Malaysia rookie N. Thanabalan says he's not ready for Asian Cup qualifier
For someone who has become one of Malaysia's most popular footballers overnight, N. Thanabalan says he agrees with coach Nelo Vingada's decision to leave him out of the Asian Cup qualifying campaign.
The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games hero wasn't included in the 24-man squad to face Hong Kong away on Oct. 10, despite six of his under-22 teammates getting the nod.
After his SEA Games success, Thana is thriving from numerous endorsement deals after his four-goal haul earned Malaysia the men's football silver medal.
"I agree with Vingada. I'm still young, and the senior team has many experienced players like Ahmad Hazwan Bakri and Darren Lok to lead the line. I can't compete with them just yet," Thana told ESPN FC.
"My main priority now is to get my club Felcra FC promoted to the [second-tier] Premier League. As for the national team, I am geared up for a good outing at the AFC U23 Championship next year.
"There is also the Asian Games later that year, so I have many chances to impress."
At a sponsor's event last week before the Malaysia Formula Grand Prix, fans were more interested in taking pictures with the Negeri Sembilan-born forward than with drivers' championship leader Lewis Hamilton.
From being on the cover page of magazines, to starring in commercials, life has been in the fast lane for Thana since August's SEA Games.
"I'm still the same, nothing has changed. There are more people who want to take pictures with me, and at first I was overwhelmed. But this is a footballer's life, and something I have already gotten used to," he said.
The eldest of three children, Thana has been supporting his family since his father S. Nadarajah suffered a serious motorcycle accident four years ago, and was paralysed from the waist down.'
"I was only 18 and playing in the President Cup when the accident happened," he said. "My Dad couldn't work anymore and it was up to me to support the family. So I started working odd jobs like driving a lorry and working in a supermarket.
"The Parkson supermarket I worked at was close to the training field, so after that I'd head straight for training. After my training, I'll continue working other odd jobs. I wasn't getting enough rest, but I had to persevere."
While many friends and relatives advised him to drop football and work full-time to support his family, Thana's uncle Thiru Pockri offered to help his family financially and keep his football dream alive.
Another man he gives thanks to is national under-22 coach Ong Kim Swee.
"Ong has so much experience with young players, and he also knows how our neighbours like Indonesia and Thailand play. It is because of him we made it to the AFC U23 Championship and won silver at the SEA Games," he said.
Thana has no time to rest on his laurels just yet, with a big FAM Cup semifinal against Sime Darby looming on Sunday.
Win that match, and the bearded hit man would notch another achievement by helping his team take another step towards the Malaysia Super League.
"Helping Felcra to promotion is my biggest goal for now. If there is an offer from another club after that, we will have to wait and see," he said.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.