The HBT Debacle: What went wrong for Singapore Cubs?

Singapore's U23 team have just arrived in Incheon dreaming of Asian Games glory, but it wasn't all too long ago that the U21s crashed and burned in Brunei. Gary Koh looks into what went wrong at the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy in August.

Expectations were not high for Singapore in the recently-concluded Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy (HBT), an invitational regional tournament for the national Under-21 sides held in Brunei Darussalam. After all, the Cubs had not progressed past the first hurdle in the previous four editions.

Five matches later, the Singapore Under-21s have indeed returned home again empty-handed after crashing out of the group stage once more. However, what caused a furore back home was the manner at which the Cubs, led by four-time S.League title-winning head coach Richard Bok Kok Chuan, capitulated at various grounds in the oil-rich sultanate.

In what was their worst showing at the biennial tournament, they lost all their matches – 0-4 to Vietnam, 1-3 to Cambodia, 1-3 to Brunei, 0-3 to Malaysia and 0-6 to Indonesia. To rub salt into the wound, the Cubs also netted the fewest goals (2) among all 11 participating Southeast Asian nations and conceded the most (19) in the entire campaign. Clearly something was amiss in Bok’s first tournament as an international coach.

To find out what caused the Cubs’ campaign to go wrong during their two-week stay in the Sultanate, FourFourTwo spoke to four local sports journalists – two each from English language dailies the Brunei Times (Syarif Rasani and Yee Chun Leong) and the Borneo Bulletin (James Kon and Fadhil Yunus) – to dissect their poor HBT tournament.

The Singapore Cubs were ill-prepared for the HBT

From the onset, it appeared that the Cubs’ fate in the tournament was already sealed even before a ball had been kicked in anger. Late withdrawals due to academic and national service commitments saw several fresh faces drafted in on the eve of the tournament.

That effectively undid all their build-up work when they prevailed 2-0 against their Philippines counterparts a week before departure and also the stalemate against a depleted LionsXII in one of their two sparring matches.

Even prior to the changes, Bok had only been working with the Under-21s, the majority of whom come from the Singapore Under-19s who play in the feeder Prime League in the local professional club scene, for two weeks.

In contrast, their opponents had been together for at least half a year. Malaysia have their Harimau Muda B side currently competing in Singapore’s S.League while the hosts had been preparing for their title defence since the start of the year.

Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam were also using this tournament as part of the final preparations for their respective Under-19 teams ahead of their Asian age-group finals in Myanmar in October.

For Borneo Bulletin’s Kon, there was no hiding how structurally disorganised the team were and he felt it was undoubtedly the worst international side at any age-group level that Singapore had fielded from previous tournaments in his 11-year career.

“They could have sent a better team,” he remarked. “They were not really prepared for the tournament and their level of competitiveness was low.

“We were shocked at how poorly Singapore played in Brunei, especially when they were previously competitive in other regional football tournaments.”

Brunei Times’ Syarif added that had Bok been given more time to prepare the squad (the former Warriors FC coach was only appointed to lead the Prime League outfit in June this year), the outcome would have been different against more well-prepared opponents.

“After being told (of) their history of only being together as a team for six months, you could see that they weren’t fully there yet as a unit,” he told FFT.

“But they did pretty well as they went up against some stiff competition that have been together for years.”

Main Image: Pg. Khairil Sapyri Hassan