Regional supremacy in south-east Asia goes on the line this week as the 2012 edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup reaches its denouement. Always a popular and tightly contested event, this year’s finale has an extra edge. The tournament’s two most successful nations – Singapore and Thailand – will face off in the two-legged final, with the winner aiming for an unprecedented fourth crown. The opening leg will take place today in Singapore, with the return between the Lions and Thailand’s War Elephants to take place in Bangkok on Saturday.
Singapore, it would seem, face a massive challenge against an in-form Thailand - undefeated in the eight-nation competition - who bundled out defending champions Malaysia in the semi-final. Thailand too boasts the tournament’s leading scorer in Teerasil Dangda. Singapore, for their part, were forced to make do with a hard-fought 1-0 aggregate victory over Philippines.
However the form book matters little according to Singapore captain Shahril Ishak. “We are aware that we are up against a strong Thai team, but we are confident that we will get a good result,” Shahril told FIFA.com. “It helped that we have played against each other several times and there is mutual understanding and healthy respect between us.”
United by familiarity
Singapore, though, have not tasted victory against Thailand since an AFC Asian Cup qualifier in 2009. Nevertheless, Shahril hopes that experience, and indeed teamwork, can get his side over the line. The Lions, who still boast evergreen striker Alexander Duric in their squad amongst a host of battle-hardened veterans, feature numerous personnel who were schooled together at the National Football Academy a decade ago.
“The experience and camaraderie has helped us develop and gel as a team and we have also developed a desire to win,” says Shahril. “(Younger players) complement the experienced players. And as the tournament progressed, our team spirit became stronger.”
History on the line
Asked if the chance to become south-east Asia’s most coveted nation adds extra importance to the final, elicits an unequivocal response from Shahril. “It sure does,” he says. “We do want to be the holders of that record, however, we do not allow that thought to affect our play, our preparation and training. Each one of us is focused on the games ahead and we hope to create history.”
Shahril also describes important home matches at their Jalan Besar Stadium as “special”, and few match-ups have been as critical during the entire history of football in the island city-state. “Our fans are the 12th man in the Singapore team. The match against the Philippines in the second leg of the semi-final was super charged and the atmosphere was electric. We always try to please our fans - who motivate and inspire us. Our fans camped overnight and braved the rains to purchase tickets to the final and they snapped up all the tickets available in three hours.”
For 28-year-old Shahril, captaining the national team is matter of great pride. “Donning the national jersey and leading your team out onto the field for the finals is an experience in itself. I have no words to describe it. The feeling is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Shahril leads by example not just by word, but by example. The easy going skipper, who is equally adept in midfield as he is in the forward line, has already banged home four goals in the competition, just one behind Thai ace Dangda.
Decade of success
Regardless of the result, the almost decade-long reign of coach Radojko Avramovic has been one of huge growth for Singapore. Under the Serb-born Avramovic, Singapore reached the third round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, and last year repeated the feat. They also were twice crowned Suzuki Cup kings, winning in 2004 and, most recently, in 2007.
“Raddy has been a great coach and mentor to us all,” said Shahril. “He has rejuvenated the team by bringing in many young players into the team. I am one of his discoveries and we have certainly gelled as a team.”
The nation of some five million inhabitants will next year commence the difficult task of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup in a group featuring Oman, Syria and Jordan. For now, however, the goal centres around 180 minutes of football against Thailand. And Shahril has faith in the tactical nous of the 63-year-old Avramovic. “Coach Raddy has devised a game plan and we will carry it out on the pitch.”