Kenneth Tan caught up with Singapore defender Baihakki Khaizan, who recalls playing against Japan back in 2004 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old…
The date was 31 March 2004 and Singapore were hosting Japan in a 2006 World Cup qualifier at Jalan Besar Stadium.
A young Baihakki, who made his international debut just a year earlier against Hong Kong, was tasked with partnering captain Aide Iskandar at the back as then-coach Raddy Avramovic looked to shut out the formidable Samurai Blue.
In the Japan starting 11 were Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto, Shunsuke Nakamura, Shinji Ono and Naohiro Takahara, all-too-familiar names that could strike fear into many an opposition defender.
However ‘Bai’ and the Lions put up a creditable display, losing just 2-1 in front of 6,000 fans.
Indra Sahdan’s 64th-minute equaliser appeared to have earned them a point after Takahara opened the scoring in the first half, but it was the Japanese who returned home with all three points after substitute Toshiya Fujita netted a winner eight minutes from time.
It was a match which Bai still recalls vividly.
“Back then, there were more famous players in the Japanese team like Inamoto and Nakata,” he chuckled. “It’s a funny feeling when you see these players.
“A week earlier, I was watching Inamoto playing in the English Premier League and the following week, I’m seeing them at the same hotel. It was really shocking that we managed to limit them to just a 2-1 win here and a 1-0 win there in Saitama thereafter.
“I’m really grateful to be part of the game and that’s part and parcel of a national team career. It was a great experience and I want to keep playing these kind of games.
“Only by playing these big teams can push us to another level and that’s what we players truly want.”
Fast forward 11 years and Baihakki, now 31 years old, is set to play a key part in another Singapore-Japan fixture in the Lion City.
The game has taken on extra significance given the qualifying equation in Group E.
Singapore are currently placed third with 10 points from five matches, level with their latest visitors who have played a game less. Syria currently top the five-team group with 12 points from five matches.
Only the eight group winners and the four best group runners-up will advance to the third round of World Cup qualification as well as qualify straight into the 2019 Asian Cup finals in United Arab Emirates.
Japan have brought a star-studded cast which includes household names like Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa, AC Milan forward Keisuke Honda and Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki, but Baihakki is determined to enjoy the game instead of letting the pressure of facing these multi-millionaire stars get to him.
“We respect them, but we cannot afford to be afraid of them,” the Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) II defender emphasised.
“Everyone knows the level of quality that Japan have and how superior they are. But if we give them too much respect, we will get thrashed and we don’t want that to happen.
“We’ve been solid as a team and I hope we maintain that. We have to approach the game with the right frame of mind – just go out there and enjoy because the pressure’s on them.
“Also I think the gap between both teams are getting closer now. We’re level in the sense that we’re all trying to implement new tactical styles in modern football.”
The Lions can take plenty of confidence from the 0-0 draw in Saitama back in June, which shocked almost the whole Asian football fraternity. Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud stole the headlines that night with his 18-save feat, but Baihakki's defensive contributions also played a big part in the surprise result.
That game was all the more significant for the lanky centre-back, who had to prove his credentials after Zulfahmi Arifin and Madhu Mohana did a sterling job at the back in the opening 4-0 win against Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
Taking Zulfahmi's spot and pairing up with Madhu, Baihakki cleaned up almost every ball that came his way and kept the likes of Okazaki and Honda quiet. He has not looked back since, starting the last five international games alongside Madhu in the heart of defence.
“To me, that game was the defining moment of this whole qualifying campaign,” he said. “Getting a very positive result really brought us to another level and it really shocked the football news here.
“But we don’t want to do it just once; we want to continue the momentum and pick up points. Now we’re level on points with them, so let’s give them a run for their money again.”
After a disastrous AFF Suzuki Cup campaign in 2014, Baihakki is glad that the Lions have turned things around this year and are seemingly back on the right track under the stewardship of Bernd Stange.
“That was the transition period and we were trying to suit ourselves to a new style of play,” the defender explained.
“You can see when Bernd took over, there was a complete change of team from the one under Raddy and he was trying to implement this one- or two-touch football. To be honest, we struggled to learn the exact components and play according to what he wanted in his first year.
“But suddenly now, you can see the fruits are growing; players are more matured, more daring to go forward and now we can see surprises like Safuwan (Baharudin) earning a stint with Melbourne City. Hopefully we can see more of these things and I do believe our boys can progress further to play in the top leagues in Asia.
“It’s delightful to see us doing well this year and hopefully we can end it nicely with good results against Japan and Syria.”
Baihakki has enjoyed a storied career with the national team since making that debut against Hong Kong in August 2003, winning three ASEAN titles and accumulating 120 caps. However the veteran is not ready to call it a day just yet.
“It’s really up to them (the youngsters) how much they want to pull me out!” he laughed.
“As long as the coach thinks I can fit into the team, I will keep on competing in a healthy way and give whatever I can – be it 120 caps, 150 caps or even 200 caps.
“At club level, I’m left with a three-year contract at JDT II and it’s been exciting to be part of the whole organisation. It’s not drawing a big salary and just relaxing (as some may have thought). It’s about committing yourself to produce results both on and off the pitch as well as helping the club to go to another level.”
With the likes of Amirul Adli, Safirul Sulaiman and Taufik Suparno just beginning to make the breakthrough at national team level, Baihakki is keen to warn them that the only way to stay at the top is to put in hard work, year-in, year-out.
“These boys have been good and it’s all about showing true character now,” he said. “They have to ask themselves how long they want to be in the national team. Some of them can be called up today, but gone tomorrow.
“At the end of the day, everything comes in a package – your talent, your discipline, your attitude and how you sustain your fitness. I believe these boys have what it takes to be there for the next 10 years, but they will have to prove it.”