Under-23s set LionsXII’s Malaysian FA Cup success as the benchmark
The LionsXII's unexpected 3-1 victory over Kelantan in Saturday's Malaysian FA Cup final could have a knock-on effect.
Motivated by their seniors' win, the Singapore Under-23 national team hope to give the country even more cause for celebration next month.
They kick off their South-east Asia (SEA) Games campaign against Group A opponents Philippines at Jalan Besar Stadium next Monday, with an entire nation behind them on home soil.
U-23 coach Aide Iskandar heads into the final preparations, optimistic that his charges can make Singapore equally proud.
But he also hopes that his players will not be over-burdened by expectations.
"Firstly, I want to congratulate the LionsXII," Aide told The New Paper yesterday.
"I'm glad they won and they have done really well under difficult circumstances.
"It's a good sign for Singapore football and this will only help boost the support for our team at the SEA Games.
"Yes, we need to try our best to emulate them, but I don't want to put unnecessary pressure on the boys.
"We just want to focus on our first game against the Philippines, followed by Myanmar and so on."
The LionsXII's cup triumph came as a much-needed shot in the arm for Singapore football following a trying year.
The resilience and panache shown by Fandi Ahmad's charges against tougher opponents were especially encouraging. Of the provisional SEA Games squad of 29 players, four are from the LionsXII.
Aide's side also received a boost on Saturday, when they came from behind to beat Laos' U-23 5-1 in a closed-door friendly at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Irfan Fandi, Adam Swandi, Shahfiq Ghani, Muhaimin Suhaimi and Amy Recha scored a goal each after the visitors had gone ahead.
While it appears the Young Lions are finally finding some form, Aide has challenged them to raise their game even higher.
The former Singapore captain with 121 caps said: "Of course, I'm happy with the result, but I still feel we're a work in progress.
"We want to continue improving and friendly games are just a measure of what we've been doing in training. The most important thing is still the tournament itself.
"Now, it's all about fine-tuning as much as possible and we have one more friendly against Timor Leste on Tuesday.
"The boys are all motivated for the start of the tournament and, hopefully, they will be raring to go after that final warm-up game."
Unlike the LionsXII, who had to overcome a hostile atmosphere from the mostly Kelantan crowd at Bukit Jalil Stadium, the Singapore U-23s will have the benefit of home support at the SEA Games.
While Aide feels that playing at home is both a gift and a curse, he has backed senior players like Al-Qaasimy Rahman, Faris Ramli and Shakir Hamzah to stand up and be counted.
"It (home advantage) can either go in your favour or against you," Aide said.
"The fans are important and the players know that they are our 12th man, but the pressure will also be there.
"But we have experienced players who have been on the big stage at the Suzuki Cup, Asian Games and even the last SEA Games.
"These players will be crucial in guiding the younger players and I'm confident they'll be able to do that."
Aide and his charges found some time to unwind yesterday afternoon in the picturesque surroundings of Zhongshan Park in Balestier for a photo shoot.
The event was part of the "Come Together" campaign, the Football Association of Singapore's bid to garner support for the team at the Games, and saw the players pay homage to their alma mater by parading the jerseys of their former school teams.
Captain Al-Qaasimy and his teammates cracked jokes while donning the colours of the Singapore Sports School, Tampines Primary School and Ang Mo Kio Secondary School, among others.
It was also a good opportunity for them to show their appreciation for the teachers and coaches who have helped groom them on and off the pitch.
Said Ho Wai Loon, formerly of Canberra Primary School, Canberra Secondary School and ITE College Central: "I would not be in contention for the SEA Games squad today if not for what my coaches taught me when I was much younger, in primary and secondary school."