COMMENT: Lions find belief - and fans' backing - in road back to respectability under Yoshida

·8 min read
Singapore captain Hariss Harun (left) and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny combine to foil an attempt by Indonesia's Witan Sulaeman during their AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final clash.
Singapore captain Hariss Harun (left) and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny combine to foil an attempt by Indonesia's Witan Sulaeman during their AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final clash. (PHOTO: Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — If you are told that a football team had three players sent off in a winner-takes-all match, missed a last-minute penalty to win the game, and conceded an own goal that ultimately led to defeat and elimination, would you sneer at their ineptitude or would you throw your full support for the team?

Amazingly, despite committing all of the above "football gaffes", the Singapore national team received the latter, an immense outpouring of support both during and after their 2-4 extra-time defeat by Indonesia in their rip-roaring AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final second-leg clash on Christmas Day. 

And it was not just from the majority of the 9,982-strong fans at National Stadium, who roared and sang their hearts out for the Lions. In the unforgiving realm of social media, fans were also surprisingly generous with their praise of the Lions' fighting spirit. 

And, to no one's surprise, their performance has compelled prominent political figures such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, de facto sports minister Edwin Tong, and Sengkang GRC Member of Parliament Jamus Lim to put up Facebook posts lauding the Lions' immense heart despite the agonising Cup exit. 

Was it the Christmas festive season making everyone so warm and fuzzy that they readily threw their arms around the hurting Lions? You could say so, if you want to be cynical.

If you want to be emotional, you could point to the pantomime villain of this epic match, Omani referee Qasim Matar Ali Al-Hatmi. His infuriating series of questionable decisions - giving Safuwan Baharudin two yellow cards for confronting him, ignoring a first-half penalty shout, missing the offside Pratama Arhan scoring Indonesia's equaliser, among others - united the Singapore fans in their burning sense of injustice. With a clear target to blame the defeat on, the Lions' flaws were overlooked.

But if you want to be analytical, there is a logical explanation for such a strong positivity for the Lions' despite the disappointing Cup exit, and that lies in their sheer defiance.

Down to 10 men after Safuwan's red card, they immediately slammed home their equaliser to erase Indonesia's early lead. Down to nine men after Irfan Fandi's second-half dismissal, they conjured a magnificent free-kick from Shahdan Sulaiman that raised hopes for an improbable victory.

Even when Faris Ramli failed to convert that last-minute penalty that could have won the game, it was more owing to goalkeeper Nadeo Argawinata's superb save rather than a poorly-struck effort by the Lions stalwart. 

And when the exhausted Lions could barely stem the waves of Indonesian attacks in extra-time, goalkeeper Hassan Sunny was a one-man wall in goal, repeatedly puling off miraculous saves until he was also sent off right at the end.

All were defiant acts of the best kind on the football pitch - of refusing to wallow in the plight of the sendings-off, of scoring goals despite the numerical disadvantage, and of dogged resistance despite the immense odds stacked against them. It was most definitely not a choke; all the players gave their utmost.

To the fans' credit, they were not oblivious to such proud defiance, and spontaneously roared their approval even when it was evident that the Lions could not come back in extra-time. To see such fervent cheering was immensely invigorating, invoking memories of the "Kallang Roar" even with fewer than 10,000 in attendance due to the COVID-19 safe management measures.

Making progress, but far from the finished product

If there ever was an excruciating defeat that seemed more like an encouraging sign of progress rather than a dispiriting backward step for the national football team, this Christmas Day battle would be it.

Coach Tatsuma Yoshida - who has to be lauded for his classy demeanour despite the rash of decisions going against his team - gushed about "my boys' fighting spirit" after the match, insisting that it was their best performance since he took charge two years ago. 

It is a bit of a hyperbole, but it is also undeniable that the Lions have become far more potent under the Japanese's guidance than the moribund years of the past decade, when they dished out dour and insipid football amid limp defeat after defeat. 

Much has been said that the Lions have made the Suzuki Cup semi-finals for the first time since their 2012 triumph. But arguably their current style of football - high-intensity pressing coupled with intelligent attacking movement - trumps that of the 2012 title-winning team, who relied on counter-attacks and defensive steel to be tough to beat. 

But make no mistake, the Lions are far from being the finished product. Throughout this Suzuki Cup, they were capable of putting together passages of dazzling football and outstanding set-piece prowess, but they could not sustain them for a full 90 minutes. Against less-talented sides like Myanmar and Timor-Leste, the flashes of cohesion were enough to beat them; against top sides like Thailand, it proved insufficient.

Their defiant Christmas Day stand against Indonesia was an important step up in many ways, not least because it gave them belief that they could still be competitive even when everything was stacked against them. They saw that they could drag themselves into winning positions through sheer bloody-mindedness - something their 2012 version had been very adept at.

Belief is a very powerful force, and the Lions seem to have found it over the course of this Suzuki Cup. Whereas they were once tentative, unsure of where they stand in the regional competition, now they can be confident they are moving in the right direction under Yoshida. 

Singapore fans during the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final second leg between Indonesia and Singapore at the National Stadium.
Singapore fans during the AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final second leg between Indonesia and Singapore at the National Stadium. (PHOTO: Lim Weixiang/Getty Images)

Regaining support from long-suffering, cynical fans

So has the Lions' Suzuki Cup campaign been a success?

By all accounts, it has been a clear sign of progress, after three consecutive campaigns where they failed to reach the semi-finals. And this was achieved despite losing two of their regular stalwarts, Gabriel Quak and Shakir Hamzah, through unfortunate injuries during the tournament.

There were bright sparks among those who made their Cup debuts. Fullback Nur Adam Abdullah brought pace and intensity whenever he played; Song Ui-young was an industrious midfield presence who chipped in with crucial goals; and Shawal Anuar was feisty and fearless as he tormented rival defences from the right wing.

Conversely, some of the regulars need to regain their form if they are to continue to be chosen by Yoshida. Zulfahmi Arifin was ineffective both as a defensive midfielder and a set-piece taker; Faris blew hot and cold, sometimes in the same match; and for all of Shahdan's dead-ball brilliance, he was often overwhelmed by robust rivals in central midfield. 

But this tournament was less about finding new stars or rediscovering reliable veterans, and more about finding the belief to continue progressing under Yoshida's leadership. Had the Lions not been able to attain their semi-final target, the Japanese and his coaching nous would be under intense scrutiny, just like his less-successful predecessors Bernd Stange and V. Sundram Moorthy.

It is safe to say that there is little doubt in the current head coach among the players and officials. But Christmas Day brought a precious bonus gift after that Indonesia defeat: approval from the long-suffering, often-cynical fans.

These fans had been disillusioned by the Lions' decline into laughing stocks over the past decade, but something stirred their hearts amid the gut-wrenching loss. 

Perhaps it was the way the players refused to hang their heads despite the sendings-off, or the way they did not lose their heads despite the poor refereeing calls. Whatever it was, these fans were galvanised enough to drop their wariness and declare their support.

And with Singapore football's recent launch of the "Unleash the Roar" national football project to revive the sport and produce new talents, the Lions' encouraging Suzuki Cup showing - as well as the resounding backing from the fans - could serve to generate interest and enthusiasm for the long-term project.

So all is rosy within the Lions squad. Can they stay humble and hungry to continue their progress back to respectability? 

One thing is for sure: they will always have this extraordinary Christmas Day match to remind them of the effort they need to put in to connect with their fans.

The author has covered both Singapore and international sports for the past 19 years, and was formerly sports editor of My Paper. The views expressed are his own.

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