SEA Games football draw: Can Lions overcome ‘stage fright’?

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Suresh Nair/

IT’S not the much-dreaded ‘Group of Death’ but the luck of the draw seldom favours you when you’re drawn in the same group as the host country.

That’s what the Lions got when next month’s South-east Asia (SEA) Games football draw were announced over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur.

Drawn in Group ‘A’ with host Malaysia (FIFA rank 167), Myanmar (No 157), Laos (171) and Brunei (188). Over at the other group are defending champion Thailand (FIFA rank 131), Indonesia (175), Vietnam (133), Cambodia (173), Timor Leste (196) and the Philippines (126). Only two teams make it to the semi-finals.

Going on the hapless and hopeless current situation of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), it’s a make-or-break or a face-saving predicament for French-born coach Richard Tardy and his newly-minted assistant Vincent Subramaniam, say football pundits and observers.

The climate is surely unfavourable and unfortunate after the recent FAS elections, with a string of ill-starred events for President Lim Kia Tong and his team, with piteous worst-ever FIFA ranking at No 169 right down to unpropitious and unhappy feedback from the grassroots on where the No 1 sport is headed, close to bottom of the pits.

So, next month’s SEA Games, hosted by Malaysia, will be a moment of truth, especially with the Under 23 players, who have the chance to show whether they can compete realistically at regional level or be doomed as vulnerable bottom-of-the-table combatants.

‘FIGHTING CHANCE’

Former Singapore skipper Nazri Nasir, who is assistant coach to Fandi Ahmad’s Under 20 squad, describes it as a “good fighting draw”. He says: “A realistic group with a realistic chance for the Lions. Honestly, we’ve a shot for the semi-finals if we take one match at a time. None of the teams are pushovers, every match matters and goal-difference, too, will count in the final analysis.

“The Sea Games squad has had exposure in the S-League and with regional training tours and on their day, if they really rise to the occasion, I believe we’ve a fighting chance.”

Terry Pathmanathan, one of the longest-serving Singapore skippers in the late 1970s and 1980s, who also played for Pahang in the Malaysia (1982-87), says the draw “favours the Lions”. Now a senior manager with SportsSG, he explains: “It’s definitely a favourable draw for Singapore to qualify for the semifinals. Except for Malaysia, who will be the odds-on favourite on home ground, the others in the group should not pose a challenge for the semi-final slot, if the Lions play to their full potential.”

FAS Executive Council Member Razali Saad, also a former Lions skipper (1984-1993) with 53 ‘A’ international caps, says: “The draw is encouraging for the team to go further in the tournment. The semi-final is a great possibility, but I want the players to prepare mentally and physically for the big matches. My best advice: Never ever be complacent.”

Award-winning former national coach Jita Singh, the SNOC ‘Coach of the Year 1981’, gave the thumbs-up, too. He says: “The ‘killer’ teams are in the other group. We must positively aim for a semi-final slot. I believe the latest entrance of Vincent Subramaniam, to assist Richard Tardy, will make a very big difference.

“Vincent, a former national coach, and AFC Elite Instructor, has widely travelled Asia and he knows varying coaching tactics, especially in the Asean region. He will advise the players to know how to effectively manage Myanmar (who recently qualified for the World Youth Finals) and Laos (with Singapore-born coach Mike Wong as the new Technical Director) in order to move forward. Malaysia, to be honest, on home ground, looks a foregone conclusion to make it to semi-finals.”

Businessman Seak Poh Leong, the former Singapore skipper (1971-1976 with 56 ‘A’ international caps) and Lions’ West German-trained coach (1987-1988), points out that the semi-final is the minimum target. He adds: “For sure it is an easier group, avoiding Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. But other teams in the group are, mark my serious words, no more walkovers. A semi-final spot is the minimum target for the FAS.”

Former Lions midfielder and ex-Tampines Rovers player-coach Rafi Ali, who won the 1988 Tiger Cup in Vietnam), exclaims: “Wah it’s a good draw, ah. I think the big threat will be Malaysia and Myanmar. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Lions, who have something to proof to the critics.”

‘GROUP OF DEATH’

Corporate lawyer Lau Kok Keng, who stood as Deputy President candidate in the recent FAS elections, says: “Group ‘B’ is clearly the ‘group of death’ and I expect the eventual finalists to come from that group. Although the Lions are in a weaker group, that does not mean we are a shoo-in for the semi-finals.

“As hosts, the Malaysians are expected to do well and will want to beat arch-rivals Singapore in front of a home crowd, while the upcoming AFC U-23 Group ‘F’ qualifier between Singapore and Myanmar on July 19 will provide a sneak preview of what to expect from the two teams at the Kuala Lumpur Games.”

Adds Lau, who is Head, Intellectual Property, Sports and Gaming at award-winning law firm Rajah & Tann LLP: “We can also no longer take it as a given that we will beat Laos and Brunei. The days of beating Laos 11-0 and Brunei 8-0 are sadly, long gone and consigned to history.”

