Expectations are at its lowest as Singapore head into this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup. After last year’s brilliant start to the 2018 FIFA World Cup second round qualifying campaign – that miracle point in Japan the standout highlight – proved a false dawn, with back-to-back losses to Syria and amazingly Afghanistan at the end of that very same group stage, Singapore started 2016 with two unconvincing wins against Myanmar, before being on the receiving end of four consecutive losses – two slightly acceptable defeats to Vietnam, Bahrain and J-League side Albirex Niigata, but shockingly to Cambodia, whom Singapore beat 4-0 just before their heroic display in Saitama.
In the midst of those four consecutive defeats, local legend V. Sundramoorthy was promoted to head coach on a caretaker basis, succeeding German Bernd Stange – the latter’s other assistant Fandi Ahmad keeping his role as Sundram’s right hand man as well as signing on as the new Head Coach (Youth) for Singapore football.
How has Singapore’s national team, and local football scene, gone so wrong? It’s worth noting too of the initial hype surrounding the start of the 2016 S.League season, with Tampines Rovers’ blockbuster signing of former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant, that has inevitably and unfortunately died down a month or two after.
The icons of Singapore football today
On paper, Singapore should have a pretty strong side, with a handful of standout individuals who have even caught the eye of clubs outside of the ASEAN region. For one, the goalkeeping position is well-stocked right now, which has not been seen ever since Lionel Lewis retired from international duty. Saitama hero Izwan Mahbud’s potential so immense that he caught the eye of the J.League – though he never secured a contract after his trial – while Hassan Sunny is currently Singapore’s No.1 with his impressive displays for Army United in the Thai Premier League, so much so that he was named as the 18th best goalkeeper in the world by UK-based newspaper The Telegraph, ahead of Malaga’s Cameroonian stopper Carlos Kameni and Stoke’s England international Jack Butland.
In midfield, there’s Singapore’s youngest ever debutant and de facto skipper Hariss Harun, who is good enough to ply his trade in a minor European league right now, while converted offensive midfielder Safuwan Baharudin was the first Singaporean to play outside of ASEAN, for Melbourne City in the A-League, since Fandi and Sundram. It is quite a pity both are only able to secure contracts with Singapore’s northern neighbours.
Alongside these four stars are a bunch of quality, experienced veterans. Khairul Amri is lending his experience to the U-23 players who make up most of the Garena Young Lions squad, while Johor Dahrul Takzim II duo Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak have been in the Singapore team for a long time. Tampines left-back Shaiful Esah has one of the best left foot in ASEAN football, with his wicked deliveries an asset for any side.
Average team-mates supporting a quality spine
These talents have not been able to shine for Singapore probably mostly due to them having to line up alongside inconsistent or somewhat average players. Izzdin Shahfiq broke through for the now-defunct LionsXII in the Malaysia Super League over a year ago, and ideally should form a quality partnership as the destroyer alongside box-to-box midfielder Hariss, but Izzdin often has a quiet game.
Wingers Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quek have much potential and pace to burn down the flanks, but when they are off-form, it is very difficult for either to get going during a match itself. Sundram might consider Tampines’ Canadian-born flyer Jordan Webb, but the latter has yet to be given citizenship.
Right-back has been a problem position for Singapore ever since Noh Rahman left the international scene, with the likes of winger Nazrul Nazari and centre-back Madhu Mohana among the many pretenders for that position. Faritz Hameed’s display against Malaysia have probably put him ahead of the queue, but he will have to remain consistent for the rest of the campaign with his Geylang International side to keep his place for the Suzuki Cup.
Completing the defence alongside Faritz, Shaiful Esah and Baihakki, it will go down to 39 year old veteran Dan Bennett or 25 year old Madhu Mohana. Bennett reads the game really well but admittedly slow over the turf, while the imposing figure that is Madhu has not kicked on from his stellar year with LionsXII in 2015.
The final problem position has been up front. Ever since veteran Aleksander Duric retired, Stange and now Sundram has been over reliant on fellow veteran Khairul Amri. Who can blame them? Fazrul Nawaz can’t seem to translate his club form on the international stage, hot prospect Sahil Suhaimi is too inconsistent and selfish on the ball, Iqbal Hussein is still too raw and inexperienced, while Khairul Nizam lacks the goalscoring touch required at international level to complement his strong physique.
Severe gap in the talent pool
The lack of quality, consistent supporting players or back-ups has proven detrimental to Singapore’s national team, as Stange and now Sundram have found out. This has probably also held the likes of Hariss and Safuwan back, as they do not have the platform to really showcase their talents.
With this problem unlikely to be solved overnight, Sundram will have to look for a short term solution as his side’s Suzuki Cup performance will ultimately determine whether he gets the job full-time after his year’s contract is up. Read the next part on what Sundram can do to get his limited side going at the year end tournament.
Photo Credit: TNP.sg