AFF SUZUKI CUP
Fans are in store for some tasty ties when the Suzuki Cup comes to town in November.
The Lions will co-host the group stage along with Vietnam, and with Malaysia, Thailand and possibly Myanmar drawn in Group B, it is a tantalising prospect for Singapore fans, especially with the home games being played at the new National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub at Kallang.
While defending champions Singapore are record four-time winners of the tournament - ASEAN's biggest and most prestigious international football competition - Thailand have featured in six finals, lifting the trophy on three occasions. But former Singapore international Rafi Ali knows which match will excite fans here the most.
"That Malaysia game will be a big one, even bigger than Thailand, simply because of the intense rivalry," said the former Lions midfielder.
"No matter how you prepare tactics before facing Malaysia, when you step out onto the pitch against them, it will be about heart - and that will give you goosebumps."
It is a fact not lost on Singapore coach Bernd Stange.
The 66-year-old German (above) said: "I have been in Singapore only for a short time, but I understand the cultural significance of drawing Malaysia in the same group.
"The match against them will be very special because the two countries share a unique bond and a traditional footballing rivalry that is intense and very passionate.
"We have an interesting footballing history with Thailand as we played them in the previous final and there were many exciting games between the two nations in the past. I am sure the players will be extra motivated for both games."
With Radojko Avramovic at the helm, Singapore won three ASEAN crowns, beating Indonesia in 2004 and pipping Thailand in two finals, in 2007 and 2012.
The Serb became the most successful coach in Singapore's history - and in the history of the tournament - after the last win.
He decided not to renew his contract when it ended in 2012 and is now the coach of Myanmar.
Baihakki, who was blooded by Avramovic and became one of his mainstays, hopes Myanmar will be in the same group.
"It will be more exciting as we will have familiar faces all around, and will know what to do against each other," said the central defender.
"I believe if we can things right on the day and get our plans going, we should be all right."
Malaysia's coach will also be a familiar figure, with former international Dollah Salleh set for his first big assignment since his recent appointment.
One of Rafi's worst footballing memories came in a match against bitter rivals Malaysia, and he vividly remembers the 4-0 loss in the opening fixture of the 2002 Tiger Cup.
There were 45,000 witnesses of the mauling at the old National Stadium, and many tossed away the free Lions' T-shirts that were given out at the match.
"We were hammered and were just shell-shocked," said Rafi.
"But I hope that the current team - a talented team with a lot to offer - play with no fear and give everything they have for the flag on their chest.
"In the end, it will come down to who wants it more."
Dollah Salleh is a Malaysian legend and, with him in charge of the national team, they will have an extra edge.
The players have a lot of respect for him and they will want to do well in his first big tournament in charge. - Former Singapore star Rafi Ali
This article was first published on August 6, 2014.
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