Chomping at the bit
MACAU v SINGAPORE
(Today, 7pm, University of Science and Technology of Macau football field)
They are three 22-year-old rising stars with bags of raw attacking talent that could be unleashed at the AFF Suzuki Cup next month.
Faris Ramli, Shahfiq Ghani and Sahil Suhaimi tell TNP they are raring to go for the Republic's title defence.
1 It seems as if you guys are inseparable not just on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. How did you get to know each other? Can you describe each other's personality?
FARIS: Sahil is a mutual friend of Shahfiq and I. I know Sahil from playing together for the Geylang Under-14s to Under-16s. Sahil and Shahfiq were both in the same Combined Schools teams when they were 12 or 13.
SHAHFIQ: We all stay in the same area in the east, Tampines and Pasir Ris, so we often play street soccer together and we built our understanding from there until we were all in the same National Football Academy team since we were 17 before being promoted to the Young Lions.
SAHIL: Faris is the more serious one - he doesn't like to hang out and would go straight home after training. Shahfiq is the joker in the team, but all of us like a good laugh and we would play pranks on other players when we go on overseas trips, like locking other teammates out of their rooms when they are wearing only their boxers.
2 What does the Suzuki Cup mean to you? As a youngster growing up, you were able to witness the Lions pick up four Asean titles. Which was the most memorable?
FARIS: I was training with the national team in the build-up to the Suzuki Cup in 2012, but I was also enlisted that year, so I kept updated about the team's progress by reading The New Paper.
It felt great that the team went on to win the tournament, especially that final against Thailand. We won 3-1 at Jalan Besar, and hung on for an aggregate 3-2 win in Thailand. It made me more determined to be in the next Suzuki Cup squad.
SHAHFIQ: I was in the Singapore Sports School in 2005 when the school went down to the old National Stadium to support Singapore in the final.
We all wore red and we beat Indonesia 2-1 to win the final 5-2 on aggregate.
It was a big inspiration to be part of a packed stadium to watch the national team lift the trophy. I wanted to be on the pitch experiencing a victory like that one day.
SAHIL: That same edition, I remember the second leg of the semi-final against Myanmar at the National Stadium, where someone threw a bottle at S Subramani, who was a national defender at that time.
It was my first trip to the National Stadium to watch Singapore play and I saw the great passion and intensity and how much it meant to the team and fans.
3 It's just a little over six weeks before the start of the Suzuki Cup. Are you guys ready for the challenge?
FARIS: I've been waiting for this moment since 2012. When the opportunities come for me to be in the national team, I always try to make the best of my chances.
It wasn't easy juggling National Service and football but, now that I'm done with NS, it's time for me to step up.
SHAHFIQ: There are mixed feelings of excitement to play and the pressure to deliver, but it's good that we have senior players like Shahril (Ishak), Baihakki (Khaizan), and (Khairul) Amri who motivate and challenge us to be on top of our game.
SAHIL: As the day draws nearer, I do feel nervous.
Since I was young, I have pictured myself in the national team jersey and playing in a major tournament and it's finally here.
4 Three of you will be key players for Singapore in next year's South-east Asia (SEA) Games but, for the Suzuki Cup, you still have to fight for a place in the starting 11. Are you ready for the responsibility and what must you do to get there?
FARIS: During or after training, I'll talk to the senior players and try to learn more. They are a big motivation and they tell me to be always ready when called upon to play, whether it is from the start or from the bench.
SHAHFIQ: It is a healthy challenge. When we make mistakes, the seniors will guide us and help us improve. It is up to us to make the most of the opportunities we get.
SAHIL: I look at the examples of Shahril and Amri. They were in our position 10 years ago but they grabbed their chance and they are key players and national football heroes now. It won't be easy to replace them, but we are on the same team and we will give everything we have to succeed as a team.
5 All three of you starred at the recent Asian Games and also at last year's SEA Games where Singapore won bronze. Will these experiences help for your first Suzuki Cup outing?
FARIS: It's a similar tournament setting, so we will know what to expect and what strategies to use so that we qualify as soon as possible.
At the Asian Games, we also witnessed how the Middle Eastern players can be so emotional and at times hostile during the matches.
In a way, we can learn to be as fearless and have a fighting spirit like them at the upcoming Suzuki Cup.
SHAHFIQ: There were back-to-back games and we learnt how to keep fit and disciplined, to take care of our bodies so we can last the full tournament.
Personally, it was good for me to score twice against Palestine because that gave me a timely morale boost after going a long time without scoring.
SAHIL: In terms of physical size, some of us may lose out. But we proved that we can beat good teams with teamwork. It was a big confidence booster for us to draw against Oman and beat Bahrain and Palestine recently. At the SEA Games, we also beat Malaysia and gave Thailand a tough fight, so we are ready.
6 As attacking players, do you feel extra pressure?
FARIS: Even though I'm a winger, I feel the same pressure as the strikers to create something or score goals.
I scored quite a few goals for the LionsXII this season, and that's a big motivation, but it really is the product of good teamwork and I'm there to apply the final touch.
I believe we all have the fighting spirit, even in adversity or injury. Personally, I hope I stay injury-free and continue to contribute to the team.
SHAHFIQ: Whenever you score, it always helps you settle down. You forget you feel tired and you feel you can do anything. The opposite is true. When you can't seem to score, you keep trying and sometimes you try too hard.
When we defend, we defend as a team but, once the forwards get the ball, we are expected to score.
When we lose the ball, we get shouted at because we have to win the ball back before the opponents pose a threat. The pressure is definitely there.
SAHIL: People expect strikers to score. I also feel like something is missing whenever I don't score.
I scored my first international goal against Papua New Guinea in my fourth senior appearance and I felt I took too long.
If strikers don't score, people will say we are not good and ask for us to be dropped. But I'm motivated by all this, to score and prove people wrong.
7 What are your personal targets for the Suzuki Cup?
FARIS: It would be great to score against Macau tonight, but it would be a dream come true to score my first international goal at the Suzuki Cup in the new National Stadium.
SHAHFIQ: I'm playing in the same position as our captain Shahril, so it won't be easy to replace him. But that won't stop me from giving my best and, whenever I get any playing time, I will try my best to score or create from set-pieces or open play.
SAHIL: Like Shahfiq, I have Amri ahead of me, but I want to prove I can also play a part and contribute to the team with my goals.
* The New Paper's coverage of the Singapore friendlies is made possible by flights via AirAsia.
"Since I was young, I have pictured myself in the national team jersey and playing in a major tournament and it’s finally here."
— Sahil Suhaimi, on next month’s Suzuki Cup