SINGAPORE - Last night, the Singapore national football team flew off to face Syria in the Asian Cup qualifiers but Lions coach Bernd Stange left two players behind.
Dead-ball specialist Shaiful Esah, 27, and flying winger Nazrul Nazari, 22, did not board the plane for the match in neutral Iran, having irked the German tactician over disciplinary lapses.
The 65-year-old told The Straits Times that Shaiful has been axed after the Tampines Rovers left-back decided to stay behind to study for a certificate in workplace health and safety, while Nazrul has been punished for reporting late for training twice.
Stange said: "We had applied for travel visas for the whole team and the players were told well in advance about the fixture dates. I asked Shaiful to delay his course but his answer was 'no'.
"Last week, Nazrul was 30 minutes late for training and said it was because of a traffic jam. That was my first yellow card to him.
"He was late again (yesterday morning) by 10 minutes. That was our last training session before we play Syria and we needed to finalise our tactics and set-pieces."
Apart from Shaiful and Nazrul, Stange will also miss the services of centre-back Safuwan Baharudin, who will be getting married.
Right-back Madhu Mohana and midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin are missing owing to national service commitments while central midfielder Hariss Harun and centre-back Baihakki Khaizan are suspended.
Nazrul, who recently completed his national service, could not be reached for comment. He will train with the national Under-23s preparing for next month's SEA Games in Myanmar.
Stange added: "Such things should never happen when the national team is under my leadership. I don't want to see any lack of discipline affecting the team.
"Unfortunately for these two players, I have to go the hard way and nobody can stop me."
But Shaiful hoped that Stange could understand his situation.
He said: "The local footballers are paid peanuts compared to top European players. We cannot depend on football to feed us after our playing days are over.
"I only have N Levels qualification and I hope to upgrade myself and be a safety supervisor in the construction business when I've finished my football career.
"Apart from my three-year-old daughter, I still have to support my two elderly parents and my younger brother. "But I still want to play for the national team."
Stange said he is willing to listen if the players have reasons that are valid by his book.
He explained: "I will make exceptions for those serving national service (NS) as it is the country's priority.
"Recently, Khairul Amri's wife delivered a baby and I gave him time off. Safuwan applied for marriage leave much earlier in the year and I have to respect that.
"The dates for international fixtures are holy dates on our calendar.
"I will not allow players to go off to celebrate things like birthdays or anniversaries."
Stange added that he allows players to further their studies provided they inform him in advance.
But Shaiful said he told the national coach about his course last month and explained that he would have to retake the entire module if he missed any lessons.
Despite the duo's disciplinary issues, Stange is willing to recall them if they can prove their dedication to the national team and "guarantee that such things will not happen again".
Shaiful, who has made 34 appearances for the country, scored his one and only goal for the Lions in Stange's first game in charge - a 2-0 friendly win in Myanmar.
The defender was also Singapore's first-choice left-back when the Lions won the ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup in Bangkok last year.
Nazrul's pace was a key element in the LionsXII's title victory in the Malaysian Super League this year. He has three caps for Singapore. The Lions will play Syria on Friday in neutral Teheran.
After last month's 2-1 win over the Syrians at the Jalan Besar Stadium, Singapore are lying third in the four-team Group A with three points.
There will be no replacements for Shaiful and Nazrul and Stange will travel to Teheran with a squad of 20.
He lamented: "We are the clear underdogs against Syria and it is going to be a difficult task.
"But we hope to spring a surprise."
Hassan Sunny (Warriors FC)
Izwan Mahbud (LionsXII)
Fadhil Salim (Hougang United)
Hafiz Abu Sujad (all LionsXII)
Afiq Yunos (Courts Young Lions)
Delwinder Singh (Geylang)
Zulfadli Zainal Abidin (Warriors)
Faris Ramli (all LionsXII)
Anumanthan Kumar (both Young Lions)
Shahdan Sulaiman (Tampines Rovers)
Shahfiq Ghani (both LionsXII)
Khairul Amri (Tampines)
Iqbal Hamid (both Young Lions)
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