Dropped midfielder Isa calls for change in Singapore football
Not once did he refer to the Lions as "they".
Isa Halim has been left out of the national team for the entire year but, to him, the team are still an "us", and the pain of the 3-1 defeat by Malaysia and exit from the AFF Suzuki Cup last Saturday felt like a punch in the gut.
National coach Bernd Stange has come under fire, with Isa's name among the first to roll off the tongues of critics who believe that older heads and stronger stomachs could have made a difference in Singapore's ill-fated title defence, especially one who embodies the ethos of team work.
LionsXII midfielder Isa wouldn't say it, but his words hinted that he could have made a difference.
"It was absolutely heartbreaking to watch us lose to Malaysia in injury-time, especially since the LionsXII went through it before (against ATM FA in the 2012 Malaysia Cup semi-final second leg)," he said, of the loss to Malaysia in the final Group B fixture.
"I'm sure if experienced players like (the suspended) Baihakki Khaizan was on the pitch, he would have told the boys to just kick the ball out, to waste time and see it through.
"But instead, we just kept playing normally," added the 28-year-old. "I really believed that we would go through."
Sources have revealed that Lions' skipper Shahril Ishak met with Football Association of Singapore (FAS) general secretary Winston Lee in October, addressing, among other matters, Stange's training methods and tactics that senior players took issue with.
While that hinted at unhappiness within the team, Isa, capped 53 times, took it as a sign of positivity.
"Prior to the tournament, maybe Shahril felt that things weren't going how they should, and he's seen enough big tournaments to know whether we're preparing well or not," he said.
"Whether that had the right or wrong effect, it was a good sign, of a captain taking ownership of a tournament and responsibility for how the team would do there.
"As a captain, Shahril had every right to do what he did and, personally, I think it was the right thing to do."
While he believes "someone should take responsibility" for what transpired at the Suzuki Cup, Isa is already looking ahead.
"We have to bounce back from this, and it's not only about players and the coaching staff, we have to also re-look the entire structure of Singapore football," said Isa, who memorably took his position in the starting 11 after Hariss Harun broke his leg during the 2012 Suzuki Cup and played a vital part in the Lions' run to a record fourth Asean championship.
The Lions entered the Malaysia game missing Baihakki in defence and Shahdan Sulaiman in central midfield.
Stange had big decisions to make, and he fielded 22-year-old Shakir Hamzah as a centre back and withdrew forward Ishak to partner Hariss in the engine room.
The moves didn't work in the end, and many felt Stange erred by leaving out experienced campaigners like defender Daniel Bennett and midfielders Mustafic Fahrudin and Isa from his squad, as they would have been able to fill the breach.
Isa did not want to dwell on the subject, all he wants is to bounce back and stake his place in the national team, once again.
"This is the first time that I have been dropped (for a big tournament) and it wasn't easy for me to take it," said Isa, whose name was even missing from the 35-man provisional squad for the tournament.
"I'm the first person to admit that I didn't have a good season (with the LionsXII) but, if I had a chance to go to Austria with the team (in July), even if I was working with (fitness coach Aleksandar Bozenko), I think I could have gotten back (from a heel injury) faster, and better, but I was left alone at Jalan Besar," he said.
"But (Stange's) the coach, it's his decision, and I respect that."
Isa wants the German to start thinking about him, though.
"This year is done and dusted, and it's time to put in hard work. I hope next season, I can prove him and the other national selectors wrong," said Isa.
"I'm not that old, and I think I can give a lot more to the team."
Is Stange the right man to lead the Lions? Two TNP readers have opposing views
Bernd Stange needs to go.
The Football Association of Singapore needs to bring back V Sundramoorthy to lead the national team, someone who understands the team better and who will make the Lions formidable once again.
I sat next to the Malaysian fans for the Singapore versus Malaysia game.
Never in all my years of watching local football (from the days when we ruled in the Malaysian Cup and the Suzuki Cup) have I felt the urge to get out of the stadium.
It was embarrassing to see the Lions waste chance after chance, free-kick after free-kick.
Malaysia took the game to us and made us suffer. The Lions had no experience, no drive, no passion.
- Harvinderjit Singh
DON'T BLAME HIM
I feel it is myopic to blame the national coach Bernd Stange for the failure of the Lions.
There are many factors, in my opinion, that caused this decline.
First of all, he is right to say that there is a lack of proper football facilities in Singapore. The Geylang training pitch is one prime example.
Our S.League clubs do not have enough sponsorship and funds to make the competition more exciting, unlike Japan, where local businesses and companies invest their monies into J-League clubs.
I feel the participation of the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League benefits only Malaysia and not Singapore.
A 3-1 defeat by Malaysia should be used as a platform to rebuild our national team.
Stange's home nation, Germany, used the 5-1 defeat by England in a 2001 World Cup qualifier to build the foundations for their team to win the World Cup this year.
It took more than 13 years to achieve that and it started with developing young players. Singapore fans must be patient and get behind the national team.