Commentary: Singapore's AFF Cup elimination was painful, but how we lost hurt even more
Singapore were outclassed and out-coached in their 4-1 defeat to Malaysia, says CNA's Matthew Mohan.
SINGAPORE: Losing always hurts, but this one really stung. It wasn't that defeat came at the hands of Causeway rivals Malaysia, nor that it killed the optimistic hope that Singapore might make the semi-finals of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Mitsubishi Electric Cup.
Rather, it was how the Lions capitulated 4-1 to the Tigers on Tuesday (Jan 3) at the Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
A first-half header from Darren Lok and a second-half Stuart Wilkin double put the Tigers comfortably ahead. Singapore substitute Faris Ramli reduced arrears in the closing minutes of the game, only for a Sergio Aguero strike to negate it just three minutes later.
Only one team brought a ferocity to their play that night. The Tigers roared, the Lions whimpered.
BLAME IT ON THE COACH?
Criticism has been lobbed the way of head coach Takayuki Nishigaya. And the Japanese coach must shoulder some of the blame.
At a pre-match press conference in the lead-up to the game, Nishigaya asserted that the team would be "aggressive". But it was Malaysia that was aggressive, as well as progressive and proactive.
The Lions struggled to soak up the Tigers' attack and hit them on the counter. After Lok's opening goal, Singapore looked bereft of ideas.
Nishigaya opted for a more pragmatic approach to matches against Vietnam and Malaysia. While it did win a valuable a point against the top-ranked side in Southeast Asia, one could have argued that the Lions could have been slightly more adventurous given their opponents were missing several key men. And against Malaysia, Singapore were simply not at the races.
"Bad management from the coach. Tactics borrow from secondary school C division," said one commenter on the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Facebook page. "Poor selection, how can you leave your most in form striker Shawal Anuar on the bench?" questioned another.
Shawal's omission from the starting 11 against Vietnam and Malaysia was glaring. Perhaps Nishigaya wanted to make use of his pace against rapidly tiring defences in the second half, but Shawal's performance in the first two matches clearly showed he could be a goalscoring threat.
Nishigaya's appointment had been met with questions in some quarters. He had no international experience, while established international coaches had been linked to the vacant role.
But Singapore had been down this road before. Nishigaya's predecessor Tatsuma Yoshida had also arrived with no international experience and to little fanfare in 2019.
Yet, Yoshida led Singapore to their first AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals in nine years, with the team building a distinct footballing identity. Yoshida won most fans over with his belief in his players, his passion for his role and his philosophy of playing possession football.
What Nishigaya has not had is time, taking the reins only since May 2022 whereas Yoshida had been in the job for more than two years when he coached the Lions to the semi-finals in 2021. The jury is still out on whether Nishigaya can build on the foundations laid by his predecessor.
IS A REVAMP NEEDED?
Certainly, losing Ikhsan Fandi to injury before the tournament was a huge blow that cannot be understated. The 23-year-old is the best striker to don national colours in a long time.
But Singapore weren't the only team missing personnel. A host of Malaysia's first team players were also not available.
"Hand to heart, Malaysia were the better team and deserved the win," said FAS acting president Bernard Tan in an Instagram post. "Malaysia were not unplayable. But our team did not rise to the occasion."
In the aftermath of Singapore's exit, some have called for a revamp of the team. It is undoubtedly an ageing one, with more than 10 players 30 years old and above.
Young players can fill these gaps in due course - Ilhan, Shah Shahiran, Jacob Mahler and Ryhan Stewart immediately come to mind. But the question is whether the current pipeline can produce enough of such talents, especially in a country where there are constraints such as National Service and a limited pool of players.
Ideally, the Unleash the Roar (UTR) project will be the conduit, the national movement announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate in 2021.
Its central long-term goal is raising standards of local football across all levels and creating a structured football development system that can fuel the dreams of young players.
But the fruits of UTR will only emerge in years to come, and till then patience needs to be afforded to young players who come through the ranks. While the selection of players for the national team should as always be based on merit, coaches also need to keep the bigger picture in mind and proactively integrate them into future sides when possible.
It will be important to leverage on the experience of cornerstones such as Hariss Harun and Hassan Sunny as mentors, whether on or off the pitch.
FIGHTING FOR THE FLAG
Not all Singapore supporters are fair-weathered. All football fans love success, but we also want a team which fights for the flag, a team they can get behind.
Recall the groundswell of pride in the aftermath of Singapore's second leg semi-final defeat to Indonesia in the last edition of the tournament. Rather than being lambasted for failing to make the finals, the Lions were lauded for their fighting spirit despite going down to eight men.
Yoshida summed it up best after that loss in 2021. "I always tell the boys, my staff. You must believe (in) yourself ... Singapore fans I hope, I want them to support the boys and Singapore football," he told reporters after the game. "I was moved by their fighting spirit, their Singapore spirit and they didn't give up."
This elimination proffers yet another chance for FAS and stakeholders of the local game to take stock. While players and coaches often take the hit, they shouldn't bear the responsibility for both the past and the future alone.
Create the best possible scenarios for the Lions: Provide the best pitches, blood the right youngsters, prepare in ideal conditions.
Ikhsan's younger brother Ilhan had deputised admirably, before an injury during the Vietnam match cut short his tournament. As was the case with Ikhsan, the injury was suffered on the Jalan Besar Stadium's artificial turf, an issue which football authorities need to look into.
The Lions headed to Japan for a training camp prior to the tournament. Was the location ideal given that the wintery weather was a far cry to the humidity of Southeast Asia?
Create the best possible environment for the fans: Communicate strategies consistently, take constructive criticism seriously, hear their concerns clearly.
If this can't be done, then we might just as well accept that footballing greatness will continue to elude Singapore.
But if the Lions can win over hearts as they did not too long ago, Singapore will be back on the road to success even before they start winning on the pitch.
For now, the scars of this defeat will linger - for both the local footballing fraternity and Singapore's die-hard fans.
Matthew Mohan is a senior journalist at CNA. He specialises in sports reporting, and has covered the Olympics, World Cup, and a number of Southeast Asian Games.