Singapore Lions earn respect at right time

The seniors’ heroic draw in Japan was so important after SEA Games failure, argues Neil Humphreys.

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For a few days, Singapore football became the idiot cousin of the sporting family. While others basked in their golden finery, the black sheep sat in a darkened corner, playing with a punctured ball and dribbling.

The Southeast Asian (SEA) Games played out like a broken record; only the record was Kool and the Gang’s Celebration. Good times became the norm. Failures were exceptions, soon forgotten in a purple haze of medal mayhem.

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As the fireworks exploded, Singapore football looked on from afar, locked out of the party like the unpopular kid with no friends, desperately hoping to be admitted but turned away by the cooler crowd.

The sport’s only purpose was to provide punchlines for memes and Facebook feeds or fill out the perennial lists of highs and lows in post-SEA Games summaries; an unwelcome antidote to all that hubris. Football became the solitary stick in a tournament filled with carrots.

Almost immediately, inevitably, there were online demands to divert public funds away from the national game and towards successful sports such as swimming, table tennis and silat. Apparently, football’s dead horse had been flogged enough.

But the trouble with such a simple, lazy narrative is just that. It’s lazy. It sits on a sofa eating potato chips, stubbornly refusing to listen to reason or pernickety counterarguments. So the hypothesis was locked in. Football was dead. Long live the SEA Games kings and queens and their golden sports.

Awaiting a swift death at the hands of armchair pundits. Photo: Weixiang Lim

The event not only incubated a nation’s fledgling sports culture, but also signposted football’s demise. The Young Lions’ early exit was further proof of the inglorious game’s downward trajectory.

And then, with breathtaking irony, Singapore’s senior side went to Saitama Stadium and kicked conventional wisdom into touch. They were big in Japan. Only they weren’t big in Japan. That was a lame attempt to shoehorn a popular eighties synthpop song into this column. They were colossal in Japan. They were gargantuan in the land of Godzilla.

Picking up a point with a 0-0 draw in a 2018 World Cup qualifier isn’t a result. It’s a reading on the Richter scale. The 102 places that separate Japan (52nd in the world) from Singapore (154th) scarcely do justice to the unbridgeable chasm between the two nations. Japan are experienced World Cup veterans. The closest Singapore’s Lions get to the tournament is sitting in front of an exorbitant cable TV package.

Man of the match Izwan Mahbud made an astounding 18 saves between the sticks. A World Cup campaign hasn’t witnessed such agility with so many limbs since Paul the Octopus.

Before kickoff, he stood before a Japanese firing squad. By the final whistle, he stood in a Japanese shop window. The assembled, silenced media hadn’t seen a goalkeeping display quite like it. Agents will soon have his number on speed dial.

The Lions left Saitama for unfamiliar territory - the top of Group E above Syria, Afghanistan, Syria, Cambodia and the Japanese. Their unexpected annexation of the summit may be temporary, but the timing was most fortuitous.

That overwhelming SEA Games narrative of euphoric celebration buried not only the Young Lions’ shortcomings, but also the senior side’s success in Japan to a certain extent.

The closing ceremony left the entire island in a post-coital glow of athletic achievement, perhaps too exhausted to get roused again at such short notice.

Singapore’s priceless point in their World Cup qualifier was recognised, but not with anything like the fanfare that their dogged heroics deserved.

An excellent draw in Saitama brought credibility back to Singaporean football.

It didn’t fit the overarching storyline of the week.

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But the performance’s true value should reveal itself in the coming weeks, when it becomes an improvised shield against the brickbats.

Satirical pieces have already questioned football’s funding model, wondering whether tax dollars should be lavished on worthier causes such as synchronized swimming and dressage. Serious commentaries will swiftly follow. Questions will be asked about the ongoing investment for a sport that died again on the international stage.

The Young Lions did fail to reach the final four, the latest setback in an interminable season of stumbles and missteps. The opening months of the calendar were among the worst in recent memory, with every Singaporean side failing to muster a victory.

But the Malaysian FA Cup triumph and the improbable draw in Japan both secured the same outcome. They bought time. They earned the national game a brief reprieve of sorts.

Bernd Stange’s defensive battlers were not pretty in Saitama, but they did act as an emollient, soothing that gaping, festering wound after the SEA Games. The residual anger hasn’t entirely gone away, but it is dissipating.

For that reason alone, the bright start to the World Cup campaign warrants real respect. The Lions returned to Singapore not with medals, but a healthy dollop of dignity.

It can’t be hung around the neck with a neat ribbon. But it can be used in evidence against those waiting to write football’s obituary.

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Main image: Football Association of Singapore