LionsXII first foreign team to win Malaysian FA Cup
Fandi says LionsXII proved their critics wrong with their gritty Cup win
(Wan Zack Haikal 62)
(Faris Ramli 7, Sahil Suhaimi 82, 90+2)
The 11 LionsXII players standing on the pitch at the Bukit Jalil Stadium last night could not have felt more foreign, staying silent as first the Kelantan state anthem then the Malaysian national anthem were belted out with fiery fervour from the 74,000 in the stands.
But, at the end of the Malaysian FA Cup final, it was Fandi Ahmad's gutsy charges who were singing after they beat Kelantan 3-1 to become the first foreign side to win the Malaysian FA Cup in its 26-year history.
In a fitting end to the night, the Majulah Singapura echoed around Bukit Jalil, sang with burning gusto by the LionsXII, and the 6,000 fans who made the trip up from Singapore.
"This is so sweet, so sweet," said Fandi, visibly drained from the roller-coaster 94-minute ride.
"Before the final, we promised that we would bring the cup back, and we did it. Kelantan were so good, they had so much firepower, but the boys deserved to win, they showed so much grit and determination."
The LionsXII were under the cosh from the second referee Zamzaidi Katimin blew to start proceedings, as Kelantan bombarded the LionsXII with wave after wave of attacks.
They peppered Izwan Mahbud's goal with a whopping 22 shots throughout the 90 minutes, but the steely LionsXII dug deep.
The Singapore side looked edgy from the start, but took just seven minutes to silence the partisan crowd.
Izzdin Shafiq set Faris Ramli free with a peach of a cross-field pass that caught the Kelantan defence napping, and the fleet-footed winger did not miss a step.
He took the ball down, zipped past the on-rushing Khairul Fahmie in the Kelantan goal and coolly slotted home.
Kelantan fashioned chance after chance, but poor finishing proved to be their undoing.
Their foreign duo of Gilmar da Silva and Erwin Carillo were the biggest culprits as they left their scoring boots at home.
The Red Warriors mustered 12 efforts on goal to the LionsXII's four, in a frenetic first half.
The compact LionsXII defence, led from the front by striker Khairul Amri who was clearly fired up for the occasion, along with Safuwan Baharudin and Izzdin Shafiq in the engine room.
The backline was exposed on a few occasions but Kelantan found LionsXII goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud in top form.
The impressive Wan Zack Haikal finally found a way past a resolute LionsXII backline, poking home from inside the box, after being set free by a lofted pass from da Silva.
The relentless red onslaught continued, but the Singapore side stayed resolutely firm and, in Sahil Suhaimi, who was thrown on in the 58th minute, they found their inspiration.
The 22-year-old picked the pocket of Kelantan fullback Nik Shahrul in the 82nd minute, raced to the top of the box and fired a bullet into the bottom corner.
The nippy striker, who will play for the national Under-23 side at the SEA Games next month, then drove the final nail into Kelantan's coffin.
He earned an injury-time penalty off Kelantan's Amirizwan Taj, and slammed home the spot-kick himself to send the Singapore supporters in the stands into delirium.
It was the first time in the match that the Singapore voices rang louder than the sea of Kelantan red surrounding them.
"This is a developmental team, and we struggled in the league earlier this year... but we proved everyone wrong," said Fandi.
"The boys worked very hard and they deserve credit. Credit must also be given to the defence, and especially Izwan.
The last time a Singaporean side featured in a cup final in Malaysian football was in 1994, when a Fandi-led side beat Pahang 4-0 to lift the Malaysia Cup.
Memories of that match came flooding back to Football Association of Singapore's vice-president Edwin Tong after the latest triumph.
He said: "I was there in 1994, but this was different.
"Kelantan were all over us, you could even hear the Kelantan fans clearly from across the stadium.
"But what really lit the fire in my heart was hearing the Singaporean fans, at the end, singing the Majulah Singapura, and Bukit Jalil echoing with those words."
From boys to men
They were put together as a developmental side, to give young players a chance to hone their skills on foreign soil, against teams stocked with foreign stars.
The LionsXII have shone and stumbled, as a young team do but, last night, in the face of a Kelantan onslaught, Fandi Ahmad's boys became men.
Putting in a display teeming with gumption, the Singapore side beat Kelantan 3-1 to win the Malaysian FA Cup.
"There were heroes all over the pitch. From Safuwan Baharudin, to Madhu Mohana, even Nazrul Nazari, we were all heroes out there, " said Izwan Mahbud (inset), still clutching his official Man-of-the-Match trophy.
"It wasn't about growing up, but we really just unveiled the men that lie inside us."
Izwan put in a superlative performance between the sticks, conceding only one goal from a 22-shot bombardment from Kelantan, but he preferred to honour the unsung heroes in the team.
"I have to thank the backroom staff for all the work that they put in, from coach Fandi who hasn't had enough sleep this last few days, to our manager, and everyone who has helped the team," said the goalkeeper.
"We made it. I may be holding the Man-of-the-Match trophy, but this is really not about me, it's about the team. Every single one of us helped make this happen.
"Tonight we showed that we were men, but I still can't believe that we won."
STAT ATTACK TNP MAN OF THE MATCH
SAHIL SUHAIMI (above)
The national Under-23 forward for the South-east Asia Games proved to be the game changer after coming on with half an hour to go. He first breaks Kelantan hearts with a goal to regain the lead, then drove the final nail into the red coffin, winning then slamming home an injury-time penalty.