Stange: If we give our all, Afghanistan can't beat us

Singapore coach Bernd Stange was in a confident mood as he spoke to assembled media ahead of the crucial double-header against Afghanistan and Cambodia in the joint 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers, as Kenneth Tan reports...

It has been a rather good start to the campaign, with four points from three away games. Now there’s four successive home games in October and November starting with Afghanistan on Thursday, surely that should be a big morale boost for your team?

We all know how much you can do with home advantage and the fans behind you. I just want to give everyone a gentle reminder – we played eight games this year, six away and just two at home. It’s an imbalance and we had average results – won thrice, drawn twice and lost thrice. It’s so difficult playing away in Cambodia against 63,000 fans on an artificial pitch, but now we’re very happy to be back playing at our Sports Hub where we have a fantastic surface. Now we have to deliver at home and we need to dominate the game.

No one should underestimate Afghanistan; I know they have a couple of players from (German fifth-tier club) Viktoria Aschaffenburg and they’re physically stronger than our players. But we are more intelligent and better organised – that’s why I’m confident that if we bring everything to this game, they don’t stand a chance of beating us. If we give our all in our bodies, our muscles or even our brains, there’ll only be one winner which is us.

Safuwan Baharudin and Hariss Harun will be suspended against Afghanistan. Do you think the team can cope with their absences?

This team is growing with some good leaders and youngsters who are not afraid to make mistakes

Even before we kicked a ball against Cambodia in our first match, we mentioned that this qualification will be a marathon. We’ll have a lot of problems along the way if we want to succeed – injuries, suspensions or unexpected things like Safuwan’s mother-in-law’s death during our stay in Japan and the player had to leave the team.

Everyone is aware that if you want to succeed, you have to cover such problems; every player knows we will be judged on that. If we cannot cover such problems, then we don’t deserve to qualify. We’re still working for direct qualification to the Asian Cup which is a very difficult task. I will not speak about finishing top, but second position is a great chance for us to qualify for this tournament for the first time in the country’s history. It’s in our hands now so we have to overcome this.

You handed Christopher van Huizen his first-ever national team call-up. What is it about the LionsXII winger that impressed you enough to make this decision?

A coach has dreams and ideas to play football. Mine is to keep possession and dominate the game, especially when you’re playing at home, instead of sitting back and waiting for the opposition to come. For such matches we are choosing special players with skills. From what I saw from Chris in training sessions and matches, he’s exactly what we’re looking for.

He can take corner kicks with both feet, tell me any other players who can deliver such things? Also he can put in good crosses and he’s a dangerous player who can score goals, that’s why he’s here.

Stange is confident his side can overcome Safuwan's suspension

Two years ago, I was very unhappy when I saw a FirstXI (a local football reality TV series) game. I spotted this player called Van Huizen but I made a cross because I thought he was a foreigner! I followed this guy ever since and now he’s sitting with us in a media conference for the national team, what an effort.

It may take around six to seven months to fit into the team, but he will grow alongside the likes of Fazrul (Nawaz), Baihakki (Khaizan), Hariss and Safuwan. As coaches, it’s important to build the future of such a player and we have to believe in him.

What do you reckon are the greatest strengths of this crop of Lions?

I think that the first thing is that we’re a team. You can only achieve something in a team if the players understand each other. The majority are LionsXII players, but for those who come from the S.League or other teams, they fit into the team very well and we’re all together. As I mentioned, every coach has a vision how to play football and I choose players who have special characters and can fit into the team.

Secondly we have a balanced team with an average age of 25 years, which could help the team for the 2019 Asian Cup. I’m not looking any further because we have a lot to do in youth development where the results are not so good. We’re not looking to Japan or Korea or Australia now, but we’re looking more to Thailand who are running away from us in this aspect.

There’s so much criticism after we failed in the Suzuki Cup last year, but now I can say “well done, Bernd” because I continued to follow in my way with these youngsters. This team is growing with some good leaders and youngsters who are not afraid to make mistakes.

Has the haze situation in Singapore right now hampered your preparations in any way?

Yes, we couldn’t do what we wanted in training; we have to slow down and control everything – a little stretching, passing and a small-sided game, that’s about it. The health of the players are more important.

That said, I’m sure Afghanistan has issues of their own as well. They will have to cope with jet lag and their players are mostly Europe-based, that’s even more difficult for them. That’s why we don’t make a big issue of this haze problem and there’s other more important issues like playing as a team and giving our all.

Are you hoping for a good crowd on Thursday night, given that it is the first game back at the Sports Hub for the Lions since the Suzuki Cup?

I think we did our job after getting four points from three away matches, but now we need to attract our fans again and get them to give us their support. So far the ticket sales are not so good, but I think most of the fans love our team which is important. What we coaches and players can do is to promise to fight from the first to the last minute, so hopefully the fans can come down and be our 12th man. We don’t want a crowd of just 5,000 to 6,000.

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