Singapore cerebral palsy footballers win bronze and pay tribute to the fans
Singapore cerebral palsy football team salute the support after bronze triumph
(Shafiq Ariff 1, Mubarak Rastam 43)
(Sobri Ghazali 5)
When the final whistle went, Khairul Anwar dropped to his knees, while Suhaimi Sudar fell, back first, on to the pitch at the National Stadium.
The Singapore cerebral palsy football team had just completed a 2-1 win over Malaysia to claim the bronze medal at the Asean Para Games and, after a few solitary seconds soaking it all in, Zainudeen Hassan's charges stood in a line to salute the crowd, walking every part of the stands where red-clad Singaporeans were seated, their hands raised above their heads, clapping.
They could not get enough.
"It was a good experience to play on home soil," said Singapore goalkeeper Peter Kam.
"And (more so) when it really feels like home," he added, paying tribute to the roaring support shown by local fans during these Games.
Kam was registered as a defender, but was thrown in goal during Monday's final group game against the same opponents, as Singapore ran out 4-2 winners then.
Kam turned in an equally good shift in yesterday's 2-1 win, with Khairul patrolling the backline and Mubarak Rastam a constant thorn in the Malaysian side.
It was Shafiq Ariff who opened the scoring, within 51 seconds of the kick-off, but Malaysia replied through Sobri Ghazali four minutes later, then went on to threaten throughout the first period.
But after a fiery tongue-lashing from Zainudeen at half-time, the hosts came out with more fire in their belly, with Mubarak drilling in the winner 13 minutes after the restart to cap an excellent performance.
Zainudeen was emotional after the game.
"What you saw out there was a culmination of (six years of work), we didn't just come here suddenly to be part of this," said Zainudeen, his voice quivering as he recalled how this side came together through a learn-to-play programme.
"It was tough... I had to beg for jerseys and balls for these boys. It's not that the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) didn't support us, but it's just not easy to run a football team," he added, acknowledging that the backing in the lead-up to the Games was "fantastic".
He pointed to Sport Singapore's allocation of proper training facilities, including post-training meals, which he believes helped the team bond.
Khairul, whose cultured left foot was responsible for five of Singapore's 10 goals over the course of the tournament, echoed his coach's sentiments.
"We've got a lot of memories together, not as a team, but as a family. In these six years, we've been through some hard times, but playing in front of this crowd is definitely worth it," said the 29-year-old.
"We could really feel the crowd giving us that extra push. It was really thanks to them that we could go the extra mile."
The wish is that the support continues.
"This (bronze medal) was a result of a process, and there are a lot of things we need to get in order," said Zainudeen.
"This is a national team, not a football club in Geylang Serai. I hope this (bronze) gives an indication that we are deserving of more support."
But it was gratitude for the support already shown that seemed to be the order of the day.
"In the dressing room, I've put up all the articles (that have been written about the team) over the years. They are an inspiration to the players... and I have to thank you for all your support," said Zainudeen, addressing the members of the media.
"We needed the awareness that these Games have given us... and I hope the same support continues."
EYEING A GOLDEN REDEMPTION
Thailand's cerebral palsy football team romped to the Asean Para Games gold medal yesterday, beating Myanmar 3-0 in the final at the National Stadium.
The Thais were deserving winners, scoring 24 goals and conceding a miserly two in the tournament, but Malaysia - beaten 2-1 by a gritty Singapore side in the battle for bronze - have promised that the next time the region gathers for the Games in 2017, they will dethrone the region's football powerhouses.
"I'm sure we will win the gold medal in 2017 when we host the next Asean Para Games," Malaysia's technical adviser Loo Wai Keong, boldly declared.
Loo pointed to poor preparation ahead of these Games for the team's failure to land a medal.
He also referred to "internal problems" which prevented Malaysia from coming here without their first-choice head coach, and missing some better players.
"I have to admit that the team were not fit, and that we deserved to lose the (bronze-medal play-off) to Singapore... we were poor," he added.
In the playing roster, there was no representation from the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, nor were there any players from the north-eastern states of peninsula Malaysia.
Malaysia turned up for the tournament with just 11 players, three less than the 14 allowed.
The Singapore squad featured 13 registered players.
Loo vowed there would be a revamp in their preparations for the 2017 Games.
"We were happy with the performance of players here... but we will be dropping between two and five players from this squad. There are many quality players we couldn't register," said Loo.
"We will prepare properly because we are hosts, and I'm sure we will be able to win gold." - SHAMIR OSMAN