Dec 28, 2012

    Gritty Lions still need stylistic upgrade

    In Bangkok

    TWO comments by two rival coaches summed up the meaning of this year's AFF Suzuki Cup tournament.

    After the Singapore national football team clinched their fourth Cup triumph in heart-stopping fashion in Bangkok last Saturday, coach Raddy Avramovic delivered a parting shot at his final match in charge.

    He said: "If we're happy with what we have now, we will not achieve anything. It's not right to think that we're there, there are many areas that can be improved."

    Indeed, while the 63-year-old can justifiably feel a sense of pride for the wondrous feat of guiding the Lions to three of their four Suzuki Cup wins, he knows that dominating this regional tournament - and getting the cool $700,000 bonus from the Football Association of Singapore - cannot be the ultimate goal of the national team.

    No, it has to be a springboard for bigger success.

    The Lions' playing style also left much to be desired. At last Saturday's match, they sought to soak up the Thai pressure and then strike through counter-attacks.

    Unfortunately, far too few of the players were equipped with the nous to keep possession and make the right passes to launch incisive attacks. As a result, the Lions had to withstand near-constant Thai pressure.

    This type of football is not a style befitting a regional powerhouse. It may be effective in Cup competitions, but to truly be a dominant team, the Lions need to play more expansive football than they did last Saturday.

    Nevertheless, this bunch of players showed an abundance of teamwork and perseverance, defending as a team to frustrate the likes of Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

    It will serve them in good stead come the 2015 Asian Cup qualifiers, which start next year. But, like Avramovic said, much more can be improved in this Lions squad.

    The second comment that stood out came from the German coach of the vanquished Thais, Winfried Schaefer.

    He said that while Thailand lost a chance to end their 10-year drought in the competition, this edition has made household names of many of his players.

    He added: "The kids playing football on the streets now know who Teerasil (Dangda), Jakkapan (Pornsai) and Kawin (Thamsatchanan) are.

    "We have not lost totally. We have inspired kids who can be Thailand's future."

    Indeed, the Thais have left an excellent impression on all, and not just their country's young. Speedy and technically sound, their fluent passing has won plaudits all around.

    But if these players can inspire young Thai kids, then shouldn't the Lions do the same for budding Singaporean footballers too?

    Too often, the lame excuse that local fans give for not supporting the Lions is that they don't know the names of any of the current crop of players.

    Presumably, they are stillenamoured with former stars like Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy. But this worshipping of former glories has to stop for Singapore football to develop.

    This current bunch of players, while less flamboyant than their predecessors, are no less committed to win for Singapore's cause.

    So which names must fans start to remember?

    Remember Izwan Mahbud, who has been so reliable in goal that - at just 22 years old - he is already being hailed as the next of a steady line of top Lions goalkeepers.

    Remember Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin, the two linchpins of the Lions' defence, repelling attack after attack from every regional strike force and rarely losing concentration.

    Remember Daniel Bennett, the evergreen warhorse who never buckled despite facing speedy wingers throughout the tournament.

    Remember Shaiful Esah, whose dead-ball abilities remain a vital source of goals and assists.

    Remember Fahrudin Mustafic, Isa Halim and injured vice-captain Hariss Harun. This trio of defensive midfielders are arguably the biggest reasons for the Lions' latest Suzuki Cup triumph, always harrying opponents into errors, occasionally launching incisive attacks and never intimidated by the rough tactics of rivals.

    Remember Shahdan Sulaiman, an up-and-coming playmaker who started the year in scintillating fashion for the LionsXII team, but perhaps got jaded from too much football during this Cup. Still, he is a magnificent distributor on good days, and he is only 24.

    Remember Khairul Amri, who springs to life so reliably during vital games. One hopes his finishing will get more lethal as he continues his path back from injury hell.

    Remember Aleksandar Duric, the elder statesman who belied his 42-year-old body to aid the Lions' cause with bruising, battling displays.

    And remember Shahril Ishak, whose transformation from a lightweight attacking talent to a crucial "Captain Marvel" who rises to every occasion is complete, clearly inspired by his captaincy.

    Don't forget these names. It lies in each of us to tell our young about these footballers' exploits, so that inspiration may be passed on.