Causeway football derby: Singapore takes on Malaysia on March 20

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(Photo: YT screengrab)

A Singapore versus Malaysia football confrontation, or a meeting in any sport or for the matter, even in off-the-field politics, is always a highly engaging mouth-watering prospect.

Looking back to recent events, with bilateral tensions running a little high, such a football derby may well be God-send and definitely a refreshing injection for the football scene in both countries.

By the luck of the draw, the good ‘ole Causeway neighbours exchange traditional rivalry on the opening day of the inaugural AirMarine Cup 2019, a four-nation ‘A’ international, which also features Oman and Afghanistan.

If I recall correctly, the last time that Malaysia faced Singapore in a recent competitive derby match was a friendly played prior to the start of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup.

For Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe this tournament is a “timely opportunity for Malaysia to move up the FIFA ranking” and his target is to win the inaugural tournament.

Ironically, Malaysia, the host, is the lowest FIFA-ranked at No 167, followed by Singapore (No 165). Afghanistan is at 147 and Oman, the favourites, at No 90.

BIG MOMENT FOR NAZRI NASIR

Former Lions captain Nazri Nasir has been appointed Singapore coach with ex-international defender Noh Rahman as the assistant. Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Vice-President Teo Hock Seng is the team manager.

For 48-year-old Nazri, it is a big moment as he’s leading the Lions for the first time. He was the captain of the Lions from 1997 to 2003 and led the team to the 1998 AFF Championship  title. He has an awesome reputation as a rousing defensive midfielder and renowned for his “combative, hard-running and ferocious tackling style”.

He says: “It is a dream and an honour to be Lions coach for this big tournament. I’m familiar with the senior players, having worked with them in different capacities including in Lions XII.”

Nazri can be counted on to pass on his “winning-mentality” experience to the Lions as he won the S-League in 1997, 1998 and 2000 with the club. In 2002, he signed for Tampines Rovers where he played as a central defender, winning the S-League in 2004 and 2005.  He retired as a player at the age of 37 in 2008. He was inducted into the elite FIFA Century Club in June 2007.

Fandi Ahmad will not be involved as his Under-22 players will be playing in the 2020 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 qualifiers at the same time in Mongolia, giving Nazri more leeway to pick refreshingly senior players.

He assures: “We’re playing our first game against Malaysia and we will play our hearts out for our country.”

FOUR OUT-OF-TOWN PLAYERS

The most experienced Lion is Tampines Rovers striker Khairul Amri, 34 years, with 128 ‘A’ caps and 32 goals under his belt. Four players playing professionally out of Singapore have been recalled: Goalkeeper Izwan Mahmud, with Thailand’s Nongbua Pitchaya and three veterans who ply their trade in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) – Safuwan Baharudin (Pahang), Shakir Hamzah (Kedah) and Hariss Harun (Johor).

FAS vice-president Teo Hock Seng, the Lions team manager and one of the longest-serving S-League bosses since the S-League started in 1996, says: “This is a great opportunity for Singapore football. Malaysia did pretty well in the recent Suzuki Cup (they lost 3-2 on aggregate to Vietnam in the two-legged final), but I don’t think we are too far away from them.

“I will be going up (as the head of delegation) to ensure that we will play to win.”

Whatever the prevailing political hiccups,the Lions can expect a hostile reception as they walk into the opponent’s Harimau den at the Nasional Stadium in Bukit Jalil, on the suburbs of the capital Kuala Lumpur, say analysts.

Award-winning former Singapore coach Jita Singh, who was SNOC 1981 ‘Coach of the Year’, recollects special memories of the “Ovaltine Cup series in the 1980s when Singapore played Malaysia in an annual two-leg series”. He says: “Absolutely no give-and-take, pride is always at stake and the competitive element from players was  extra-ordinary as they played before sell-out crowds at National Stadium here and Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.”

Malaysia’s legendary defender Datuk Santokh Singh, who played for Selangor from 1972 to 1985, winning nine Malaysia Cups as captain, says: “I look forward to this big match as it’s going to be a long-awaited neighbourhood derby with the special rivalries like England versus Scotland or Brazil versus Argentina that can seldom be equalled.”

FAS Council Member and former international goalkeeper Yakob Hashim, who played in the 1986 Asian Cup qualifiers, says: “Any game between the two neighbours and the stakes are very high. It can make-or-break for the image of the respective associations and even the coaches. I believe the players must give their maximum effort to get a good result. No excuses.”

The “Harimau Malaya” is rousingly on a high after finishing runner-up in the recent AFF Suzuki Cup, losing narrowly to Vietnam. Seven players – Nor Azam Azih, Matthew Davies (Pahang), Abdul Latiff Suhaimi (Selangor), Hadin Azman (Felda United), Ifwat Akmal Chek Kassim, Rizal Ghazali (Kedah) and S. Kumaahran (Johor Darul Ta’zim II) – are making a return to the team.

ASIAN RANKINGS

Cheng Hoe have also retained 13 players from the AFF Suzuki Cup squad and added five new faces. They are Faiz Nasir, Abdul Halim Shaari (Selangor), Firdaus Saiyadi (Perak), Nicholas Swirad (PKNS) and Hafiz Ramdan (PKNP).

In the Asian ranking, the two neighbours are neck-to-neck with Singapore at 34th spot and Malaysia just a step away at No 35.

Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin told The Star newspaper: “This competition is to help the four teams to maintain a competitive edge with the calendar going on to an international break. It would also help strengthen their exposure in other areas by having a tournament.”

On meeting Singapore in the opening match, he adds: “I thought we’ll get Oman because they are the highest ranked among the four teams. But it’s Singapore and now, I hope we can beat them to reach the final.”

Back to Nazri, who ironically made his international debut against Malaysia on September 13 1990, he has a clear vision of the football he wants the Lions to dish out.

“I’m looking at a very attacking team,” he emphasises. “We want players who have pace, aggression and are explosive. I want to see midfielders coming into the box, taking on players and shooting from outside the box.”

The Lions for the Airmarine Cup 2019 Tournament:

Goalkeepers: Izwan Mahbud (Nongbua Pitchaya, Thailand), Syazwan Buhari (Tampines Rovers), Zaiful Nizam (Balestier Khalsa)

Defenders: Amirul Adli, Irwan Shah (both Tampines), Emmeric Ong (Warriors FC), Faritz Hameed (Home United), Nazrul Nazari (Hougang United), Safuwan Baharudin (Pahang, Malaysia), Shakir Hamzah (Kedah, Malaysia)

Midfielders: Izzdin Shafiq (Home), M. Anumanthan, Zulfahmi Arifin (both Hougang), Hariss Harun (Johor Darul Takzim, Malaysia), Huzaifah Aziz (Balestier), Shahdan Sulaiman, Yasir Hanapi (both Tampines)

Forwards: Faris Ramli, Iqbal Hussain (both Hougang), Gabriel Quak (Warriors), Khairul Amri (Tampines), Khairul Nizam (Warriors)