Singapore cruised to Tiger Cup glory on Sunday, wrapping up a surprisingly comfortable 5-2 aggregate victory against Indonesia with a 2-1 win in front of 59,000 ecstatic home fans at the National stadium.
The final two victories completed an eight-match unbeaten run in Southeast Asia's premier competition for the tiny island state. And though it was their second Tiger Cup triumph in five attempts, Singapore's success will have underpinned the tournament's slogan that "anything can happen".
Just as they had done in the first-leg in Jakarta, Radojko Avramovic's Lions roared into an early lead. Indra Sahdan Daud stroked home a low drive after only six minutes with a spotkick from Agu Casmir, the Nigerian-born striker who had also netted a week earlier, doubling the lead four minutes before half time. Four goals behind, Indonesia could only manage one in the second period through Elie Aiboy as Peter Withe's exhausted side sank to their knees at the final whistle.
"The title is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the players," said Avramovic. "Nobody gave us a chance before the tournament but now we need to look ahead and start building on this success."
Realistically Indonesia's fate had been sealed in the opening leg. Despite the presence of 110,000 fanatical fans at the Utama Senayan Stadium, they fell three goals behind, virtually condemning them to a third-consecutive runners-up spot in the tournament. In the group stages back in early December, Withe's side had fashioned 17 unanswered goals. And even after going down at home 2-1 against neighbours Malaysia in the first-leg of the semi-finals, they found the energy to come back 4-1 in the return match to sensationally grab a spot in the final.
"Winning the trophy is not going to change anything and we can't bring families back. But we also realise that we can play a part in helping this country get back on its feet, in putting a smile on people's faces again," Withe had said ahead of the final.
But whether injuries finally "took their toll" or players were affected by the extent of the devastation caused by the tsunami, Indonesia looked a shadow of their earlier selves in the decisive matches.
"We made crucial mistakes in both games and they cost us dear", lamented the Englishman, who had guided Thailand to victories in the previous two editions. "Singapore have a brilliant goalkeeper (Lionel Lewis) and the fact that he was named the tournament's Most Valued Player speaks volumes about their defence."
What might have been...
Malaysia defeated Myanmar 2-1 to take third place. Satisfactory progress though the nations will be a little disappointed not to have competed in the final showdown. Malaysia letting a 2-1 win in Indonesia slip in the return leg and Myanmar going down in extra-time to Singapore.
Undoubtedly, the biggest shock of the ten-team tournament was Thailand's first-round exit. Winners for the past two editions, the Thais, who have gone through several coaches since Withe guided them to victory two years ago in Indonesia/Singapore, could not recover after going down 2-1 to co-hosts Malaysia. A draw versus Myanmar sealed their fate, ending a hugely disappointing 2004.
In Group A, hosted in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia struggled to make any impression against their southern rivals. Vietnam fought out a goalless draw with Singapore but it was not enough to save them from early elimination.
For Timor Leste, the 2004/5 edition of the Tiger Cup was quite an introduction to the competitive game. The world's newest national team shipped 13 goals before Anai (Januario Do Rego) scored the opening goal against the Philippines. Two late strikes for the Philippines added another defeat to their footballing genesis but there were plenty of signs that East Timor would quickly find their feet and in years to come threaten the hierarchy of the Southeast Asian game.