|By Khalis Rifhan
The inaugural AFF Cup was first played back in 1996, as the old Kallang Stadium of Singapore bore witness to players from the golden era of South-east Asian football.
Fans were treated to footballing brilliance from the likes of Indonesia attacking midfielder Fachri Husaini, Myanmar's Maung Maung Oo and Zainal Abidin Hassan of Malaysia, who was regarded as their best footballer in the 80's and 90's.
The locals also had their very own hero to cheer on in the form of Singapore's favorite footballing son, Fandi Ahmad, as the various nations went up against what was arguably one of the strongest Thailand sides in history.
There was an abundance of talent in the attacking department from The Land of Smiles, which gave the region the household dish known as tom yam.
The trickery of Kiatisuk Senamuang, who was famously known as ‘Zico’, after the legendary Brazilian footballer of the same name, the deadly Natipong Sritong-In and the towering Woorawot Srimaka were all ably supplied with ammunition by the creativity of Surachai Jaturapattarapong in midfield.
Singapore were unfortunate to be drawn in the same group as eventual champions Thailand, and they were joined by Malaysia, Brunei and Philippines in Group B.
In their first game, the hosts needed a 89th-minute equaliser from Fandi to secure a point against arch-rivals Malaysia after K.Sanbagamaran had given the Tigers the lead in the first half.
The next two games were relatively easier for the Lions, as they disposed of Brunei and Philippines with a three-goal winning margins.
Veteran Hasnim Haron, 'Super-Sub' Steven Tan and Fandi got on the score-sheet against the Bruneiansm while Lim Tong Hai added a third against Philippines in the second half after Fandi had grabbed a brace in the first.
With Malaysia successfully holding the Thais to a draw two days earlier, Singapore knew that they needed nothing less than a win against Thailand in their last group match.
Although Fandi and company played their hearts out against a superior Thai outfit, they eventually went fell to a Natipong Sritong-in goal 20 minutes from time in a match witnessed by more than 42,000 fans.
Thailand then advanced to the final after seeing off Vietnam in the semi-finals, having gone four goals up by half time courtesy of a Natipong brace and a goal each from Kiatisuk and Worrawoot.
Although Vietnam added two goals in the last 10 minutes via Vo Hoang Buu and Nguyen Hong Son, the Thais cruised through to set up a meeting with Malaysia in the final, who had no problem recording a 3-1 victory against Indonesia in the other semi-final.
The final was settled early in the game though, as former Huddersfield Town and SAFFC striker Kiatisuk netted in the 9th minute to help his side clinch the first-ever Tiger Cup trophy.
Malaysia’s Zainal was named the player of the tournament while Kiatisuk’s strike partner Natapong subsequently claimed the Golden Boot award with seven goals, in a competition which the Thais would go on to win twice more in 2000 and 2002.