Football: Lions handed Samurai dilemma

Singapore were handed a mouth-watering match-up against Asian football giants Japan, after being drawn together yesterday in Group E of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers.

Yet, the highly-anticipated home clash with the four-time Asian champions, dubbed the Blue Samurai, is already posing a dilemma for the Singapore football authorities. The match is scheduled on June 16, the same night as the closing ceremony of the SEA Games, which Singapore is hosting.

It means the 55,000-seat National Stadium will be unavailable to host the game, since it is the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the SEA Games.

Fans may have to be content with cramming into the 8,000-capacity Jalan Besar Stadium to witness the likes of Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan attacker Keisuke Honda strut their talents.

The Japan team have always been popular with local fans. When they played Brazil in a friendly match here last October, 51,577 fans were at the National Stadium for Brazil's 4-0 win.

In 2004, Japan beat Singapore 2-1 at Jalan Besar in a sold-out 2006 World Cup Asian qualifier match, with the vast majority of the spectators being Japan supporters. Back then, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) arranged for two giant screens to be erected at the open field next to the stadium for fans who could not secure tickets.

Said FAS spokesman Gerard Wong: "We are exploring all possible options for the June 16 game against Japan, including changing it to an away fixture. However, this is subject to approval from FIFA, the AFC and the Japan FA.

"We will provide an update in due course." The quest to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia will also see Singapore do battle against Cambodia, Syria and Afghanistan.

While the availability of the National Stadium is in doubt, Singapore national coach Bernd Stange may also have to do without a few key players for the two opening matches - against Cambodia (away) and Japan - as the likes of Faris Ramli, Shakir Hamzah, Shahfiq Ghani and Al-Qaasimy Rahman are likely to be on Games duty with the Under-23 team.

Stange, however, urged other players to step up.

"The SEA Games is an important event with Singapore as hosts and I have always managed with what I have," he said. "We will miss the players who will be involved with the U-23 side, but this is now an opportunity for other players to come in. The door is wide open for players, especially from the S-League."

A total of 40 teams from the AFC were split into eight groups of five for the World Cup draw, with the eight group winners and four best second-placed teams progressing to the final round of the World Cup qualifiers, as well as the 2019 Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates.

The next 16 highest-placed teams will advance to the third round of the Asian Cup qualifiers.

Stange called for faith from his players, saying: "We have to believe. If we do not believe, then there is no need to play. Our goal is to qualify."

This article was first published on April 15, 2015.
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