Birthday boy Irfan wishes for bright start
Defender says the Young Lions are ready to fight as SEA Games campaign kicks off
On the eve of their big SEA Games kick-off, the Singapore Under-22 boys took a little time out from their preparations to celebrate Irfan Fandi's birthday.
The hulking centre back turned 20 yesterday and, after dinner at the team's Doubletree Hilton base, the 23-strong squad gathered in his room to present him a cake.
Even as Irfan blew out the candles, his mind was on today's match against Myanmar at the Selayang Stadium.
His birthday wish? For the team to prove their critics wrong.
"I want to see the team make progress together," he told The New Paper yesterday.
"We need to fight as a team, and once we get past the group stage and into the semi-finals, we can start to think about the final and maybe the gold."
Irfan, who is the eldest of national football icon Fandi Ahmad's four sons, admits the criticism from local supporters hurt.
Following a run of bad results in the build-up, many have written off Richard Tardy's team as no-hopers for a medal, let alone a historic first gold.
In 16 games since March, the U-22s have won just thrice - against Vanuatu, India and Brunei - and lost 11 times.
The run included heavy defeats by Australia U-22 (7-0), Australia U-20 (4-0), and fellow Asean sides Thailand (2-0), Malaysia (3-1) and Myanmar (2-0).
Said Irfan: "Yeah, (the criticism) affects everyone, you can see it sometimes after games.
"But this is football - you can't avoid critics and their comments.
"If we get a good result, everyone will be on our side.
"We've spoken to one another about this and we know if we don't want that (negativity), we have to give our best and show we want to fight."
Tardy is counting on Irfan, the only member of his squad who is a regular in the senior national team, to make his experience count.
"I hope he can bring the experience that he has to the team," said the 67-year-old Frenchman.
"But he is very young, and at Home United (Irfan's club) and the national team, he plays alongside defenders with great experience.
"Here, he has to be the one to help the others and bring confidence to the team."
Irfan knows the weight of expectation on his broad shoulders.
"Of course there is pressure," he said. "But it's a good type of pressure because it encourages me to play better."
Singapore face a tough SEA Games kick-off against Myanmar, who defeated them 2-0 in an AFC Under-23 Asian Cup qualifier in Yangon last month.
In an eagerly contested match, each side had a player sent off - Singapore goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad and Myanmar striker Aung Kaung Mann - for an altercation.
Irfan said he and his teammates have learnt lessons from that defeat.
"The most important thing is for all of us to keep our cool and focus on the game," said the defender.
"We have to keep our discipline, even if they try to agitate us.
"Everyone is in high spirits, and I'm sure tomorrow the whole team will be ready to step up"
Myanmar's SEA Games squad boast some serious talent - 10 members of the squad were also part of the Myanmar U-20 team that went to the 2015 Youth World Cup in New Zealand.
Tardy, however, has spotted some chinks in their armour he is confident his side can exploit.
"We know they have some very good players," said the coach.
"Their No.9 (Aung Thu), the two wingers No.16 (Sithu Aung) and 11 (Maung Maung Lwin) and their midfielders are very dangerous with the ball, and it is important we don't make stupid mistakes.
"But we also know that in transition, from attack to defence, they are a little (slow).
"If we can get a good result against Myanmar, it is good for the team spirit and our hope in this tournament.
"And as I said before, it is very important we avoid defeat in our first match."