Commentary: Is it mission impossible for Young Lions at the SEA Games?

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's Irfan Fandi is tackled during a SEA Games 2019 match against Laos on Nov 26, 2019
Singapore's Irfan Fandi is tackled during a SEA Games 2019 match against Laos on Nov 26, 2019. (Photo: Matthew Mohan) 

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”. 

BAD MEMORIES 

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. 

READ: 'Rain or shine, he'll be there': Local football's Mr Dependable prepares Singapore for SEA Games success

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.

Fandi ahmad
File photo of Fandi Ahmad. (Photo: TODAY/Jason Quah) 

FORMER LIONS 

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.

READ: Football: Sundram’s Laos hold Fandi’s Singapore to scoreless draw in SEA Games opener

Fandi's former team-mate was probably the only Singaporean who enjoyed the 90 minutes on Tuesday. 

sundram fandi 5
Singapore football national team head coach V Sundramoorthy (right) with assistant Fandi Ahmad at a training session on May 30, 2016. (File photo: Justin Ong)

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.

ADDING FIREPOWER 

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.

READ: From combat to football boots: The 'crazy' 22-year-old who interrupted NS to chase a SEA Games dream

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. 

Singapore's Faris Ramli dribbles the ball during a SEA Games 2019 match against Laos on Nov 26, 2019
Singapore's Faris Ramli dribbles the ball during a SEA Games 2019 match against Laos on Nov 26, 2019. (Photo: Matthew Mohan) 

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.

READ: Football: Ikhsan the hero as Singapore beat Thailand to win U22 tournament

In a combined total of eight games, Singapore scored just nine goals. Myanmar managed 26 in as many games.

Ikhsan Fandi celebrates putting Singapore ahead of Thailand at Merlion Cup 2019
Ikhsan Fandi celebrates putting Singapore ahead of Thailand during the Merlion Cup match on Jun 9, 2019. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

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.

Singapore Premier League Tampines vs Young Lions
Tampines Rovers' Ryutaro Megumi takes on Young Lions' Rusyaidi Salime during a Singapore Premier League match at the Jalan Besar Stadium. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

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.

READ: Football: Singapore handed tough draw for SEA Games

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. 

Vietnam football
Vietnam's players celebrate at the end of the second leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 semi-final football match between Vietnam and the Philippines. (Manan VATSYAYANA/AFP)

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.

READ: Football: Ben Davis not named in Thailand SEA Games squad 

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. 

AFC Asian Cup - Round of 16 - Thailand v China
Soccer Football - AFC Asian Cup - Round of 16 - Thailand v China - Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - January 20, 2019 Thailand's Supachai Jaided celebrates scoring their first goal with Mika Chunuonsee REUTERS/Satish Kumar Subramani

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.

READ: Football: Fans arrested after trouble at Malaysia, Indonesia World Cup qualifier

The game with Indonesia is vital. Win that and Singapore has a platform to move to the last four as well as the confidence.

SEA Games Group A: Singapore vs Indonesia (7)
File photo of Singapore forward Sahil Suhaimi. (Photo: Mediacorp) 

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).

Source: CNA/ml

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