SINGAPORE - Idraki Adnan's fine start to the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season for Hougang United was rewarded earlier this week when he received his first call-up to the national team for the Lions' upcoming World Cup qualifiers in June.
And while the 22-year-old, who has three goals and two assists in 10 matches this year, is reaping the fruits of his labour on the training pitch, his ascent is also rooted in the padded flooring of a gymnasium in Bukit Timah.
Idraki was 15 when he achieved a third dan black belt in taekwondo and has pursued the sport alongside football since he was five.
He still coaches thrice a week at Momentum Taekwondo, an academy founded by his late father Adnan Abdullah.
He said: "Taekwondo has always been part of the family growing up and I have learnt so much from it. There is a lot of focus on discipline and it is something that I have been able to take away from the sport.
"Another aspect I have learnt is to always be humble. When I was young, I was taught that even if you are a black belt, it is not something you have to show off.
"Most importantly, it has allowed me to control my emotions on the pitch. Even the aspect of self-defence and the flexibility you can gain from martial arts, have helped me to avoid injuries on the field."
Other footballers with a martial arts background include Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who also has a black belt in taekwondo, while former Manchester United defender Chris Smalling was a British age-group judo champion.
While Idraki hopes to make his international debut next month in the games against Palestine, Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia, he can count on his Cheetahs teammate Shahril Ishak for some invaluable advice.
Shahril, 37, is a former national captain and has 138 caps for the Lions. He also sits next to Idraki in the Hougang locker room.
Idraki said: "Previously when I was with the Young Lions, a lot of the players were of similar age to me. I didn't train with senior players but here at Hougang, there are plenty of big senior players like Shahril, who is always guiding me and boosting my confidence before matches."
Hougang head coach Clement Teo said Idraki's call-up was not a surprise and noted: "He came back this pre-season as one of the fittest players in the squad and he has been relentless in training. He's worked hard for it and he's deserved it.
"As a young player, it is important that you accept criticism and learn from it and Idraki is a fine example of that."
Teo will need Idraki to be at his combative best in midfield as Hougang face Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday (May 22). In their previous meeting in April, Hougang ran out 5-1 winners.
The Stags are third with 21 points, a point and a spot above Hougang. Leaders Albirex Niigata are top on 24 points.
Teo said: "Confidence (from the earlier win) is good but the players know they can't be complacent. We must ensure we don't take our foot off the pedal against Tampines because they are a great team and we can be punished."
His counterpart Gavin Lee played down talk of revenge.
"We have watched (replays of) the game and there were defining moments of that match where we were not good enough," said the Tampines head coach.
"Yes, perhaps the result does give us an extra motivation but we are very focused on the present rather than the past and we are better prepared this time round."