For club, country and cash: Why Tampines should take the AFC Cup very seriously
Tampines Rovers coach V Sundramoorthy could not hide his delight after Tuesday night's 1-0 win over Selangor FA put them into the AFC Cup knockout stages – and with good reason. It means more than mere qualification.
The Stags should need little motivation to progress in the competition, given the carrots dangling in front of them
The AFC executive committee approved a significant increase in prize money last November to help broaden the appeal of the second-tier continental competition.
Clubs that progress into the last 16 are now awarded US$15,000 (S$20,400) each.
Given Tampines' apparent cash-flow issues, that is certainly something positive for ambitious club chairman Krishna Ramachandra to cling to.
The injection of funds will go some way in helping them balance the books and could assist them avoiding the unwanted solution of releasing star signings like Jermaine Pennant.
The Stags should need little motivation to progress further in the competition, given the carrots dangling in front of them.
Should they make it past Indian club Mohun Bagan and into the quarter-finals, they will stand to gain another US$25,000.
It balloons from there, with semi-finalists granted US$40,000, runners-up get US$500,000 and the eventual winner takes home a cool US$1 million.
Surely that's reason enough for them to take the remainder of the competition very seriously.
The AFC Cup also provides a bigger stage for Singaporean players to shine and hone their skills.
Players can only improve so much if they only compete in their domestic league. Only when they go abroad can they understand how tough international football can be – and discover if they are up to the challenge.
In the AFC Cup knockout stages, there are usually clubs from the traditionally strong West and Central Asian regions.
This is an invaluable opportunity for the Tampines players to prove their mettle and show how far they can go. Should they shine on the continental stage, who knows what pathways may open up?
Progressing in the AFC Cup can also be a blessing in disguise for the Singapore national team, given the large amount of Lions players in the Tampines squad.
With the Suzuki Cup looming at the end of the year, the players will benefit from playing against quality foreign opposition.
What better way than to have the likes of Izwan Mahbud, Shahdan Sulaiman and Fazrul Nawaz competing against the best of Asia, albeit in club colours?
On a bigger scale, the tournament also helps the S.League maintain or improve its ranking in Asia.
The domestic league is currently ranked 15th in this region according to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS).
It entitles Singapore to one AFC Champions League (ACL) playoff spot – with that club dropping back into the AFC Cup if it fails to qualify for the tournament proper – plus one direct AFC Cup spot.
However, due to the recent poor performance of Singaporean clubs in the AFC Cup, there was every chance the S.League could continue dropping in the rankings and eventually lose that ACL place.
While automatic qualification to the ACL remains a dream for S.League clubs, being in the running for Asia’s biggest club competition is at least a step in the right direction.
There is one other point to note – Tampines' progress into the knockout stages should give fellow Singaporean clubs belief.
For the previous three years, both of Singapore's AFC Cup representatives were sent packing in the group stage. Indeed no club had managed to make it into the last 16 since Home United did so back in 2012.
It appeared S.League clubs were only there to make up the numbers, with certain teams fielding second-string sides to preserve their legs for the domestic league.
Tampines' progression, however, should pave the way for other clubs to not just take the competition seriously, but also have the belief that they can achieve success.
Although his side failed to qualify for the last 16, Selangor coach Zainal Abidin Hassan commented prior to Tuesday’s match that Johor Darul Ta'zim's (JDT) surprise AFC Cup triumph last year had fuelled the ambitions of other Malaysian clubs to do the same.
It may be a tough task for Tampines to topple India's Mohun Bagan in Kolkata on May 24, but perhaps Sundram's men can take a leaf out of JDT's book.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo