Singapore U-23s knocked out of Asian Games
(Suad Ahmed 83)
(Shahfiq Ghani 2, 17)
When the final whistle rang out at the Ansan Wa Stadium, Baihakki Khaizan's arms shot straight into the night sky, his lips parting in a guttural bellow that echoed around the cavernous arena.
But, almost instantly, his spirit was broken. His head fell, his shoulders drooped and his eyes trailed the ground.
For the second time in Incheon, the Singapore Under-23 men's team pulled off a result few expected, beating Palestine 2-1 yesterday on the final matchday in Group C of the Asian Games football tournament.
But word quickly came through of the other result, and the joy became fleeting as agony quickly took hold.
With the other group fixture seeing Tajikistan beat Oman 1-0, Singapore finished third and were booted out of the tournament - as many had expected.
The team were minutes away from advancing out of the group stage at the Asian Games for the first time since 1966, but a late goal conceded to the Palestinians coupled with the winner by the Tajiks with just second left on the clock against the Omanis saw the end of the dream.
But the performances of Aide Iskandar's charges, including a battling come from behind 3-3 draw with Oman, would surely have surprised many here, and back home in the Lion City.
"It took a few seconds to sink in, that we were eliminated, and it really hit me," Baihakki told The New Paper.
But chest swelling, he added: "But we showed that we are not the punching bags of Asia, we showed that we can play, compete, and even win."
Shahfiq Ghani may have endured a year blighted by injury and poor form, but last night he showed just why he has been touted as one of the best young footballers in the Republic.
He scored both Singapore goals via free-kicks from almost identical positions at the top of the Palestine box. The first, in the second minute, curled into the near post of goalkeeper Khitam Tamer, while the second bent around the wall and into the other corner 15 minutes later.
Suad Ahmed managed to breach the Singapore backline to score seven minutes before the end of regulation time, but Singapore held on.
"We are disappointed, dejected and I feel for the boys," said Aide.
"We were hoping Oman could do us a favour (and beat Tajikistan), but we can be proud of how we've played here."
An Oman victory by an equal or smaller margin - would have sent the Singapore side through to the round of 16, but it was not to be, as the 1-0 loss to Tajikistan in their opening game came back to haunt Singapore.
Still, the team will return home tomorrow with their heads held high.
"We beat Palestine, who beat the other two teams in the group, and they are all ranked higher than us - I think that says something," said defender Safuwan Baharudin, who admitted to having mixed feelings.
There are no world rankings for U-23 sides, but Oman's senior team are listed at 76th on Fifa's list, with Palestine 102nd and Tajikistan in 136th spot, while Singapore are 149th.
Aide, accredited as assistant coach to German Bernd Stange for these Games, took charge after the 66-year-old was taken ill and advised not to travel.
Calling the assignment one of the biggest in his coaching career, the former Singapore captain had only praise for his men and the attitude with which they approached the tourney.
"If only you had been able to come into the athletes' village, you'd be able to see how the boys went about doing things. The spirit within the team, their self-belief, the way they fought - it was just amazing," he said.
"It was a big honour to represent Singapore as a head coach, and an honour to have taken this team.
"This bodes well for the future."
Last night's other Group C result:
- Tajikistan 1 Oman 0
SHOTS: Palestine 8 on target, 13 off target; Singapore 5 on target, 5 off-target.
CORNERS: Palestine 7, Singapore 1
YELLOW CARDS: Palestine 3, Singapore 5
OFFSIDES: Palestine 2, Singapore 6
MATCH RATING: 7.5/10
REFEREE: Minoru Tojo (Japan) 7.5/10
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Shahfiq Ghani
SINGAPORE UNDER-23: Hassan Sunny, Fadli Khamis, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Amirul Adli (Adam Swandi 81), Aumanthan Mohan Kumar, Nazrul Nazari (Shameer Aziq 90+3), Shahfiq Ghani (Khairul Nizam 74), Faris Ramli, Sahil Suhaimi.
Good sign for big tournaments ahead
They battled an Oman side that were technically sound, and tactically well put together, showing both grit and gumption to come from behind to draw 3-3.
They matched an aggressive Palestine side tackle for tackle, and won.
The 1-0 loss to a Tajikistan in their opening match of the Asian Games was the only blemish for Aide Iskandar's Singapore Under-23 side (right), but even then they could have easily emerged victors.
They may have been booted out of the Asian Games, but in a year that has seen various Singapore developmental sides struggle, the Asian Games side have been bright sparks, and it augurs well for November's AFF Suzuki Cup as well as next June's South-east Asia (SEA) Games, which will be held in the Republic in June.
"The performances have been positive, as well as the results, and we can look forward with optimism," said Aide.
"This is great preparation for all these players who want to fight for places in the Suzuki Cup squad, and (national coach) Bernd Stange will be pleased.
"The senior players (Hassan Sunny, Baihakki Khaizan and Afiq Yunos) did very well, and credit must be given to young ones like Amirul Adli (18), Anumanthan Mohan Kumar (20) and Shameer Aziq (19), too.
"The signs are positive."
Among Aide's 20-man squad here are 13 who are eligible for the 2015 SEA Games, which is an U-23 tourney.
Faris Ramli showed here that he is a handful for opposition defenders on the Asian stage, while Sahil Suhaimi proved that he can score goals.
With Shahfiq Ghani starting to come into good form, there is much to look forward to.
It also means a big selection headache for Stange and Aide.
"Let's not forget that for the national team, we still have (captain) Shahril Ishak, Hariss Harun and Khairul Amri - now it looks like we have good attacking options," said Aide.
"And there are players in the SEA Games team who have played together for a long time, and they know each other so well that it seems they have telepathic understanding.
"They are not there yet... but there are exciting times ahead."
But there is something else - something intangible - that has come out of the Asian Games experience, and Baihakki believes it is important.
"I don't know many of these boys from before, but from what I've seen, they've learnt to switch from having fun, to match mode," he said.
"And now they believe that they can win, even against the so-called big teams."
- SHAMIR OSMAN in Incheon