed at the last minute. I was down and thought about hanging up my boots when coach Noor Ali gave me a chance.”
The 1.86m attacker could make his I-League debut on Jan 9, when Chennai City take on Gokulam Kerala in their opener at the Kalyani Municipal Stadium.
He hopes to convince his new employers to extend his contract beyond the end of the season in April. The club plan to play in the richer Indian Super League (ISL), which offers the champions an AFC Champions League spot.
I have always wanted to play overseas but obstacles always came up at the last minute. I just want to step out of my comfort zone, prove my worth at a higher level and contribute to Chennai City.
National team manager Eric Ong said: “It is good for him to have a change in environment at this stage of his career. We always knew Iqbal has the talent, and now he has a new stage to show what he is capable of.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the I-League season will be played only in Kolkata and Kalyani, where 11 teams face off. The top six will qualify for the championship stage while the bottom five will move on to the relegation stage.
Besides Iqbal, another Singaporean looking forward to a fresh start at Chennai is his 56-year-old coach, who took over the reins after Akbar Nawas left the club by mutual consent in October. Last year, the duo had led Chennai to their first I-League crown.
Satyasagara, whose last head coach stint was with the Singapore national women’s team in 2017, said: “I believe (Iqbal) can have a good season with us and go on to become the first Singaporean to play in the ISL.
“As for me, I have learnt a lot and enjoyed success while being assistant to V. Sundram Moorthy (with LionsXII in 2013) and Akbar, and this new role is a new challenge.”