Comment: How S'pore's football inspired me, broke my heart & stitched it back over 15 years

A roller-coaster ride, but I wouldn't have it with any other team.

Syahindah Ishak | January 01, 2022, 07:23 PM

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"One day, I will win the World Cup for Singapore."

This was what I wrote in my diary as an eight-year-old girl.

In hindsight, that might have been a tad too ambitious.

But it wasn't merely an innocent, idealistic dream one had as a child. I genuinely believed it was attainable, that I would grow up to be a football player and win the World Cup for my country.

It was 2007, the same year Singapore's national football team was crowned champions in the AFF Championship (now called the AFF Suzuki Cup).

A win that inspired a young Singaporean girl

I was watching the second leg of the finals in my living room with my two older brothers.

Singapore was against Thailand, a team that was the favourites to win the tournament that year.

With about 10 minutes left in the game, the aggregate was tied 2-2.

And then it happened.

In the 81st minute, Khairul Amri, who was only 22 years old then, hammered a shot past Thailand's goalkeeper into the back of the net.

The stadium erupted. My brothers and I leapt from the sofa and screamed our lungs out. It was pure bliss.

Next thing I knew, the television screen showed Singapore captain Aide Iskandar lifting aloft the trophy as thousands of Singaporean fans in the stadium cheered.

I suddenly found myself feeling invincible — as if I, like the players in the team, could achieve anything I wanted.

It was a sensation I've never felt before, and I thought I never would ever again.

Until Christmas 2021 — the day Singapore faced Indonesia in the second leg of the 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup semi-finals.

What happened?

But why did it take so long for me to feel hopeful about our football team again?

Don't get me wrong, my loyalty has always been with the national team. I'd catch all the matches and I'd give the team all my support.

Yet, over the years, I stopped having expectations and my excitement gradually dissipated. And I wasn't the only one.

So what on earth happened?

The team

My older relatives would often share stories about the glory days of Singapore football in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

I grew up listening to tales of Fandi Ahmad, Dollah Kassim, Malek Awab, Nasir Jalil, David Lee, Nazri Nasir, Mat Noh, Borhan Abu Samah, Steven Tan, and many more. The list goes on.

But since the mid-2000s, Singapore's national team saw a drop in quality.

The team's standard declined as older players retired and new, younger ones entered the team.

It wasn't a lack of talent per se. The newer players each have their own strengths and should be rightfully applauded for their skills and hard work.

But the hunger to win and the fighting spirit we often associated with the Lions could barely be seen in these players.

What was also missing was good chemistry.

That's the thing about football, a team either has good chemistry or it doesn't. It's all down to luck.

You could have the best players in the world in the same team, but without good chemistry, the team won't be able to succeed.

Moreover, international duties don't occur as often as club duties. This means that the Singapore players don't get to train or compete with their national teammates as often as needed to build a strong chemistry.

It didn't help that the team had to constantly adapt to various head coaches with different playing styles over the years.

Since 2003, Singapore has been under six different coaches:

  • Radojko Avramovic
  • V. Sundramoorthy
  • Bernd Stange
  • Fandi Ahmad
  • Nazri Nasir
  • Tatsuma Yoshida

With the constant changes both in the squad and within its leaders, it's no wonder that Singapore's national football team often struggled and produced less than desirable results.

The fans

As the football standard in Singapore dipped, Singaporeans' attitude towards local football shifted along with it.

The famous Kallang roar, which I last heard on my television in 2007, was reduced to a mere whisper each time our Singapore players were on the pitch.

It was odd to witness a nation's love and unity for football fall apart in the blink of an eye.

There are a lot of factors that contributed to this, one of them being the fact that Singaporeans have gotten more exposed to football in other parts of the world.

We often see Singaporeans go crazy when their favourite teams are playing in the English Premiere League (EPL). We also see Singaporeans cheering on other countries in the World Cup.

Because of this exposure, football fans in our country have gotten used to the football quality and style overseas, particularly in Europe.

And with exposure comes more knowledge and expectations.

I've been to Jalan Besar Stadium and the National Stadium a number of times over the years to watch our national team play.

What struck me most, despite how well or badly our team performed, was how critical the fans were.

It's not unusual for fans to be vocal about their feelings during a football match. But Singaporean fans can get a little too harsh in my opinion.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard fans shouting, "Switch play!", "Clear the ball!" and "Pass!" during a game.

And when the players failed to do as they were told, the fans would end up shouting a string of curse words that I'm not even allowed to write in this article.

In fact, when I watched the recent AFF Suzuki match against Thailand in person, I witnessed nearly 10,000 Singaporean fans in the stadium booing Zulfahmi Arifin for his performance during the game.

It was disheartening, to say the least, and I can't imagine what the player himself must have been going through.

Christmas 2021: The turning point

Everything changed on Dec. 25, 2021.

That match between Indonesia and Singapore was a game-changer for our local football scene.

The odds were against us. Two of the team's central defenders, Safuwan Baharudin and Irfan Fandi, were sent off early in the game.

Winger Faris Ramli missed a crucial penalty in stoppage time, and our goalkeeper Hassan Sunny was sent off in extra time.

It was no surprise that Singapore ended up losing the match, despite the players' valiant efforts.

I had braced myself for another heap of complaints and insults from Singaporeans.

But that didn't happen.

The entire nation, in the stadium, at home, and online, stood in solidarity with the players.

Everyone, even the friends I have who know nothing about the sport, showed their love for the Lions.

And as I witnessed the players standing in front of about 10,000 fans as they sang our national anthem loud and proud, I felt it all over again, the feeling I had when I was eight years old — hope.

The relationship between fans and team

I've always assumed that Singapore's football has declined because it is what it is.

But that's not necessarily true. It has declined because we, both the team and fans, allowed it to.

After the match against Indonesia in the AFF Suzuki Cup, I've come to realise that the success of Singapore's football all boils down to the relationship between the team and the fans.

Like every relationship, both parties must put in effort to make it work.

The team has to show grit and determination in every match, just like how they did against Indonesia.

They must work well with one another, and remain focused in every step.

As for the fans, we need to learn to forgive and be more understanding.

On top of providing support and encouragement, we must get to know the team more, and familiarise ourselves with the way they play.

Singapore's football still has a long way to go, but with the right attitude, we could relive our glory days.

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