Go with a smile!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Suzuki / Tiger Cups

Football in Southeast Asia is a funny thing. Asia, as we all know, are the minnows of football in the world. And Southeast Asia are the minnows of Asia. We aren’t as good as Northeast Asia, where Japan and South Korea always take their places in the World Cup. We aren’t as good as the teams in the Middle East. We probably aren’t even as good as the ones in Central Asian countries , you know, the –stans.

But people in this region are football crazy. The standards are crap, the referees are probably corrupt, the players are probably corrupt. But everybody loves it. There’s probably nowhere else in the world that you can have 55,000 people turn up every week for extremely mediocre football.

People still remember the good old days of the Malaysia Cup. The win in 1994 was bittersweet. Singapore lost the finals in 1990 to Kedah, and in 1993, again, to Kedah. (I hate Kedah!!!). So in 1994, it was the first win in 14 years. Before it got booted out of the competition. (Now I don’t know what the hell is going on with the Malaysia Cup because apparently teams like Brunei and Kelantan have won the prize).

Now, the S-league has patently failed to live up to expectations. It was too much for every small town in Singapore to have its own club. Big cities, London aside, tend to have 2 or 3. It didn’t make sense to have a league where all the teams were in the same city. The atmosphere was gone.

But the Tiger Cup brought back some of the atmosphere. One thing about this tournament – it’s probably not very important, but routinely a lot of interesting things take place.

I first got interested in the Tiger / Suzuki Cup in 1998. I was in college, but I heard that Singapore, most improbably won the second Tiger Cup. Singapore were supposed to be a team in decline. Even in the days of the Malaysia Cup, Singapore was always second to Selangor, which was a state team. Furthermore, the coach at that time, Barry Whitbread was routinely criticised for being ultra-defensive, as opposed to the attractive, free flowing football we all enjoyed under Douglas Moore for that one unforgettable 1994 season.

That tournament was held in Vietnam. Singapore and Vietnam had qualified from their group, and Singapore had topped the group. Thailand and Malaysia were both trying to avoid winning the match and meeting Vietnam. Both had already qualified, and were playing their last match against each other! So we had this spectacle where both teams tried to lose that match. In the end, that match was decided by an own goal.

In any case, for Malaysia and Thailand, it didn’t matter who played which semi-final, because they both got knocked out.

Singapore were the underdogs to win the final, because they were the away team. And I think they were on the back foot a lot of the time, but they scored a fluke goal – a corner kick hit the back of R Sasikumar and it went in.

The tournament in 2002 was entirely forgettable for Singapore. Singapore were hosting the tournament, and they had a coach who was on the staff of the Denmark team which won the Euros in 1992. Unfortunately he was a shit coach. Singapore got stuffed 4-0 by the Malaysians in Kallang stadium. It was the most shameful experiences in living memory. (Although Lim Tong Hai’s 2 own goals against Myanmar in 1993 takes some beating).

We didn’t have a lot of expectations for 2004. But that was a tournament that changed everything. I only sat up and took notice when Singapore qualified for the semis. We knew that anything could happen after that, because you just had to play 2 teams.

The first leg against Myanmar was actually held in Kuala Lumpur because I think they didn’t have a place in Myanmar to host the match. It went 4-3 Singapore’s way. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, the return match was extremely dramatic.

Kallang’s pitch was waterlogged, but the match went on anyhow. In the mudbath, Myanmar went 2-0 up, 1 goal ahead on aggregate. Noh Alam Shah had a legitimate goal disallowed. Then 1 Myanmar player got sent off. Then another Myanmar player scored an own goal, levelling the aggregate score.

Then with minutes to spare, Singapore got a penalty. The Myanmar player conceding a penalty got sent off for a second yellow. There was a melee, during which Singaporeans and Myanmese had to be pulled apart from each other. Then a Myanmese kicked some mud in the referee’s direction. He got sent off for his troubles. To top it all off, Indra Sadan Daud missed the penalty! But it’s OK, Singapore started the extra time with a THREE MAN advantage, and scored 2 goals to get to the finals. Not surprisingly, afterwards there were some skirmishes between fans of both sides.

