NAYPYIDAW - For years, Hariss Harun was the rising star in Singapore football, playing alongside elder statesmen who admired his calm, control and charisma.
But, whether it was the national side or the LionsXII, he could never call it his team.
This SEA Games side, on the other hand, are very much built around the central midfielder. He is the undisputed general on the field and, in the dressing room, the voice of reason for disputes.
He is the tournament's biggest earner - his reported monthly salary of US$30,000 (S$37,500) at new club Johor Darul Takzim far outstrips what the Games' other footballers earn. In Vietnam, for instance, footballers take home an average of US$2,000 per month.
Tonight, the time has come for Numero Uno to live up to the hype and lead his ailing team-mates into battle against an in-form Vietnam.
Sunday's 1-1 draw against 10-man Laos shocked the Young Lions. Fans blasted the gold-medal hopefuls for wasteful finishing and conceding a sloppy equaliser in the dying minutes.
It was up to captain Hariss to stand up for his team-mates, particularly strikers Sahil Suhaimi and Shahfiq Ghani, who squandered several gilt-edged chances to close out the game.
"Whether it was nerves or over-excitement, the whole team - not just those two boys - lacked belief and composure," he said.
"I've got to make more incisive passes, our full-backs have to time their runs better, our wingers have to be more mobile."
Speaking to The Straits Times after a recovery session at the team hotel yesterday, Hariss - in his final SEA Games - revealed he had a pep-talk with the squad.
"I told them, 'We have the talent, we have the skill, just be more patient and get closer to goal,'" the 23-year-old said.
"In the first half, we pulled the trigger too early and, in the second, we didn't pull it at all." Continue in that vein and they will be slaughtered by the clinical Vietnamese who thrashed Brunei 7-0 in their first game.
Like Singapore at their best, tonight's opponents are a patient, probing outfit with full-backs who bomb forward to support a nippy frontline.
Through passes are often in the direction of striker Le Van Thang, who grabbed a brace on Sunday and thrives on playing off the last man's shoulder.
At the other end, 1.90m-tall custodian Tran Buu Ngoc cuts an imposing figure.
Again, Hariss has advice for his team-mates. "Because of their small size, Sahil and Shahfiq will lose out in the air if we play long balls. We have to beat Vietnam on the ground with one-twos and defence-splitting balls."
Coach Aide Iskandar, who will restore forward Faris Ramli to the line-up in his only change, agreed, saying: "We must play to our strengths, not pretend that we have a big guy up-front we can pump the ball to. "The most pleasing thing for me against Laos was we created chances and got into dangerous areas - let's keep that going."
With the spotlight initially on Causeway rivals Singapore and Malaysia in Group A, Vietnam had been under the radar in the lead-up to the Games.
But the thumping of Brunei has seen attention switch to the newly-installed tournament favourites, whose 20-man squad are made up of just two players with more than 10 international caps.
Comprised entirely of professionals from the country's top-tier V-League, the team are built to one day follow in the footsteps of local heroes Le Cong Vinh and Pham Thanh Luong, who led Vietnam to their first Asian Cup appearance in 2007 and lifted the AFF Suzuki Cup a year later.
Coach Hoang Van Phuc said: "We've been quiet for a reason - we do our talking on the field."
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