S'pore-M'sia friendly postponed: Teams drawn in same Suzuki Cup group
They had to dig deep to win two years ago, and Singapore's mission to defend their Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup title this year will be no walk in the park, with the road out of the opening group stages already filled with potential pitfalls.
The tournament will be held from Nov 22 to Dec 20 and Singapore will co-host the group stages with Vietnam.
In yesterday's draw in Hanoi, the Lions were drawn in Group B, and will face three-time winners Thailand, Causeway rivals Malaysia and the winners of the qualifying tournament (held in October featuring Timor Leste, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Myanmar).
With the Radojko Avramovic-led Myanmar touted as favourites to win the qualifiers, Safuwan Baharudin, who was watching the draw "live" from a hotel in Bahrain where he is on duty with the national Under-23 side, simply said: "Group of Death."
Safuwan's defensive partner, Baihakki Khaizan, acknowledged the arduous task that lies ahead.
"It's a tough draw. We respect the teams in our group, but we can focus only on our preparations," he told The New Paper.
"We have shown in the past that we are not an individual bunch, but we can win it as a team."
Both Safuwan and Baihakki were key figures as former Singapore coach Avramovic led the Lions to glory in 2012, when they defeated Thailand over the two legs of the final.
The win meant Singapore became the first nation to win Asean's most prestigious football tournament four times (1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012)
The Singapore team won the first leg 3-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium (they lost the second tie in Bangkok 1-0), but will now be playing their matches at the new 55,000-capacity National Stadium at Kallang.
Baihakki is already looking forward to stepping out onto the pitch at the National Stadium with the roar of a huge home crowd behind the Lions.
"We are playing at our new stadium and it's a big privilege for us. We want to show our pride and do well in front of our crowd. We all know the pressure, but we'll cope it positively," he said.
Singapore were scheduled to host Malaysia at the National Stadium in a friendly initially scheduled for next month, then pencilled in for Nov 15.
But, after yesterday's draw throwing both sides in the same group, that fixture will now be postponed to after the end of the Suzuki Cup.
In response to TNP queries, Football Association of Singapore (FAS) director of marketing and communications, Gerard Wong, said: "The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) had suggested Nov 15. However, the venue is not available on that date.
"Following today's Suzuki Cup draw, FAM proposed that both organisations look for another date for the friendly after the tournament, and we have agreed to it.
"We will make an announcement once we confirm the details."
National coach Bernd Stange remained confident that his team will be ready for their title defence.
"Our preparations for the Suzuki Cup, such as our recent training tour to Austria, have gone well. The players know what I expect of them, they are getting more familiar with the style of football I want them to display, and we are slowly getting there," the German said, in a statement.
"The team are made up of young players, who are all hungry for success and are proud to represent the country."
The 66-year-old, though, will do his homework over what he calls dangerous opponents in Thailand, Malaysia, and even the winners of the qualifiers.
"There are no easy teams in South-east Asia, so (fans) can rest assured that we will be working closely with the relevant authorities and stakeholders to ensure that we have all our best players available to defend the title, and that I will be picking the strongest team available to me for every match," Stange added.
Dollah Salleh is a Malaysian legend and, with him in charge of the national team, they will have an extra edge. The players have a lot of respect for him and they will want to do well in his first big tournament in charge.
- Former Singapore star Rafi Ali
- Qualifiers runners-up
- Qualifiers winners
- Nov 23: v Thailand
- Nov 26: v Qualifiers Winners
- Nov 29: v Malaysia
Malaysia will be truly tasty
Fans are in store for some tasty ties when the Suzuki Cup comes to town in November.
The Lions will co-host the group stage along with Vietnam, and with Malaysia, Thailand and possibly Myanmar drawn in Group B, it is a tantalising prospect for Singapore fans, especially with the home games being played at the new National Stadium at the Singapore Sports Hub at Kallang.
While defending champions Singapore are record four-time winners of the tournament - Asean's biggest and most prestigious international football competition - Thailand have featured in six finals, lifting the trophy on three occasions.
But former Singapore international Rafi Ali knows which match will excite fans here the most.
"That Malaysia game will be a big one, even bigger than Thailand, simply because of the intense rivalry," said the former Lions midfielder.
"No matter how you prepare tactics before facing Malaysia, when you step out onto the pitch against them, it will be about heart - and that will give you goosebumps."
It is a fact not lost on Singapore coach Bernd Stange.
The 66-year-old German said: "I have been in Singapore only for a short time, but I understand the cultural significance of drawing Malaysia in the same group.
"The match against them will be very special because the two countries share a unique bond and a traditional footballing rivalry that is intense and very passionate.
"We have an interesting footballing history with Thailand as we played them in the previous final and there were many exciting games between the two nations in the past. I am sure the players will be extra motivated for both games."
With Radojko Avramovic at the helm, Singapore won three Asean crowns, beating Indonesia in 2004 and pipping Thailand in two finals, in 2007 and 2012.
The Serb became the most successful coach in Singapore's history - and in the history of the tournament - after the last win.
He decided not to renew his contract when it ended in 2012 and is now the coach of Myanmar.
Baihakki, who was blooded by Avramovic and became one of his mainstays, hopes Myanmar will be in the same group.
"It will be more exciting as we will have familiar faces all around, and will know what to do against each other," said the central defender.
"I believe if we can things right on the day and get our plans going, we should be all right."
Malaysia's coach will also be a familiar figure, with former international Dollah Salleh set for his first big assignment since his recent appointment.
One of Rafi's worst footballing memories came in a match against bitter rivals Malaysia, and he vividly remembers the 4-0 loss in the opening fixture of the 2002 Tiger Cup.
There were 45,000 witnesses of the mauling at the old National Stadium, and many tossed away the free Lions' T-shirts that were given out at the match.
"We were hammered and were just shell-shocked," said Rafi.
"But I hope that the current team - a talented team with a lot to offer - play with no fear and give everything they have for the flag on their chest.
"In the end, it will come down to who wants it more."