Lim Tong Hai faces up to darkest moment of 2 own goals in 1993 SEA Games match

Lim Tong Hai faces up to darkest moment of 2 own goals in 1993 SEA Games match

It has been 22 years, but the events of that June night still keep replaying in his head. Not because Lim Tong Hai wants to.

In fact, if he could, the former national defender would leave that memory deep in the back of his mind. But that has been almost impossible.

"Even after all this time, people still bring it up. I get people whispering behind my back, saying, 'That's the fella who kelong (threw) the 1993 SEA Games semi-final'," said Lim, 46.

He made SEA Games and Singapore football history when he scored two own goals in that 1993 semi-final against Myanmar. What was even more painful was that the goals came after Singapore had raced to a 2-0 lead after just 23 minutes in front of a partisan home crowd at the National Stadium.

The match went into extra-time and although Steven Tan equalised to make it 3-3 after Myanmar striker Win Aung had given the visitors the lead, the Lions eventually lost 4-5 in the ensuing penalty shoot-out.

The loss was especially hard for fans to accept, as the 1993 team were arguably the best Singapore had assembled in a while and the public were hopeful of the Lions winning what is still an elusive SEA Games football gold.

With the Games back in Singapore for the first time since 1993, Lim said he felt it was time to break his two-decade long silence on the incident.

"Sooner or later, it would come out again, especially with the SEA Games back in town," said Lim, a sports and wellness senior lecturer with the Institute of Technical Education College East.

"I felt it's time I came out to talk about this."

The former centre-back said his conscience remains clear as he looked back on the two ill-timed swipes on his right boot.

Both times, he executed the kicks with the intent to clear the ball, but both times he succeeded only in putting the ball in the back of the Singapore net.

"The ball came into a potentially dangerous area," said Lim, who is also a physical education and sports science consultant at the National Institute of Education.

"With hindsight, of course I could have reacted differently. But in a match, my only instinct was to clear the danger."

He said the incident opened his eyes to how cruel the game can be, and also made him realise who his true friends were. Some even told his then-girlfriend, whom he would later marry, that Lim should just quit football for his own good.

"The worst was someone commenting that if (Andres) Escobar was shot six times, I should be shot 12 times, because I scored two own goals," said Lim, referring to the Colombian defender who scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup match against the United States.

The US won the match 2-1 and Colombia were subsequently eliminated in the group stage. Shortly after the exit, Escobar was shot six times in Colombia. The murder was widely believed to be punishment for the own goal.

Lim said his team-mates, his family and his girlfriend helped his through those tough days. He also took solace from the words of then Defence Minister and president of the Singapore National Olympic Council, Yeo Ning Hong.

Back then, Dr Yeo told the Lions: "I want to tell all of you, and also all Singaporeans, that in life, mistakes are inevitable.

"I told Tong Hai he doesn't have to bear the burden of his mistakes."

Dr Yeo also used a Chinese saying: "No do, no wrong. Little do, little wrong. More do, more wrong."

Added Lim, now a father of two: "My back was against the wall. I could either fade away or come out fighting if I wanted to make football my career.

"I chose to come out fighting."

The following year, Lim went on to win the Malaysia League and Cup Double with the Lions. He played with the national team until 1999, and even went on to captain the Lions.

Lim, who had also coached at S-League club Geylang United and was their general manager, still contributes to the national game as chairman of the Football Association of Singapore's Referees' Committee.

With Singapore's SEA Games football campaign set to begin today, Lim, like many fans, will be rooting for the Young Lions.

And ahead of the opener against the Philippines, he had this piece of advice for the team: "Just forget about the pressure and go out, play your best and enjoy the game.

"The fans will be behind you."

marclim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 1, 2015.
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