Zainudin: Cup final win can do wonders for Singapore football
Bukit Jalil match could provide much-needed spark for football: FAS president
KELANTAN v LIONSXII
(Saturday, 8.45pm, Bukit Jalil Stadium)
Faris Ramli lumbered into the Geylang pitch for the LionsXII training session yesterday evening and soon disappeared into the treatment room at the Lorong 12 facility.
The fleet-footed winger was visibly drained, and understandably so - he trained in the morning with Aide Iskandar's national Under-23 side that are preparing for the South-east Asia (SEA) Games.
Like Faris, Sahil Suhaimi, Christopher van Huizen and Zakir Samsudin are also members of both squads, and all four eyeing a spot in the SEA Games final, but for now, though, they are focused on Saturday's Malaysian FA Cup final.
The LionsXII will face Kelantan at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in a match Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin believes is much more than about winning a trophy.
"It's been a tough year, let's be honest about that, and we couldn't get things to work out the way we hoped - and against that backdrop, this FA Cup final is really not just one game," he told The New Paper yesterday, as he made his way to the Jalan Besar Stadium to see the U-23s, after speaking with Fandi's charges at Geylang.
"A win will be a boost for Singapore football, a big positive. I hope there will be a trickle-down effect."
From Bernd Stange's senior Lions and down through the national age group teams, there has been only one win registered by any Singapore side this year.
That came last week when the U-23s beat Shinzuoka Sangyo University 3-0 during a week-long training camp in Japan.
"I hope the positivity flows down to fans, who will hopefully embrace the SEA Games team.
"A good fighting performance in the final can inspire our U-23s, and I hope it can maybe even put a bounce in the step of (FAS) staff, and see more positivity and quality work in the organisation," he said.
There are already signs that a spark has been lit.
Singapore's legends from yesteryear who played in the Malaysia Cup finals in 1993 and 1994 gave a pep talk to the LionsXII on Tuesday, and tour operator Akbar Hashim has told The New Paper that he will be leading more than 30 buses up to Bukit Jalil for the final - his biggest crowd since the inception of the team in 2012.
"This is a sign of the fraternity coming together... and I'm very proud that they (former players) want to play a role - their experience is something that should be harnessed and I hope this spirit carries through," said Zainudin.
"While I don't have exact fan numbers, it is encouraging, and it would be great if this spills over into the SEA Games."
The impact of the final may not all be rosy.
The four-year memorandum of understanding with the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) that saw a Singapore side join Malaysian domestic competitions comes to an end this year, with a new agreement yet to be tabled.
"We need to have a real conversation with our Malaysian counterparts, but yes, the final will definitely have an impact, and I don't know if it will be positive or negative," he said, pointing to the ugly scenes that erupted after the semi-final, second leg in Terengganu last Saturday.
Irate Terengganu fans rioted after their team were booted out on the away goals' rule. They damaged the stadium as well as vehicles in the vicinity, reportdly torching an ambulance.
STILL IN OR OUT?
"There was some negativity hurled at us, saying that we shouldn't be playing in Malaysian football, and one way or the other, the final will have an impact on the approach to discussions," said Zainudin, who revealed that the FAS is still weighing the pros and cons of the LionsXII continuing in Malaysia's club competitions.
"I'm very happy for Fandi, who has managed this (a spot in the final) with all the constraints he faced - constraints that we put on him - and this is a realisation of this developmental team.
"They showed guts and determination in the way they played in the semi-finals, and I believe that a similar positive performance (in the final) can be an inspiration for the SEA Games team," said Zainudin.
Just weight, Izzdin's back
EASY DOES IT: Izzdin Shafiq is now one of the first names on the LionsXII teamsheet.
There has never been any doubt over the footballing ability of Izzdin Shafiq, who progressed through the national youth ranks, patrolling the midfield alongside current Singapore vice-captain Hariss Harun.
Starring for the LionsXII today, he is comfortable on the ball, can ping accurate passes from half a football field away, and packs power in his shooting boots.
The 24-year-old has enjoyed a stellar year and is now one of the first names on Fandi Ahmad's teamsheet.
But just a few years ago, Izzdin stood on the fringes of the team that won the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL) title, facing much criticism for packing in a little extra around the waist.
His journey to a leaner, and meaner Izzdin came after a healthy dollop of plain old hard work, and a dash of a not-so-secret home remedy at the Bishan Stadium.
"There's really no secret to it - it's about putting in hard work. Personally, I give of my best every time I step onto the pitch, whether it's a match or a training session," he said, crediting his stint with S.League giants Home United last year as a critical factor in his rise.
"I was criticised about my weight before, and I guess it was fair - when you're overweight, it's harder running around the pitch.
"I started to lose weight before the 2013 South-east Asia Games, then I lost even more when I joined Home United.
"Home's game was a lot about running and chasing, you can't even dream about walking when you get out onto the pitch - and my mentality now is exactly the same," he said, of his time under former Home coach, South Korean Lee Lim Saeng.
"Those of us who weren't playing much would definitely have to run a lot during training sessions - and I have to say it really helped me a lot."
At his heaviest, Izzdin weighed 87kg, today, he is 8kg lighter. He also improved as a footballer at Home.
"It was good to be able to train with senior players, they've got a lot more experience and they helped with a lot of things, even simple stuff like my positioning on the field," he said, pointing to former Home forward, one-time South Korean international Lee Kwan Woo, as one of the best to learn from.
"The intelligence he showed on the pitch was brilliant. He didn't just play football with his feet, he played with his brain.
"I've tried to use some of his moves in my game," he revealed, chuckling as he recounted a no-look pass he attempted in a game.
"And now that I've lost quite a bit of weight, I'm a lot more mobile, and running all over the pitch really isn't a problem for me any more."
On Saturday's FA Cup final, Izzdin believes the LionsXII can "do something".
He said: "It will be great to be able to play in a final, and to win the FA Cup will be special. I know that if I continue to play like (I have), I think I can achieve something, I just have to press on."