Wanted: Fit and disciplined Lions

Wanted: Fit and disciplined Lions
Footballers , from left : Irfan Fandi ; V. Sundramoorthy ; Malek Awab and Seak Poh Leong discuss the evolution of their sport with ST's Sanjay Nair.

SINGAPORE - Four decades have passed, but Seak Poh Leong clearly remembers the day he tried to outsmart national football coach Mike Walker - and failed miserably.

The then-Lions captain, along with team-mate Mohamad Noh, had arranged job interviews (the players were all amateurs) to coincide with the Englishman's gruelling fitness session in the build-up to the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games.

They returned at lunchtime, just as their team-mates staggered back from training to their temporary accommodation in Toa Payoh.

But the only item on the menu for the duo was a personal workout with Walker, who dished out his favourite drill - running 20 laps of 400m, under 60sec each time, with minimal break in between.

"It was noon, scorching heat, but Mike said if we didn't do it, we wouldn't be back in the team," recalled Seak, still sprightly and with little sign of greying hair at 62.

As with most regional teams at the time, the mantra was "fitness first, egos second", a benchmark set by the 1973 Games gold medallists Burma.

Sitting next to Seak as he recounts the story, national Under-23 striker Irfan Fandi chuckles wryly at the prospect of a run under the sun.

"I'd probably fail badly - I have a problem running laps," said the 17-year-old son of former Singapore hotshot Fandi Ahmad.

"Most of our fitness work is on the field, and involves a ball. The game has changed so much now."

Yes, it has.

But one cannot help but wonder how the current crop would cope with legendary Singapore coach Choo Seng Quee's training regimen, which harnessed 1960s talents like Majid Ariff and Lee Kok Seng.

Perhaps 1.87m-tall Irfan would boost his aerial prowess heading leather footballs soaked in water.

Or would Young Lions captain Al-Qaasimy Rahman be even more vocal if he had to lead his squad in singing the National Anthem at the top of their lungs at sunrise?

Today, a mini-army of sports scientists, nutritionists and physiotherapists surround Irfan and his team-mates.

Instead of stop-watches and weathered boots that require the studs to be screwed on, they don lightweight shoes and special vests that track heart rates, distance covered and average speeds during training.

The times are a-changing. As Seak put it succinctly, football in the 1970s was about "discipline, long balls, and running... plenty of running."

And, of course, the Kallang Roar.

The cauldron of noise at the old National Stadium was fuelled by an iconic Lions line-up.

In between bites of curry puff and crackers, the fans' appetite was sated by "gelek" dribbler Dollah Kassim, acrobatic forward Quah Kim Song and "banana kick" specialist S. Rajagopal - all heroes of the 1977 Malaysia Cup-winning outfit.

They adopted an attacking 4-2-4 formation, pressing high up the field to win the ball back and pounce on retreating backlines. Sometimes, they left gaps in their own half.

"The crowd didn't mind us losing some matches as long as we stuck to attacking football," said Seak, the Lions' youngest captain at 20. "I remember fans being happier with a 4-3 defeat than a 0-0 draw."

As the game got faster, tactics evolved to place greater emphasis on midfield superiority.

With a nascent attack of Fandi and V. Sundramoorthy spearheading a 4-4-2 set-up, Singapore reached the SEA Games final in 1983, 1985 and 1989.

Twice, they fell to Thailand, led by wondrous striker Piyapong Pue-on, and once to Malaysia, boasting hit-men Mokhtar Dahari and Dollah Salleh.

"Those were some of the most intense games I've ever played," said Sundram, 49, whose full-bodied mullet has been replaced by a short haircut with greying sideburns.

"Even as forwards, we had to drop back to pack the midfield because the more players you had there, you generally controlled the game better."

Try as they might, the Lions could never get their paws on the SEA Games gold, making their last appearance in the final in 1989.

Still, whether it was two in midfield during Seak's days or a pack of four when Sundram dazzled, there was one constant.

The Singapore team those days never backed down from a fight.

Following in the bootsteps of Syed Mutalib and Robert Sim in the 1970s, the next decade witnessed more unforgiving tacklers like Borhan Abu Samah, Sudiat Dali and Malek Awab.

"Something that I think that's missing among our footballers today is the pride and passion," said midfielder Malek, 54, who featured at seven different SEA Games.

"When I put on the national jersey, I was willing to bleed and break bones for my country."

He was first to tackles, but the ever-affable Malek was nearly an hour late for this interview at the Singapore Sports School, earning a gentle rebuke from former team-mate Sundram.

In their prime in the 1990s, the duo featured in matches worthy of repeat YouTube viewings.

Few will forget Fandi's diving header that sank Kedah, sparked by two ferocious tackles from Malek. Or Sundram's overhead kick against Brunei, where the ball was played out from the back.

"We played as a team - everyone pressed to win back the ball, and everyone was involved in our build-up play," Sundram noted.

Nodding in approval, Seak added: "Unless you have Messi or Ronaldo, you can't just depend on one or two players to win matches." Today, intricate 4-2-3-1 and 3-3-3-1 formations are in vogue.

Full-backs are expected to cross like wingers, goalkeepers must have two good feet, and centre-forwards should be both mobile and powerful.

With Thailand's re-emergence as regional kingpins, Singapore - once again - find themselves playing catch-up, not helped by a stagnating youth pipeline.

Only three of the eight local S-League clubs run youth programmes, while the National Football Academy has been criticised for its limited outreach and inconsistent curriculum.

Seak, formerly the director of coaching at the Football Association of Singapore, wants to see more kids playing the game regularly, and at a younger age.

He said: "This is, by far, the country's most popular sport.

"We religiously follow European leagues, yet can't get our very own game right.

"Right now, for the most part, we don't have the right people or the right programmes to run football."

Finding more uncompromising coaches in the vein of Walker would be a good place to start.

nsanjay@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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