I found a commemorative VCD of this tournament at a cheap sale. I have kept it ever since. I’m recalling this match from watching that VCD but I also watched it live at that time and it made a big impression on me.

There was a squaring off between Raddy Avramovich and the Indonesian coach, Peter Withe. They had played each other before in the English league: Withe for Aston Villa and Avramovich for Norwich.

The first leg of the finals was to be held at Indonesia’s Senayan stadium. It was described as a cauldron. 70,000 fans screaming right out at you. However Indonesia played with 4 strikers, probably intending to score a lot of early goals, but they ended up conceding early and fortunately for Singapore, lousy tactics cost Indonesia the cup. Fortunately because it was quite a strong Indonesian side.

But there was a taint of doping involved in our wins. Agu Casmir was a foreigner playing in the S-league, and he was given a Singaporean citizenship (something I paid for with 2.5 years of national service). There was also Itimi Dickson. And these guys weren’t the first Singaporean foreigners to play for the Lions – there was also Engmar Gonclaves who unfortunately wasn’t able to reproduce his S-league form for the national side. Well 2 was not so bad for the 2004 side. In 2007, we added Shi Jiayi, Mustafic Fahrudin and Precious Emuejeraye.

You could say that all these additions were significant because Singapore relied on being more physical and being better organised than the opponents, who were often faster and more skilful. Still, it didn’t hurt our pride that the stars of the 2004 and 2007 wins were real Singaporeans: Daniel Bennett, Noh Alam Shah and Lionel Lewis.

In 2007, the final was tainted by Singapore being awarded a penalty kick that Thailand disputed. I was watching that match, thinking at that time that it was the last major football match to be hosted in the Kallang stadium. (I was wrong). And right before my eyes, Thailand staged a walk-off protest. According to the wiki article, Singapore also had a goal unfairly chalked offside.

In 2008, I watched the Singapore-Vietnam semi-final at the Kallang Stadium. This time, it really was the last match that was played there. Singapore attacked, and attacked and attacked, and the ball refused to go in. Then Vietnam had 1 counter-attack and they scored. After the match, there was a fight between Singaporeans and the Vietnamese, and a few people were injured. Even during the match, the Singaporeans and the Vietnamese were throwing stuff at each other.

In this edition of the Suzuki cup, Singapore exited the tournament, capping a miserable year for Singapore football. Singapore failed to qualify for the Asian Football Championship, losing a crucial match to Jordan. Then there was that infamous free for all between Beijing Guoan and the Young Lions, which was basically 2 youth teams. Then there was that exodus of our national players to the Indonesian league, which paid much better than our S-league. Then there was FC Etoile winning the S-league, the first time that a foreign team won the S-league.

Singapore were supposed to qualify. It was supposed to be an easy group to qualify from. But they only drew the game with the Philippines. Granted, this was an unusually strong Philippines team which qualified for the semi-finals. Then there was the ignominy of having to win the Burmese team from behind. And after that, losing by the odd goal to our bogey team, Vietnam.

So it may have been weird for Philippines to win the defending champions Vietnam to qualify, but a lot of people were rooting for them. And after Malaysia was trashed 5-1 by Indonesia most didn’t expect them to qualify, let alone reach the final and stand on the brink of the cup after winning 3-0 in Kuala Lumpur.

I suppose if that were to happen, the final score would be Singapore and Thailand 3 each, Vietnam and Malaysia 1 each. I think that this prize was destined to be shared between these 5 countries (Indonesia will get their turn one day). But I also hope that Singapore will win it again soon.

As usual, there was another talking point because there was trouble at the first leg final match . Apparently some fans were caught pointing lasers at the Indonesians. Seems like it is very difficult to hold a Suzuki cup where nothing ever happens.



Anonymous Iftitah said...

Correction. The 1998 final group match was between Indonesia & Thailand not Malaysia & Thailand. Malaysia sent schoolboys to that tournament because in SEA Games 1997 we lost 1-0 to Laos. After that SEA Games the FAM decided to ban the national team for 2 years. Malaysia went from 97 in FIFA ranking to 150 during that time.

2:13 AM

Blogger 7-8 said...

OK. Well considering Malaysia beat Singapore 4-0 in 2002 it couldn't have been that bad...

2:23 PM


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