Relive the Lions' fabulous four triumphs
LIM SAY HENG relives Singapore’s four AFF Championship triumphs.
The months leading up to the Tiger Cup, as the competition was then known, was filled with uncertainty.
Fandi Ahmad, the mainstay of the national team since he was 16, announced in February that year that he would, at age 35, retire from the national team.
The Lions could not even secure an apparel sponsor as they began their Tiger Cup qualifying campaign, with one unnamed national player calling the unprecedented situation “unbecoming of a national team”.
Singapore fans jeered Barry Whitbread’s team after the Republic struggled to beat Philippines 1-0 in a qualifier at the Jurong Stadium.
Lim Tong Hai, at that time the national skipper, withdrew from the squad due to personal reasons in July, just weeks before the tournament in Vietnam.
The Lions began with a 2-0 win over Malaysia in Hanoi, then held Vietnam to a goal-less draw, before grabbing a 4-1 win over Laos to top their group and earn a last-four ticket against Indonesia.
Rafi Ali and captain Nazri Nasir were the heroes in the 2-1 semi-final win, which set up a repeat encounter against Vietnam, their group-stage rivals.
Defender R Sasikumar would go down in history as the man who secured the Republic’s first major title, scoring the only goal in the final with his shoulder off a cross by Kadir Yahaya.
It was deja vu for the Lions, as they headed into the year-end tournament in Vietnam and Malaysia amid much uneasiness.
Public confidence in the team was low, following Singapore’s poor performance in the 2002 edition, when they were thrashed 4-0 by arch-rivals Malaysia at the National Stadium.
But S Subramani, ahead of his last tournament in national colours, proved prophetic in an interview.
The defender said: “Before the 1998 tournament, the team and national coach Barry Whitbread were getting bad publicity because we were not performing well.
“But that brought us closer. There was good team spirit and the whole team really wanted to win for the coach and ourselves.”
The Lions started the tournament on a positive note, with Indra Sahdan silencing a 25,000-strong crowd in Ho Chi Minh City to earn Singapore a 1-1 result with Vietnam in the opening match.
A goalless draw against Indonesia followed, and after thrashing Laos 6-2 and beating Cambodia 3-0, Singapore progressed to the knock-out stage.
Aide Iskandar and Co. beat Myanmar 4-3 in a pulsating first-leg semi-final match in Kuala Lumpur. Myanmar forced the return fixture into extra-time at the old National Stadium, but Alam Shah’s hat-trick and Agu Casmir’s goal gave them a 4-2 victory in the end. A final with Indonesia beckoned.
The Lions silenced the 110,000-capacity cauldron that was the Senayan Stadium in the first leg, beating their opponents 3-1 on their own turf, and secured their second triumph in the tournament with a 2-1 victory eight days later at the National Stadium in Kallang.
It was the first of three Asean triumphs for national coach Raddy Avramovic, who was appointed just a year earlier.
There was an air of optimism about the team in the lead-up to the tournament. The bulk of the squad - 14 of 22 players - were from the 2004 winning team, which led the Football Association of Singapore to set Avramovic’s men a target of reaching the final.
Despite their 0-0 draw against Vietnam in the opening match at the National Stadium, the Lions remained quietly confident of making it to the knock-out rounds.
They did it in style, thrashing a sorry Laos 11-0 just days later. A lasting image of that match was Noh Alam Shah signalling to the Singapore bench to be replaced after scoring five goals. In the end, he scored seven.
The striker said: “After the fifth goal, I looked towards the bench and asked to be taken off. But Raddy just told me to stay in the middle and wait for the ball. Even for the last goal, where I did the scissors-kick, I was hoping that it wouldn’t go in. But it did, and it was just too much for the Laotians.”
Singapore confirmed its place in the semi-finals with a 2-2 draw against Indonesia.
With it, the Lions also earned the chance to exorcise the demons of their 2002 Tiger Cup thrashing by Malaysia.
It turned out to be a close affair, and after two legs, the two teams remained tied at 2-2 on aggregate.
The 55,000-strong National Stadium crowd erupted when Singapore custodian Lionel Lewis dived correctly to smother Khyril Muhymeen’s final penalty to give the Lions a 5-4 victory from the spot.
The final against Thailand was marked with drama - the Thais staged a walkout in the first leg at the National Stadium, unhappy that the home side was given a late, controversial penalty with the score at 1-1.
The impasse lasted about 15 minutes before the Thais returned to the pitch, only for Mustafic Fahrudin to tuck away the spot-kick to give the Lions the advantage.
The second leg at the Supachalasai Stadium in Thailand seemed headed for extra-time, after the home side took the lead in the 49th minute.
Khairul Amri had other ideas, though. Then 21, the second-half substitute controlled a long punt from goalkeeper Lewis and slammed a humdinger of a shot, which swerved before nestling into the top corner of the net.
“I have dreamed of this moment ever since I was a kid,” said Amri, who burst into tears at the final whistle. “Growing up during the Malaysia Cup days, I’d always wondered what it was like to score in big stadiums and win big matches.
“Now I know.”
He may have guided the Lions to Asean titles in 2004 and 2007, but national coach Raddy Avramovic faced calls for his head ahead of the 2012 campaign.
The vitriol started online after a slew of poor results, including a 2-0 reverse against Malaysia in the Causeway Challenge in June.
A 2-0 friendly loss to Philippines in September, the Lions’ first defeat by the team in 40 years, didn’t help matters too, and their Fifa world ranking fell to 162nd the next month.
The Lions answered their critics in spectacular fashion in their opening match of the tournament, beating arch-rivals Malaysia 3-0 at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium. Avramovic’s men lost midfield hard man Hariss Harun in their following match, a 1-0 loss to Indonesia, but topped Group B with a 4-3 victory over Laos in their final group match.
A tense semi-final against Philippines followed, where Shahril Ishak and Co. managed a goal-less stalemate in Manila before Khairul Amri scored the only goal in the second leg at the Jalan Besar Stadium to propel the unfancied Lions to the final against Thailand.
History was at stake - the winner of the two-legged final would become the most successful team in the tournament’s history, and the Republic took a giant stride towards it with a 3-1 victory at Jalan Besar, with goals coming from Mustafic Fahrudin, Amri and Baihakki Khaizan.
It was squeaky-bum time for the Lions in the second leg at the Supachalasai Stadium when Kirati Keawsombat scored just before half-time to narrow the aggregate score to 3-2.
But the plucky Singaporeans held their line, with defender Baihakki putting in an outstanding performance, to keep the score at 1-0.
And Singapore lifted the trophy for the fourth time.
It was also a fitting farewell for Avramovic, whose departure from the hotseat was announced before the tournament.