No more excuses, says Singapore U-23 coach Aide Iskandar
Dec 9, 2013.
Courts Young Lions coach Aide Iskandar recalled the date instantly.
It marked, he said, the first day of the Under-23 team's 18-month preparation for next year's South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
That day, the Young Lions drew 1-1 with Laos in their 2013 SEA Games group opener in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
Singapore went on to grab the bronze medal, after losing 0-1 to Thailand in the semi-finals.
If there's one thing the 39-year-old coach learned from the experience, it's the value of ample preparation.
"I also learned that we cannot lose the first game," he told The New Paper.
"The draw with Laos was, in a way, a defeat because had we won, we would not have met the Thais in the semis."
Singapore, four-time regional champions at senior level, have yet to clinch the SEA Games football gold, and Aide knows the ultimate mission will arrive in June, when the Republic host the Games and aim to reach the final.
Preparations have been in full swing since the start of the year.
The U-23 side had a month-long training in Turkey last January, and in July, travelled to Austria with the senior team and played three matches over two weeks.
Next month, the team will return to Turkey for four games against European club sides. Then Aide's charges will head to Japan for a final training tour.
"I'm really happy with the support given by FAS (Football Association of Singapore) and Sport Singapore for the training trips," Aide said.
"In 2013, there were no overseas training tours. A lack of preparation cannot be an excuse this time, and neither can National Service, though we still faced challenges as a few players could not train regularly the past year."
Last year's SEA Games was the first of two U-23 tournament tests the former Singapore captain and ex-Hougang United coach has undertaken.
His second came at the Incheon Asian Games in September, when Aide was thrown into the fold at the 11th hour after illness forced national coach Bernd Stange to withdraw.
His charges fared well in South Korea, earning a total of four points against Tajikistan, Oman and Palestine to narrowly miss out on the round of 16.
Thirteen from that 20-man squad are eligible for next year's SEA Games, and Aide is confident his young charges will mature in time.
The bulk of the responsibilities rest upon the shoulders of striker Sahil Suhaimi, already a senior team regular, as well as winger Faris Ramli, defender Shakir Hamzah and playmaker Shahfiq Ghani. The latter three were regulars of the 2013 LionsXII team that won the Malaysian Super League.
Sahil has joined the LionsXII for the coming season, but Aide has procured Shakir and Shahfiq for his 26-man Young Lions side competing in the S.League.
"The players returned to training from their break last week, and already I could see how motivated they are," Aide said.
READY TO GO
"I put them through a fitness test and everyone looked ready to go."
Singapore football has come under intense scrutiny and criticism since last month's disastrous AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, where the Lions exited at the group stage on home soil.
Hopes have now turned towards the U-23 team and the pressure to deliver has undoubtedly increased.
"There is pressure going into any tournament, but this time it will be enormous," Aide said.
"The players know they will have to try and make up for the Suzuki Cup disappointment.
"If we prepare well, we can minimise that pressure. Everyone must also raise his own level of responsibility.
"A lot of hopes are on this SEA Games team - we must deliver."
Aide's pivotal five
SHAHFIQ GHANI (PLAYMAKER)
A stylish midfielder with a sweet left foot, Shahfiq hasn't been in his best form all year - though he did come alive during the Asian Games.
"The brain" of the U-23 outfit, Shahfiq will orchestrate the attack for Aide's team.
SAHIL SUHAIMI (Striker)
If he replicates his form at the 2013 SEA Games, where he scored three goals, Singapore will be in good stead.
Skilful, quick and clinical in front of goal, Sahil is the team's main goal-scoring threat and arguably their best player.
FARIS RAMLI (Winger)
The final part of the attacking triumvirate, the tricky Faris will provide the flair and creativity from either flank.
Great to watch when he's on form, but he must improve on his decision-making and finishing.
SHAKIR HAMZAH (Defender)
The leader in defence. Often used as a left back for both the national team and the LionsXII, the tough-tackling Shakir will be deployed as a centre back for the U-23 side. One of the main candidates for the team captaincy.
M ANUMANTHAN (Midfielder)
Has all the attributes to be the best defensive midfielder in Singapore after Hariss Harun, according to coach Aide Iskandar.
Physically strong, but will have to improve his concentration level.
... and one wildcard?
ACE: If Irfan Fandi (above) isn’t offered a contract by Chilean club Catolica, he could join the Courts Young Lions to prepare for the SEA Games. TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
He is only 17, but he's already one of Singapore football's hottest property.
Irfan Fandi, the eldest son of Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad, could be part of Singapore's Under-23 South-east Asia (SEA) Games squad for next year's tournament, which the Republic are hosting.
Courts Young Lions coach Aide Iskandar is keen to add the striker to his outfit for both the Asean competition in June and the next Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season, which kicks off in February.
But Irfan, who trained with Chilean club Universidad Catolica's first team this year, could return to Chile if he's offered a professional contract there.
Said Aide, who has discussed his plans for Irfan with Fandi: "We are waiting to see whether Irfan gets offered a contract in Chile. If that doesn't happen, I know that Irfan is motivated to play in the SEA Games.
"He's young, but already he fits in with the (U-23) team. He joined us during the Austria training tour (in July) and was able to compete.
"He has the ability and can give us the aggression up front; he could also complement Sahil Suhaimi well in attack."
Aide also wants Irfan in his S.League squad as a replacement for top scorer Sahil, who has joined the LionsXII to play in the Malaysian Super League.
With his 1.87-metre physique and powerful finishing, Irfan impressed at last year's Lion City Cup, where he played for the National Football Academy U-16s and scored against the youth teams of Arsenal and Eintracht Frankfurt.