You can’t ask for a better SEA Games draw, says former FAS executive secretary Steven Tan. His view: “I expect the Lions to make it to the final four. If we don’t, then it’s self-realisation time with no excuses.  If we make it, the semi-final matches are always touch and go. Let’s seriously and sincerely manage our expectations.”

Former international defender John Fernandez, 72, of the famous Fernandez football family along Buffalo Road, hopes confidence prevails in the Lions’ camp. He says: “Our prayers have been answered. We’re definitely in an easier group and should be able to qualify with least resistance from the likes of Malaysia and Myanmar. But the young players must believe that they can tactically match their rivals, although they maybe a little less regionally-experienced. What matters most is the genuine lion-hearted spirit on match day.

Former SAF Colonel & former Chief of Artillery Lim Chin, the past S-League Chief Executive Officer, who is now with ST Technologies, optimistically says: “Think we got the luck of the draw this time round and I wish our SEA Games football team all the very best.”

Former FIFA Assistant Referee and FAS Referees Committee (FASRC) member Augustine Orlando says: “Yes, looks like we are in an easy group and a walk into the semi-finals. I just hope no 10-year series excuses such as short preparation, players injured, still developing players etc come up when do not qualify for the last four!”

LUCK IN LIONS’ FAVOUR

NFL Division One Kaki Bukit Sports Club President Zaki Ma’arof, a Director with Yama Medical Supplies, says luck appears to be in the Lions’ favour. He explains: “Singapore is lucky to be in that grouping. Self explanatory, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are making football-ranking progress steadily. It is also not about players’ standards. It’s about whether they can be united and play as a sensible unit and individually, as true Singapore patriots. I believe psychology application to the players is a requisite.”

Alim Omar, the past team manager of NFL (National Football League) Siglap Football Club, makes a straightforward prediction: (Group A) Myanmar and Singapore. (Group B) Thailand and Vietnam. He adds cautiously: “With the brains of Vincent Subramaniam the Lions are capable of doing better.”

Lawyer Alfred Dodwell, Managing Director of Dodwell & Co LLC and a senior member of the bar in Singapore, having practised as a litigation lawyer since 1996, was blunt in his assessment. Without pulling punches, he says: “If the Lions can’t make it out of this easy SEA Games group, they should give up football and play hockey!”

Off the football pitches, former SEA Games hockey fullback Arul Subramaniam, who won the SEA Games gold-medal in 1973, says he “stands by the Lions”. He adds: “I believe pre-Games preparations have been good and if the players show the true grit, with a must-in-attitude, they can finish champion or runner-up. I stand by the Lions and I want to see them do well at the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games.”

Grassroots leader Jayagobi Jayaram, a corporate lawyer, who is Vice Chairman of Nee Soon East CCMC, says: “Yes, at plain sight, it’s the two ‘M’s who will cause the biggest problem: Malaysia and Myanmar. I’ve loyally supported Singapore football and it will be good if we can first make it to the semi-finals. This, in itself, will be an achievement of sorts. The SEA Games will be a good indication as to where the state of Singapore football is in our region.”

HEAT OF COMPETITION

Former sports journalist Jose Raymond, who is a Vice-President of Singapore Swimming Association and the Vice-Chairman of the Chiam See Tong Sports Foundation, says on Facebook: “History reminds us that in the heat of competition, easy groupings are but a figment of our imaginations. Underestimate any team at your own peril. Malaysia Tigers will be  formidable at home.

“Myanmar will be aggressive while Laos will be unpredictable. A poor run and group stage exits at the last Sea Games and Suzuki Cup aside, what the young Singapore Lions will need more than anything now is for their country to have faith in them.”

Former The New Paper football columnist Edwin Yeo, general manager of Strategic Public Relations Group (SPRG) Singapore, who is also FAS Adviser (Communications), says: “You’re asking for my personal opinion and not FAS’s right? I think it’s a kind draw but Malaysia and Myanmar will be tough opponents. By no means is it a walk in the park. It’s the truth, don’t you think? Group ‘B’ looks like a ‘group of death’.”

Founding Director of JC Enrichment Clifton James, who is also Area Director of Toastmasters International, candidly says he’s “tired of professionals playing like schoolboys, without the pride in national colours”.

He adds: “Singapore has a history of doing well against big teams in the past. With what is happening especially after so many allegations on and off the field, is the Singapore team able to perform? When your own SGSingapore has little faith, what more the fans?

“We are tired of professionals playing like schoolboys without the passion. Please step up or make way for people who see football as a passion and not a leverage or job. My honest prediction? Third place Group ‘A’.”

Suresh Nair, a Singapore-based journalist who has covered the SEA Games since the 1979 Jakarta event, feels that the Lions regularly suffer from SEA Games stage-fright and seldom perform to their best. His prediction: Sink your fiery fangs, Lions, or you will miss the semi-final ticket.