Welcome to Lions' new fortress

The Singapore Sports Hub on 6 May 2014, which is nearing completion.

The terraces were empty. The only noise in the vast arena was that of workers putting the finishing touches as the National Stadium prepares for Singapore's ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup opener tomorrow.

Yet the sight of an empty stadium was enough to get Lions' captain Shahril Ishak emotional as the defending champions took their first steps on the pitch ahead of the showdown against Thailand.

Gesturing upwards at the majestic dome, he told The Straits Times: "This needs to be our fortress. We must make opponents dread the sight of this place."

It was a brief but clear warning from the usually reticent forward.

In other words, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia can expect no warm welcome when they face the hosts in Group B of the AFF Cup over the next week.

The hub's poor playing surface - where the field has been off limits since mid-October - has meant that the Lions have yet to play a match or train on the field.

So it was little surprise that the pitch was under much scrutiny yesterday.

Youngsters like Gabriel Quak, Khairul Nizam and Sahil Suhaimi posed for a series of selfies, while veterans Baihakki Khaizan and Shaiful Esah bent down to inspect the much-maligned rye grass.

Forward Shahfiq Ghani paid close attention to the edge of the penalty box, where his dipping free kicks could do damage.

"It is more stable and less sandy than during the Juventus game," said goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, referring to the Italian champions' August clash against a Singapore selection.

Indeed, the field looked in decent shape, though Sports Hub officials warned of possible wear and tear as the tournament progresses. The first test will come today when Singapore and Thailand hold their first training sessions at the stadium this evening.

Khairul Amri, for one, cannot wait to put on his boots as the Lions aim for glory on home soil.

Pointing to the red-and-white decked stands, the three-time ASEAN champion said: "I can't put in words what it means to play in front of your own people and to hear the Kallang Roar.

"I've not felt like this in 10 years, when I made my debut at the old National Stadium."

Singapore fans will be hoping Amri gets on the scoresheet against the Thais, who are riding high after a surprise fourth-place finish at the Asian Games' Under- 23 event last month.

Coach Kiatisuk Senamuang had a cheeky dig at the Lions' previous four AFF triumphs, noting that Singapore fielded foreign-born players on three of those occasions.

The Lions will be without foreign stars for the first time since the 2000 tournament.

"If Singapore wins the title now, they can be proud because they did it without foreigners - I don't know how proud you can be of the past championships," said the three-time AFF winner.

Singapore coach Bernd Stange looks to have settled on his 22-man squad, with defenders Madhu Mohana and Faritz Hameed - missing from the tour party - expected to get cut.

It was left to a steely-eyed Shahril to sum up the mood in the camp. The three-time AFF Cup winner said: "The boys can't wait to get started.

"There has been so much talk - let's just play some football and may the best team win."


For tickets, go to www.sportshubtix.sg, its hotline, Singapore Indoor Stadium box office and all SingPost outlets.

This article was first published on November 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.