The highs of the 1994 Malaysia Cup triumph seemed an age away for the Lions as they departed for Vietnam in August of 1998.
Singapore's National Team embarked on the second edition of the ASEAN Football Federation Tiger Cup tournament with little fanfare, two years after hosting the inaugural tournment—won by Thailand.
As senior members of the team, it was our job to help [Ahmad Latiff] to be able to make such an impact and push him to go forward.
Veteran stalwarts Fandi Ahmad, Malek Awab and David Lee Soon Chye had retired, the former the last to bow out following a fruitless Southeast Asian Games football tournament where the Lions returned from Jakarta empty-handed.
The years after that heady 1994 season had not been kind to then-national head coach Barry Whitbread. The Englishman had to endure a torrent of criticism from the public following his teams’ insipid showings in recent tournaments, including crashing out of the 1996 Tiger Cup group stages as hosts.
But amidst the negativity surrounding the local game and the national team, he was silently crafting a side, moulded with players from varying backgrounds, talents and experience, into a unit that would finally break their international duck at the regional level. Pivotal to his plans was the first post-Fandi tournament strike pairing of Rafi Ali and Ahmad Latiff Kamaruddin.
The duo were as different as night and day in terms of their respective styles of play on the pitch and their personalities off it. Already a senior in the squad, the 25-year-old Rafi had spent much of his international playing career in attacking midfield, crafting defence-splitting passes and dictating play in the final third.
Latiff was all of 19-years-old, a precocious talent and the baby of the 20-man squad. Having made his name at national level with his exploits in the 1995 Lion City Cup, he made his senior breakthrough at Geylang United in 1997 and earned his first national call-up at the start of the year.
“A lot of senior players left after the Malaysia Cup and me, Nazri (Nasir) and Kadir (Yahaya) were among the most senior players remaining from that team,” Rafi recalls.
“There were young players coming through like Rezal (Hassan) and Aide (Iskandar), as well as those from the league like Mat Noor (Noor Ali) and S. Subramani.
“Leading up to the tournament, we tried several systems and there was one that we felt good about and was used by Barry during the tournament.
“When we were in Vietnam (before the tournament started), Barry came to me and said, ‘That system works, but it’s our first game and we had to be sure. Can you play up front with Latiff?’ I said okay and we tried the pairing.”
With Latiff’s natural pace and penchant for the moment of glory in his youthful zest, it was left to Rafi to study his new partner and work out a way to get the best out of the young forward.
“I knew what Latiff was capable of, what I was doing was playing off him,” the current Tampines Rovers coach explained. “I knew he liked to run and come deep, thus I become the targetman where I held the ball [and waited for him to come for the layoff].
“That’s how we learnt. As senior players, we all wanted to help him to look good. I studied him and looked at his strengths and weaknesses. I learnt to hold up play and create space for him.
“We discussed and our understanding was just instant. He was raring to go, he wanted to make a statement. As seniors, it was our job to help him to be able to make such an impact and push him to go forward.”