Suzuki Cup: Of pressure and familiar foes

Friendly football match between Singapore and Cambodia ahead of the AFF Suzuki Cup at Yishun Stadium on 17 Nov 2014.

South-east Asia's biggest and most prestigious football competition is about to explode into action, and while Group A action in Hanoi will be tough and exciting, there will be huge interest here as Singapore prepares to host Group B of the ASEAN Football Federation Suzuki Cup.

After all the fuss over the state of the pitch, organisers will hope the Lions' opener against favourites Thailand at the new 55,000-capacity National Stadium at the Sports Hub will show off quality football that excites fans.

This will be the fourth time the Republic will host the biennial tournament.

While the Lions' record in the group stages in 1996, 2002 and 2007 - four wins, four draws and only two losses -paints a positive picture of solid performances at home, the reality is quite different.

Singapore has survived the group stages only once at home, going on to lift the ASEAN title in 2007.

This year, Bernd Stange's men have been drawn in a group that features the only teams that have beaten the Lions when Singapore has hosted the biennial tourney - Malaysia and Thailand.

There is also the added danger of facing former coach Radojko Avrmaovic and his Myanmar side.

Rafi Ali and Nazri Nasir vividly remember the 4-0 thumping at the hands of Causeway rivals Malaysia in 2002, one of the lowest points in the history of the Lions.

They are firm in the belief that the Lions' class of 2014 will survive a tough Group B and make the semi-finals, but they also say the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd cannot be underestimated.

"That loss to Malaysia came in our first game in 2002, and it was a total mess, something I'd rather forget," Rafi told The New Paper yesterday.

"Playing at home in front of your own fans is always a pleasure, but on the flip side it comes with a lot of pressure - too much sometimes - and that's probably what happened then."

Singapore went on to beat Laos 2-1, but failed to qualify after a 1-1 draw with Thailand in their final group fixture.

Nazri remembers the weight of expectation leading up to that Malaysia match that became, in his head, a do or die fixture that turned into a national disaster.

"I imagine it's the same against Thailand this Sunday. A good start is especially important in a tournament like this, and with Thailand showing that they are the favourites, there could be even more pressure on our players," said former Singapore captain Nazri.

"Even if we don't do well against Thailand, it doesn't mean that it's over, but I believe Singapore will qualify, along with Thailand."

It is a sentiment shared by 41-year-old Rafi.

"In the old days, teams were scared just hearing the names of the Thai players - there were some great players -and because of that, there was a bit of a mental block when we played them," said the Tampines Rovers coach.

"But now its different, we have beaten Thailand, even (in a match played) in Thailand."

In an Asian Cup qualifier in 2009, Aleksandar Duric scored in a 1-0 victory over Thailand in Bangkok, the first time in 34 years that Singapore beat the Thais on their own turf.

And both former Lions believe there is a good blend of youth and experience in the team, with experience running through the backbone of the side.

"From Hassan Sunny to Baihakki Khaizan, Hariss Harun and captain Shahril Ishak and Khairul Amri, there are players who know what the Suzuki Cup is about, and have won it before - the question is can they rise to the occasion," said Rafi.

While Nazri was concerned over the fact that the new National Stadium isn't exactly a home for the Lions yet - Singapore's players have been involved in only one match there so far, as a Singapore Selection in a 5-0 loss to Juventus in August - he remained confident in Stange's charges.

"This close to the start of the tournament, it's all about togetherness and team spirit, and I'm certain that Shahril and the senior players have worked on that," said Nazri.

"Even in such a tough group, I'm very confident about these boys."

This article was first published on Nov 20, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.