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From toothless cubs to roaring Lions - Inside Singapore's remarkable Suzuki Cup transformation

6:30 AM IST 14/12/21
Singapore Faris Ramli Hariss Harun Song
Singapore have surprised fans and skeptics alike with their strong performances and are full of ambition

Truth be told, it has not been a great nine years for Singapore football.

Since the Lions last lifted the regional trophy in 2012, they have been met with disappointment both on the Asean and Asian stage. Three consecutive group-stage eliminations at the Suzuki Cup and a failure to qualify for Asian Cups in 2015 and 2019 signposted what have been some of the darkest years for football in the Republic.

The lowest depths, most local football diehards would agree, came in 2016. In blustery, unfamiliar territory in the Philippines, V. Sundramoorthy’s Lions played three Suzuki Cup matches, winning none and finishing bottom of the group, on one point. The desolate, defensive style of football meant just a solitary goal was scored the entire campaign - a consolation in the 2-1 loss to Indonesia in their final group match. 

If 2018 offered glimpses of a recovery, 2021 has more than breathed life into a nation begging to be lifted up from the doldrums.

As Faris Ramli came flying in to crash Zulqarnaen Suzliman’s delicious whipped cross into the back of the Philippines net, the National Stadium burst into raptures as they celebrated what was Singapore’s fifth goal in two games - they had conceded none.

The fullback-forward combination was one which brought back fond memories, and at times one could have sworn he was watching Shahril Ishak getting on the end of a trademark Shaiful Esah cross, a hallmark of Lions teams from years gone by.

A late Philippines consolation did little to dampen the mood, and the ole-ole ringing around the ground at full-time was as much an indication as one could need that Singapore had one foot in the knockout stages of this year’s AFF Championship.

That said, it has been quite a turnaround for the Lions in 2021. The Republic had been on a wretched run of form coming into the tournament. Since the resumption of football following the pandemic-induced pause, the Lions had drawn one and lost five of their six matches this year.

The 1-1 stalemate with Afghanistan in May was followed by heavy defeats to Palestine, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Kyrgyzstan and Morocco ‘A’, who while being admittedly higher ranked opponents, trounced the Lions by a total score of 21-2.

Missing players and appearing disjointed, there was not an awful lot of optimism surrounding the team as they went into the Suzuki Cup on home soil. Having drawn regional giants Thailand, bogey team Philippines and a plucky Myanmar outfit, the run of group-stage eliminations looked set to continue.

But two games in, things are looking a lot more rosy for the Lions.

The job has not been done yet, far from it. The Lions still need to beat Timor-Leste on Tuesday and hope results elsewhere go their way to avoid entering the final matchday in a three-way points tie. But the initial signs have been encouraging.

The opening two fixtures have seen herculean displays from every single player in the Singapore shirt, but some have stood out above the rest.

Ikhsan Fandi, for instance, has come on in leaps and bounds since the last tournament. Even looking away from his two-goal haul against Myanmar, his hold-up play, strength on the ball and hard running have turned him into a nightmare for centre backs. His European stint has served him well thus far.

His brother Irfan, along with defensive partner Safuwan Baharudin, has been absolutely colossal. Time after time against the Philippines, the two men-mountains gobbled up cross after cross, heading everything that came their way and throwing their bodies on the line to get in the way of some fierce efforts. They have been integral to the gritty, determined Singapore defending that has become signature of this year’s side.

And how could we forget the contributions of Song Ui-young, the newly-naturalised midfield dynamo, whose boundless energy in the middle of the park and smoothness in transition have revolutionised Singapore’s counter attacking strategy. He named Park Ji-sung, or three-lung Park, as his idol earlier this year. I think it might be time to start calling him four-lung Song.

There is still much to be done, matches to be won and points to be secured, but this crop of Singapore footballers has offered something different. Irrespective of how results go from here on in, they have succeeded in bringing hope back to the stands in Kallang, and giving their fans something to hold on to.

Belief is growing, and with tickets to the Thailand game sold out weeks in advance and fast running out for Timor-Leste, one can almost feel the verve and optimism pulsing around the nation.