top of page

New Chapter for Singapore Football: AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 Review

Hope lives on for Singapore football, after AFF Suzuki Cup tournament exit that saw the Lions bow out at the semi-final stage with 8-men

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


A month of intense drama, highs and lows eventually culminated in the Lions bowing out doggedly in their first semi-final appearance since 2012. SportPlus recaps the key moments of Singapore’s memorable 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.


“Ayuh Ayuh Ayuh !! Ayuh Ayuh Singapuraaaa !!” Those were the words echoed incessantly by the Singapore crowd for the 13 minutes separating Shahdan Sulaiman’s perfectly bended free-kick and Indonesia’s Pratama Arhan’s offside equaliser.


Yet the lyrical cheering of Singapore’s famous “Satu Nada” (One Voice) chant did not stop after that.


Singapore was down in numbers on the pitch, but the home crowd made up for the numerical deficit with their deafening voices.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


The Lions bowed out in style, living up to their nickname by fighting doggedly right till the final whistle, even though they were eventually reduced to eight men on the pitch.


The day was October 8th. Singapore’s head coach Tatsuma Yoshida’s 27-man provisional squad for the tournament left some fans puzzled as experienced stalwarts Madhu Mohana and Yasir Hanapi were unceremoniously left out.


The duo from Tampines Rovers share 73 international caps amongst themselves and could have proven to be important figure heads in the dressing room. In their place, Iqram Rifqi and Adam Swandi were selected. Both players were returning from long-term injuries and had restricted minutes in the recently concluded Singapore Premier League season.


“If they are able to perform and reach my expectations that I have set for them, they can serve as very good options for the Lions,” responded coach Tatsuma.


Perhaps this was all part of the Japanese native’s grand masterplan for Singapore.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


Fallout with the SingaBrigade


Off the pitch, more controversy was about to ensue. Moments after releasing ticketing details for the tournament, the Football Association of Singapore announced that in order to comply with prevailing Covid-19 regulations, musical instruments were not to be permitted in stadiums.


The regulation instantly drew the ire of a group of passionate Singapore football fans, more commonly known as the SingaBrigade. The 150-man strong fan group have followed the Lions across borders and make up the bulk of chants heard during Singapore’s matches.


Drums are used by the SingaBrigade to create a lively atmosphere, making up a big part of their matchday identity.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


"We are the hosts and we had been looking forward to the tournament to support the team like what we've been used to. You can ask anyone who has attended Lions matches and they will know the impact when we have our drums,” said Syed Faris, 33, a member of SingaBrigade.


The FAS reached out to offer assistance, but both parties failed to arrive on a compromise. One week before the tournament was slated to begin, the fervent fan group announced their decision to sit out the tournament as “a message to relevant parties”.


Football fans will know the positive impact a boisterous home atmosphere has for the players, as the ‘12th man’ in the stadium. The absence of the SingaBrigade would be sorely felt, but team Singapore still had to fight on.


PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


The Tournament Kicks-Off


Fast forward to the opening game of the tournament, Singapore were due to face Myanmar on December 5th. This would prove to be the first significant indicator of the national team’s progress under Tatsuma, as the Lions romped to a comfortable 3-0 victory.


A pinpoint header from Safuwan Baharudin was swiftly followed by an Ikhsan Fandi brace, as Singapore killed off the game within the first half.


Just two years prior, Singapore were beaten 2-1 by the same Myanmar team in an international friendly. Tatsuma said from that day: “Our boys sometimes switch off but in the first half for 40 minutes, they played (well). But, in the first five minutes, we were a little bit rushed.”


There were no such issues from kick-off in front of a 7,588-strong crowd.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


Opting to keep 2020 SPL Player of the Year Gabriel Quak on the bench, Tatsuma gave newly declared Singapore citizen Song Ui-Young his first competitive start for the nation. Song did not disappoint, dictating the midfield with his composure and nifty passing reminiscent of Shi Jia Yi’s creative abilities back in the day.


Speaking to the media after the win, a patriotic Song chipped in: "When I entered the field and heard the fans, I realised: 'Ok, this is different, this is special. This game is huge'."


Excitement was building around the country after a convincing win, but the job was far from finished. Singapore have failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup since the team led by legendary coach Radojko Avramovic won the tournament in 2012. As hosts of this year’s edition, the unspoken expectation around the neighbourhoods was to break that duck at the very least.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


Next up for the Lions were the Philippines, who famously knocked them out in the group stages of the 2018 edition, courtesy of a late Patrick Reichelt strike in Bacolod city. Singapore were out for revenge.


A do-or-die clash


Buoyed by the advantage of playing in familiar surroundings this time round, the Lions also had the benefit of playing a Philippines side missing several foreign-based players due to restrictions travelling into Singapore.


This was a game of paramount importance to the Lions as the Philippines stood out as Singapore’s closest rivals for second place in the group, which would guarantee qualification into the semi-finals.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


Tatsuma made four changes to the team that beat Myanmar three days ago. Fan favourite Gabriel Quak was handed his first start of the tournament, whilst overseas-based players Zulfahmi Arifin and M Anumanthan were introduced for Song and Shahdan.


Again, fans were left bemused by the Japanese tactician’s selections given the latter duo’s encouraging performances in the previous game. It turned out to be a situation of load management as Tatsuma made a tactical tweak, setting up in a 3-4-3 formation for this crucial clash.


It proved to be the right decision, as Singapore began the game on the front foot with the extra centre-back providing control and stability for the Lions to construct their attacking plays. After a deadlocked first half, disaster struck early in the second half.

PHOTO: JUNPITER FUTBOL


Star forward Gabriel Quak belligerently knocked into Philippines defender Justin Baas and cried out in pain, hitting the Sports Hub grass patch clutching his left shoulder. A collective sigh rang out around the stadium as the crowd waited anxiously to see what developed.


Unfortunately, Gabriel’s tournament was over despite his attempt to solider on for another five minutes. The 31-year-old dislocated his shoulder in an international friendly prior to the tournament and the collision with Baas aggravated the injury.


The Lions did not give up. Fired up to wreak vengeance without Gabriel, the constant waves of attacks finally paid dividends in a rapid three-minute spell.


Captain Hariss Harun was quickest to react to a flick-on from a corner to send the home crowd into raptures. Barely after the cheering had stopped, mercurial winger Faris Ramli sprinted the length of the pitch to get onto the end of wing-back Zulqarnaen Suzliman’s perfectly weighted cross to give Singapore the overwhelming advantage.