Commentary: Is it mission impossible for Young Lions at the SEA Games?
Despite a cohesive and talented squad, the competition Singapore’s Young Lions face in the tournament could just be too much, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: Singaporeans do not have happy recent memories of the Rizal Memorial Stadium in downtown Manila.
I was there at the final game of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup where the national team lost to Indonesia and crashed out at the group stage.
As the players walked to the bus in the rain after the game, they passed a group of gleeful Indonesian journalists who said “thank you, thank you”.
Now it is the youngsters’ turn to go to the same Manila arena and face Indonesia on Thursday (Nov 28). Revenge will be pleasant but there are bigger issues at stake. Namely, the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
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Singaporeans also do not have happy recent memories of this Under-22 (U22) tournament either, failing to get out of the group stage in the last two editions in 2017 and on home soil in 2015.
The SEA Games in general are a big deal and no more so than in football. Singapore has never won gold though it has three silvers earned during the 1980s when Fandi Ahmad was at the height of his considerable striking career.
Now the legendary player is the coach of the Young Lions. He is going to need all of his experience to lead these cubs out of a six-team group and into the semi-finals.
A top two finish is needed but it is easier said than done, especially after a disappointing 0-0 draw with Laos in the opening game on Tuesday that earned just one point instead of the expected three.
Laos, coached by ex-Singapore player and coach V Sundramoorthy, proved too hard to break down.
Fandi's former team-mate was probably the only Singaporean who enjoyed the 90 minutes on Tuesday.
The next three games will determine who stays in the Philippines and who goes home. On Thursday, Singapore faces Indonesia in Manila, then Thailand and then Vietnam.
Coach Fandi has named what looks to be a decent squad. The tournament is reserved for Under-22 players but each team can name two over-age stars in the squad of 20.
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The inclusion of Faris Ramli shows how seriously Singapore is taking the tournament. The 27-year-old, who has competed at three SEA Games in the past, was the Player of the Year in the 2019 Singapore Premier League, scoring 16 goals.
The boss also summoned his son Ikhsan Fandi from Norway where he plays for Raufoss IL. Negotiations were needed to persuade the Norwegians to release the star during their season.
These two attacking players will be crucial in a team that has paid the price for a lack of firepower in the past two editions.
In a combined total of eight games, Singapore scored just nine goals. Myanmar managed 26 in as many games.
Singapore is usually organised at the back - the addition of Tajeli Salamat as an over-age defender adds experience - but much depends on their forwards.
KEEPING THE CUBS TOGETHER
Also adding to the cohesion is the fact that 12 out of the 20 in the squad play for the Garena Young Lions, also the name of a developmental team that plays in the Singapore Premier League, Singapore’s domestic club competition.
The thinking goes that exposing young players to regular competitive games enables them to grow together - though others say that as they lose more than they win, confidence can be damaged.
This transition from club to country is helped by the fact that the Young Lions are also coached by Fandi. The bulk of the squad in Manila thus knows him well and vice versa.
With the addition of lengthy preparations, this experience should stand Singapore in good stead.
“The training camps, friendlies and tournaments throughout the year were part of the preparations leading up to the SEA Games,” said Fandi. “All the coaches and backroom staff have worked hard to ensure that the team is mentally, physically and tactically prepared."
TOUGH COMPETITION AHEAD
Yet, as the match with Laos showed, the best-laid plans often do not survive first contact with the enemy. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam will provide tough opposition though they are all capable of taking points off each other.
Despite having never won gold, Vietnam is the number one ranked team in Southeast Asia at the moment and reached the final of the 2018 Asian U23 championships.
Senior stars such as Nguyen Quang Hai are being chased by European clubs while Doan Van Hau is already in the Netherlands with Heerenveen. The pair are part of the Vietnamese team in the Philippines.
This talented Vietnam team, with a new level of fitness and mentality instilled by South Korean coach and former player Park Hang-seo, see the SEA Games as not just important in its own right but as vital preparation for January’s Asian Under-23 Championships.
That tournament, hosted by Thailand, provides entry to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the top three teams.
As hosts, Thailand are also desperate to qualify for the Olympics and also see the SEA Games as crucial. Not only that, the War Elephants are perennial favourites having won 14 out of the last 19 tournaments.
Thailand’s opening game loss to Indonesia could be seen as a positive and negative for Singapore. It shows that Thailand can be beaten but means they will be even more desperate to defeat Singapore.
It also shows that Indonesia are a force to be reckoned with and have two very talented forward players in Poland-based Egy Maulana as well as Saddil Ramdani.
The game with Indonesia is vital. Win that and Singapore has a platform to move to the last four as well as the confidence.
Lose - especially after the Laos draw - and it will already be mission almost impossible and another disappointing trip home from the Philippines.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).