5 positives from Singapore’s AFF Suzuki Cup 2020 campaign
The Lions did not succeed in their quest to win their fifth AFF Suzuki Cup, but there were plenty of positive takeaways from an encouraging tournament.
The Singapore national football team’s target for the delayed ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup 2020 tournament was always to at least reach the last four and they achieved it.
The Lions started their campaign with three straight wins against Myanmar (3-1), Philippines (2-1) and Timor-Leste (2-0), securing a spot in the semi-finals before suffering a 2-0 loss to Thailand in their last group match.
Paired with Indonesia – winners of Group B – in the semi-finals, the Lions battled to a 1-1 draw in the first leg before succumbing to a 4-2 extra-time defeat in the second leg to lose 5-3 on aggregate.
Despite the defeat, there were still plenty of positives for them heading into 2022, where they will compete in the third round of the 2023 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup qualifiers.
1. Breaking a nine-year hoodoo to reach the semi-finals
Since winning the tournament in 2012, Singapore have failed to make it past the group stages in 2014, 2016 and 2018. On each occasion, it had come down to the last group game to get a result (either a win or at least a draw) and the boys just simply could not hold their nerve or produce that quality required for progression.
Entering this year’s tournament, the pressure was on to end the drought. The Lions clearly learnt from past lessons as they achieved qualification with two games to spare by beating Myanmar and Philippines, before repeating the trick against Timor-Leste to win their opening three Suzuki Cup games for the first time since 2008.
While it was disappointing not to win or reach the final, the bigger picture perspective is that the current team has managed to achieve what some of their predecessors could not and they can only go from strength to strength from here.
2. The team’s improvement and evolvement under Tatsuma Yoshida
In the past, Singapore can often be accused of being too one-dimensional and predictable in their play at times – where players tend to hoof it long and go Route One when under pressure by their opponents.
However, there has been a clear shift towards a more progressive footballing style where the players are able to keep the ball when under pressure by their opponents under outgoing coach Tatsuma. The Lions have also shown their tactical flexibility, being able to play in a 4-3-3 formation or switch to a three-at-the-back system for different matches or even during the game with wing-backs bombing up and down the flanks.
The fitness levels of the players have also evidently gone up another notch, with the team showing glimpses of excelling at the type of modern pressing game that is often adopted by top European teams.
3. Their ability to overcome various obstacles throughout the competition
It was not all smooth-sailing for Singapore during the tournament.
Effervescent winger Gabriel Quak sustained a shoulder dislocation against Philippines, while flying full-back Shakir Hamzah suffered the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury against Thailand – both were subsequently ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
Their absences were a huge blow, considering they are long-time stalwarts of the national team.
But the Lions went about their business without them, with Shawal Anuar coming in on the flanks to great effect and Song Uiyoung also excelling as an auxiliary right winger. Nur Adam Abdullah – fresh from an outstanding season with Lion City Sailors – stepped in at left wing-back and put in fearless displays.
Against Indonesia in the second leg of the semi-finals, the Lions were on the wrong end of some refereeing decisions and had both first-choice centre-backs sent off. But they never stopped fighting and could have won against all odds had Faris Ramli converted his penalty at full-time.
The players left everything on the pitch and perhaps deserved more on the night.
Shahdan Sulaiman with a Spectacular Goal vs. Indonesia
How about 𝗧𝗛𝗔𝗧 to take your country ahead! 🦁 #AFFSuzukiCup2020 | #RivalriesNeverDie | #IDNvSGPPosted by AFF Suzuki Cup on Saturday, 25 December 2021
4. Emergence of future Lions lynchpins
One trait about Tatsuma was that he was always willing to give players an opportunity to play if they showed they were worthy of pulling on the Lions shirt.
Nur Adam, 20, was thrown into the deep end in the semi-final although he had never started an international game before this tournament and impressed.
Hami Syahin was playing in his first Suzuki Cup – and was only named as a standby player initially – but was regularly handed the opportunity in the middle of the park. The 23-year-old is starting to show signs that he could be Singapore’s midfield general for the next decade.
One of Singapore’s rising young defenders Zulqarnaen Suzliman was also entrusted with the responsibilities at the right side of the defence throughout the tournament and even showed his prowess going forward.
The trio – along with the likes of Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi – have shown they could be the leaders of the national team in the near future.
5. Restoring Singapore’s faith in local football and inspiring the next generation
The applause and the constant chants of “Singapura!” from the stands on Christmas Day tells it all about what Singapore have done in this Suzuki Cup and the impact goes beyond trophies.
New footballing heroes were created and the next generation were inspired, with kids even spotted trying to emulate Shahdan Sulaiman the next morning.
On social media, an avalanche of positive comments on Singapore football appeared and everyone was singing praise of the Lions.
The power of football to unite the nation is something truly special. The Lions did not win the tournament, but they won many Singaporeans’ hearts with their seemingly indomitable fighting spirit and unwillingness to fold in the face of adversity.
The roar from the 10,000 capacity crowd after that Shahdan free-kick was thunderous and one could have wondered how it could have been if more fans were allowed in. As the players walked off to claps from all four corners of the stadium, it is clear that the faith in local football has returned.
It is key to build on this foundation even though Tatsuma has resigned to return home to Japan. Let’s not waste this opportunity!