Suzuki Cup preview: Singapore facing make-or-break tournament for new national project

·3 min read
Ikhsan Fandi (right) celebrates with Safuwan Baharudin (second from left) after the defender scored a goal against Timor-Leste at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup.
Ikhsan Fandi (right) celebrates with Safuwan Baharudin (second from left) after the defender scored a goal against Timor-Leste at the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup. (PHOTO: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — New beginning or false dawn? As Singapore embarks on another bid to be good enough to qualify for the Fifa World Cup, it will be hoping for an encouraging run by the Lions at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup to rally public support for its latest national football project.

Should the Lions manage to reach the semi-finals or do even better at the premier regional tournament on home ground, then it would at least provide a shot in the arm for the moribund state of football support in the city-state, given that the Lions have failed to advance out of the group stage in the past three Cup editions.

It is sometimes hard to believe that, less than a decade ago, Singapore were at the top of Southeast Asian football after winning their fourth AFF title in 2012. Yet the ensuing years of poor head-coach hirings and lack of young talents breaking through have conspired to sink Singapore football into mediocrity.

And just when it seemed as though the Lions' finally got a promising, progressive head coach in Tatsuma Yoshida in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the affable Japanese has found it hard to impose his ideas, with training being reduced to stops and starts.

The upcoming Suzuki Cup - itself being postponed from last year due to the pandemic - would be the 47-year-old's first major tournament in his two-and-a-half-year tenure. Yet it seems at times as if he is still figuring out the best squad to carry out his brand of high-intensity football. 

Wins have also been hard to come by, despite signs of the Lions playing far more enterprising football than the dour days of previous head coach V. Sundramoorthy. They are struggling with a six-match winless run leading into this Suzuki Cup, although Yoshida has pleaded for patience and calm as the losses were inflicted by nations much higher in the Fifa world rankings.

Singapore national football team coach Tatsuma Yoshida with captain Hariss Harun. (PHOTO: PictoBank/Getty Images)
Singapore national football team coach Tatsuma Yoshida with captain Hariss Harun. (PHOTO: PictoBank/Getty Images)

Another lacklustre campaign would be disastrous 

To be fair, Yoshida does not have many top-tier talents to work with. Aside from dependable captain Hariss Harun, experienced playmakers Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli, and raw striker Ikhsan Fandi, one would be hard-pressed to name any more game changers within the Lions squad.

They should still be capable enough to negotiate their Group A opponents - Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and Timor-Leste - and advance into the Suzuki Cup semi-finals, given that all their group rivals have seen their national-team developments heavily disrupted by the pandemic and, in Myanmar's case, domestic political upheavals.

And after the three recent Cup failures in which the Lions have flattered to deceive, they can ill-afford another lacklustre campaign, considering that a successful launch of their "Unleash the Roar" project could hinge on a spirited run at this tournament. 

The project - a well-meaning bid to revive the state of football in Singapore, hopefully culminating in eventual qualification for the World Cup Finals - is banking on getting the support of a nation who had been massively disappointed by the failure of Goal 2010, the previous attempt to make the World Cup Finals.

It is already a tough task convincing these doubtful fans, and it will be even harder should the Lions crash out of the Suzuki Cup group stage on home soil. And with little support and enthusiasm, the project could be in danger of suffering a stillbirth. 

So the pressure is undoubtedly on Yoshida, Hariss and the rest of the Lions to show the public that it is worthwhile in having faith in them. For the sake of the sport's future in the country, Singapore have to find progress and success at this Suzuki Cup.

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