Why Singapore's Asian Games adventure bodes well for the future
It was a case of so near, yet so far for Singapore as they bowed out of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
Three times Singapore have had to appeal just to get into the competition in the last three editions, and three times they were given a last minute reprieve from the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).
And yet Aide Iskandar's boys almost managed the unthinkeable, but for a late Tajikistan goal against Oman to effectively eliminate the brave Young Lions.
Despite the late notice, less-than-encouraging results in the warm-up games (2-1 against Papua New Guinea and 0-0 against Hong Kong) and the unavailability of important players like Hariss Harun and Shahdan Sulaiman plus the late withdrawal of head coach Bernd Stange, the team produced its best result since Singapore reached the semi finals in 1966.
To put this result into context, we consider the last two teams Singapore sent in 2006 and 2010 respectively.
Ashrin Shariff scored Singapore's only goal at Qatar '06 as they were eliminated in the preliminary stages, while Eugene Luo did likewise four years later in China as the team finished bottom of its group.
This time round, Singapore's record reads W1, D1, L1 with Shahfiq Ghani, Sahil Suhaimi, Faris Ramli and Safuwan Baharudin contributing five goals.
It was the closest that this country has gotten to the knockout stages since this was changed to a U23 tournament in 2002.
The opening 0-1 defeat to Tajikistan seemed a sign of things to come, with the team looking toothless in attack and the defence switching off at a vital moment to concede the only goal of the game.
Oman, smarting after a surprise loss to Palestine, loomed as a formidable foe in the next game and indeed, opened the scoring after only 11 minutes.
But before heads could drop, Sahil capitalised on a defensive blunder and was off to the races, poking the ball underneath the Omani goalkeeper for a quickfire reply.
The goal seemed to fire the Lions up, and despite conceding twice more, they came roaring back to claim a share of the points with Faris' spectacular strike and Safuwan's late header.
This team had character, and not just from the usual suspects. Hassan Sunny was tremendous in goal as one of the overage players, but the young guns were chipping in and making significant contributions as they carried their form over to the final game against unbeaten Palestine.
Shahfiq Ghani, who had been struggling for form for most of this season, found a groove of his own right from kick off, finding the target with two unerringly accurate free kicks to give Singapore a lead they never conceded.
While Tajikistan's late winner ultimately meant the Young Lions were heading home empty handed, there are several reasons to be optimistic about this whole venture.
Shahfiq's brace against Palestine meant that three out of Singapore U23's four first-team attackers had netted in Incheon (right winger Nazrul Nazari being the only exception).
For a side that was struggling to score against PNG and Hong Kong, this can only bring good tidings for Aide and Stange.
Besides being very much in contention for the Suzuki Cup in November, the three hotshots are also young enough to make Singapore's SEA Games squad next year.
The midfield void left by Hariss' and Shahdan's unavailibility instead gave Aide a chance to blood several youngsters. With Zulfahmi Arifin also limping off in the opening fixture, it was down to the inexperienced central midfield pairing of M.Anumanthan and Amirul Adli.
Instead of being overrun in the middle of the park, the Courts Young Lions duo didn't look out of place against Oman and Palestine, and will have been the better for those two outings against quality Asian opposition.
Building for the future
The SNOC's position has always been that the team has to be good enough to be sent to a tournament, rather than just going to make up the numbers and gain experience.
While previous teams found the going tough, this occasion might aid the argument that playing at a higher level is not necessarily detrimental to Singapore's footballing future.
"The standard was really high, they were so much stronger and it was really fast," recalls Siddiq Durimi, who made his international debut for Singapore at the 2010 Asian Games against India.
"But I think we must play big teams who have the pace and fitness, before we can be untouchable in Southeast Asia."
With Stange publicly calling for more options ahead of Singapore's Suzuki Cup defence, Aide's blooding of youngsters against quality opposition bodes well.
Singapore might not have made history in South Korea this time round, but it remains another step up on the ladder of progression.
Photo: Football Association of Singapore