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SEA Games 1989 final: How Singapore came so close in muddy Merdeka

In front of 45,000 baying fans at the Merdeka stadium on August 31, 1989, the Lions were on the cusp of history.

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With the talismanic Fandi Ahmad and the ‘Dazzler’ V. Sundramoorthy among their ranks, Singapore’s national team had their sights set on a first-ever SEA Games gold medal.

Their confidence was bolstered by an unbeaten streak which had seen them score six and only concede one, enroute to the clash with bitter rivals Malaysia.

“In those days, we were looking at four teams which were on top – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. These four teams were more or less going to be semi-finalists,” Sundram, who netted two goals in the group stages, told FourFourTwo.

He added: “Chances of going to the semi-finals was high unless we fumbled along the way.”

But fumble they did not, and the hungry Lions progressed to the semi-finals where they upset defending champions Indonesia, thanks to a last-minute goal from Fandi.

“That semi-final victory was sweet because Indonesia was a very strong team,” said Sundram. “I made the pass for Jamaludain (Hassan) to cross to Fandi, it was a defense-splitting pass, it still lives in my mind.”

Things however, didn’t go as planned, as the Lions were bogged down by a waterlogged pitch

It would be the Lions against the Tigers then, in the finals – and the players knew they were in for a hostile reception.

“We are used to playing in crowds like that, you go to any part of Malaysia, Sarawak or Sabah, it’s really compact and fans are there,” Sundram said. “We are quite used to it and it didn’t really bother us.”

Things however, didn’t go as planned, as the Lions were bogged down by a waterlogged pitch.

“The game started a bit later because of flooding, but no choice,” recalls Fandi with a laugh, “Because of the rain, it was anybody’s game that day. Even the home team couldn’t play on the ground.”

Fandi with his goal that levelled matters

Malaysia took an early lead thanks to a fortuitous own goal by Singapore’s Borhan Abu Samah in the eighth minute, as he deflected a dangerous cross into the back of his net.

Fandi then struck his third goal of the tournament with an acrobatic overhead kick to bring the Lions back into the game.

Second goal was a killer, I still remember that one, that was the turning point

- Fandi

A long throw from Terry Pathmanathan dropped kindly to the ace, and he volleyed home an acrobatic scissors kick to send Singapore into the break level.

As conditions deteriorated after half-time, the Malaysians struck a hammer blow to the Lions’ hopes.

A mis-hit cross from Lim Teong Kim on the left flank looped over the goalkeeper and into the net, leaving the Lions stunned.

“I think that was the turning point where Malaysia scored. Second goal was a killer,” said Fandi. “I still remember that one, that was the turning point.”

A header from Dollah Kassim a minute later was the nail in the coffin for the Lions’ flagging hopes.

As the Tigers celebrated their victory under the pelting rain, Singapore were left to rue what might have been.

Sundram felt it was a missed chance that year

Sundram, now head coach of the Singapore national team, said the team just missed that “bit of magic” to swing the game in their favour.

“If you can work together and work as a team and have individual players, big stage players who can turn the game around, that’s key when you are playing important games,” said Sundram. “We needed somebody who could have turned that game around.”

The 1989 edition remains the last time Singapore has contested for the gold medal in the football tournament, which became a under-23 event at the SEA Games from 2001. The under-23s have yet to make the finals since then.

Arguably Singapore’s most successful footballer, the elusive SEA Games gold is till this day a medal Fandi will not get to add to his trophy cabinet.

“I had a nice experience at the SEA Games, it resulted in six medals as player,” reflected Fandi. “Three bronze and three silvers, if I could change them to a gold, it would be good.”

Main Photo: YouTube