Roaring back to Kallang

With the new Sports Hub due to be completed in the next few months, FourFourTwo got a unique opportunity to check it out and chat with some of the players who will soon be gracing the field of play when Singapore play host to Malaysia on August 8.

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It is quite a sight, with the cranes towering overhead and construction going on all around us. The massive half-built dome of the new National Stadium can be seen from miles away and it is in its shadow where we find three Singapore national team players who will likely be among the first footballers to step foot on its hallowed turf in August.

The dignitaries and assorted media have long since drifted away to the cooler, airconditioned confines of the press venue nearby but Isa Halim, Gabriel Quak and Safuwan Baharudin are made of sterner stuff. The three are currently playing their trade for the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League, but are doing their part in promoting the new Sports Hub together with a host of other sports stars on this day.

It never ceases to amaze how open these footballers are in person, how much more human they seem face to face compared to the glossy photos that stare at you out of magazines and TV screens. Isa who can switch between cool and engaging in the blink of an eye; Gabriel whose speedy, tricky play on the pitch is at odds with his hushed tones; or even Safuwan, who has a leap which can clear the highest buildings but is as down to earth a person as you can find.

The trio pose obligingly for photos (although Safuwan has to be coaxed into cracking a smile) before they happily consent to a chat. Isa, the LionsXII captain naturally steps forward first and we begin...

Isa Halim, 27 - 58 caps, 1 goal

Isa, as someone who's played at the old National Stadium before, what are your thoughts on your brand new home?

The old Kallang Stadium was really a stadium that had character. I hope this new one will be the same, a stadium that fans can call their own. It's not just a stadium though, it has many facilities that will allow us to engage with the community. I think that's really important.

What is it like returning to Kallang, coming back to a new stadium that holds so many old memories for fans as well as players?

We're looking forward to this game at this state-of-the-art stadium. Personally, I miss playing in front of a 55,000 crowd. Especially when we sing the national anthem and everybody joins in, it gives us players goosebumps. To be back here in the first match against Malaysia, our rivals - it's something I'm very much looking forward to in this new stadium.

The first game is of course against tradtional rivals Malaysia. How important is it for Singapore to get off to a winning start in its first game back?

We want to beat Malaysia in every sport, they are our neighbours and our rivals. The first game is very important because we need to have the fans believe that we are capable of playing in front of big crowds in a big stadium and with this facility, we have to be one of the best teams in South East Asia. Of course we need to play entertaining football in order to fill the stadium, but that's a challenge all of us players are willing to accept.

There's been talk of some glamour friendly ties lined up after the Singapore - Malaysia match. Have you heard anything about that?

The FAS have already lined up some major European teams and clubs. Back at the old stadium, we had Brazil, Liverpool and even Manchester United, which drew tremendous support from fans. We are looking forward to testing ourselves again and hopefully, having major teams down once again will encourage fans to come down to support us.

Is there any team you're really looking forward to facing?

Not in particular, but if Real Madrid are coming to town, I would love to be playing in that game. It'd be great to go up against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Gabriel Quak, 23 - 5 caps, 2 goals

Are you looking forward to playing in this spanking new state-of-the-art facility, Gabriel?

Yeah definitely. For me, I grew up watching Singapore in the old Kallang Stadium and I've good memories of times when the stadium was filled to capacity. I haven't played at the National Stadium before, so I'm really looking forward to playing in this stadium, especially in front of a full crowd.

Do you reckon it'll be a whole new experience walking out into a packed stadium for the first time as a player rather than a fan?

Of course! Even back when I was watching games as a kid, I'd dream of playing there on the pitch in front of everyone. It'll definitely be a new experience with this new Sports Hub; even for someone who's used to a full Jalan Besar, this will be a whole new level.

How vital is it for Singapore to beat Malaysia in the first game? And what will it take to get the fans out in support on the day?

That will be a highly anticipated match and we hope to win this opening game against Malaysia. It's the first game at our National Stadium and we have to get off to a good start. I think filling the stadium should be a combined effort, the marketing people and the FAS can do their part but it should also include players and fans.

Is there any pressure going into such a high profile match on such a big occasion?

Knowing Malaysia, they won't make it easy for us. They will definitely be looking to beat us, but with a full stadium we will be motivated to show what we can do.

Isa was talking about possibly facing Real Madrid at this new facility but do you have any preference as to which teams you'd like to see here?

I hope Arsenal since I support them! But any European team would be good, especially the top ones. Everyone was talking about it during training yesterday and we were pretty excited!

Safuwan Barahudin, 22 - 33 caps, 1 goal

Hi Safuwan, I believe this match against Malaysia represents your first chance to play in the National Stadium?

Yes, the only times I've been there is to watch Suzuki Cup matches with my family. Hopefully, this will be my chance to finally play in front of a huge crowd.

What was your best memory of going to watch games at the old Kallang Stadium with your family?

Oh it has to be when I witnessed us winning the two Suzuki Cup championships in 2004 and 2007. I think those were the best memories.

Are you looking forward to creating some of your own memories this time at the new stadium?

Yes I think it'll be good if we were to win our fifth AFF Suzuki Cup on home soil. Hopefully, things will pan out well and we'll have a good year.

Gabriel mentioned that plenty of excitement amongst the LionsXII players at the prospect of top European teams. Who are you hoping to see at the Sports Hub?

I'd probably pick Barcelona. I've been to the Santiago Bernabeu and the Nou Camp and I think it would be ideal to have either Barcelona or Madrid in Singapore.