Lions continue to leap forward
© AFP

The tiny island nation of Singapore has to date made little impression on the international stage never representing Asia at a FIFA tournament, and having made just one appearance at the AFC Asian Cup. This may be a record that befits the relative size of the country, however the Lions progress in recent years is something that cannot be underestimated.

Their concerted push for achievement was underlined in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking as they soared eight places to 111 on the global ladder. By doing so the south-east Asian nation drew level with 1990 FIFA World Cup™ finalists United Arab Emirates and closed upon regional powerhouses Thailand with the gap reduced to four places.

Indeed it was their excellent performances against the regional rivals over the past weeks that marked them out as Asia's biggest movers in November. Under Serbian tactician Radojko Avramovic, Singapore were undefeated in their build-up to November's crucial 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Their three-match preparation began with an impressive 4-2 win over Turkmenistan on 22 October before holding 2007 AFC Asian Cup quarter-finalists Vietnam to a 2-2 draw just two days later. A 3-1 win against India saw the Singaporeans go into the back-to-back qualifying fixtures with Thailand in a confident mood.

Having each bagged three titles at the ASEAN Football Championship (previously known as the Tiger Cup), Singapore and Thailand have long been arch-rivals within the region. Singapore were caught out at home in the opening encounter with Bryan Robson’s Thailand emerging 3-1 victors. But Avramovic’s outfit took revenge four days later when they came away with three points against the same opponents at Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium. Star striker Aleksandar Duric settled the contest on 38 minutes to take three points from the Thai home fortress.

The hard-fought victory, coupled with their 2-1 win over Jordan in their second group game, has Singapore well on track towards claiming their second continental appearance. With six points garnered from four matches, the Lions are a mere point behind leaders and continental giants Iran. A third win in either of the remaining two outings will likely seal up one of the two qualifying spots.

“I think it is a great opportunity now and there is everything to play for from the last two games,” remarked Avramovic, in reference to their penultimate home match against Iran next January and the closing fixture against hosts Jordan in March. “We need one good result to maybe qualify.”

Sustained progress
Even the harshest local critics would acknowledge that Avramovic is the man responsible for masterminding the Lions’ rebuilding process since taking over in 2003. The former Yugoslavia goalkeeper tasted his first Asian success with Kuwait when he guided the Gulf nation to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Sydney 2000. He replaced Berti Vogts to take the reigns of the Kuwaiti senior national team the following year and within four months had claimed the West Asian Games championship.

With such experience, it didn't take him too long to mould the erratic Singapore into a more consistent side. Avramovic brought success in just his second year at the helm when Singapore defeated Indonesia on aggregate to win their second Tiger Cup in 2004. The Lions went on to complete a regional hat-trick after retaining the title in 2007, this time edging out Thailand with 3-2 aggregate win.

Their recent reversal against Thailand provided the 60-year-old with much food for thought. “The victory was very special for us. I told my players to believe in themselves and we have the experience to bounce back after bad games. I think we are the best two teams in south-east Asia alongside Thailand.”