'It was one of my worst experiences in football!' – Former Singapore international and three-time AFF Cup winner S. Subramani on the hard-fought AFF Championship 2004 triumph

In the first of an exclusive two-part interview, the defender with 115 international caps for the Lions recalls his memorable experiences in the AFF Cup
By Kenneth Tan

The date: January 2, 2005.

The occasion: a Tiger Cup semi-final against Myanmar, with a place in the final at stake.

The moment: in the last few minutes of the first-half of extra time, with Singapore having just clawed back from a 2-1 deficit to lead by two goals and put themselves within reach of the final of the region's biggest tournament.

The match was being played out in a tempestuous atmosphere on a horrendous, mud-ridden pitch at the National Stadium, with Myanmar already reduced to eight men. Tempers started to fray and challenges began to fly in. Then, there came an incident which can be relived in its full 'glory' on YouTube even now.

Myanmar substitute San Day Thien came in with a late studs-up tackle on striker Indra Sahdan, with midfielder Goh Tat Chuan in the vicinity. That over-the-top challenge provoked Goh, who had a clash of words with San before Subramani stepped in to stop the spat along with referee Toru Kamikawa. They were duly joined by both sets of players in a matter of seconds.

In the midst of it all, something flew threw through the Kallang air from the Myanmar substitute bench and struck the Singapore no. 14 right on the head.

'Mani', as he is known, fell to the ground but recovered upon treatment. The instigator, Myanmar substitute keeper Tun Tun Lin, was subsequently shown the red card.

It was an incident which the defender described as ‘one of my worst experiences in football’.

“That was one of the things you thought you would never see in football, although I forgot about it after we won!" Subramani recounted to Goal.com Singapore.

"It happened so quickly at that time [and] it was really chaotic.

"I remembered [that] I went to stop Tat Chuan from a confrontation with a Myanmar player, then all of a sudden this bottle came flying at me.

"At first I thought it was a punch thrown [at me] because I was facing away from the direction; [only] after that when our physio [Yeo] Hwee Koon came on to give me first aid, then I [got to] know from her it was a bottle.

"The bottle struck my ear and I had a small cut, but fortunately I still managed to continue and complete the match. After that, I found out this player got banned for nine months!”

The significance of that victory was huge. When the referee finally blew the whistle to signal the end of that match, it meant the Lions made it to their first Tiger Cup final in six years. They won over two legs against Indonesia to stand at the pinnacle of South-east Asian football again.

“That match was a real key one, it was very crucial that we had to win,” Mani said.

“We [had] won 4-3 away in the first leg and without away goals rule in the tournament, we had to get a result back at home. They led 2-0 early on but [Noh] Alam Shah pulled one back. We got a good chance to win it in 90 minutes as we got a penalty on 89 minutes, but Indra missed it.

"Myanmar had two to three men sent off, and we eventually won the game [in extra time].”

That was not the only bad experience at the biennial competition for the man who spent 11 years donning the proud red jersey and played 115 games in total, as he picked out examples from that year’s final, as well as from 1998.

“Playing Indonesia in Senayan was one," Mani vividly recounted.

"The environment was very hostile throughout. Prior to reaching the stadium, the fans were already taunting us and even after the match we were stuck in the stadium for an hour plus because the fans were rioting outside!

“1998 was challenging for us also [because] we had to travel between two cities in a short time. We played in Hanoi for the group stages but because we finished second in the group, we had to travel to Ho Chi Minh for the semi-finals."

The affable man then chuckled as he recalled how his then-roommate had a problem with the room due to his height.

"They put us up in a weird hotel and I remember me and Sasi [Sasikumar] were sharing a room and he couldn’t even stand upright!" he laughed.

"Sitting down was not much different, because his head was already touching the ceiling. Moreover the room was very small and there was a pillar in the middle of the room!

"Fortunately our team manager Omar changed the hotel for us in the end.

“There was also the crazy Thailand-Indonesia match [in which both teams contrived to lose to each other]. We went to watch the match and within 15 minutes, we wanted to leave already!”

From Sasi’s ‘Shoulder of God’ goal in San Hanoi Stadium in Vietnam to Khairul Amri’s stunner in Supachalasai Stadium in Bangkok, the former Home United defender has played in five AFF Cup tournaments in total during his career.

Disappointments in two editions, 2000 and 2002, does not mask the success he has enjoyed in this tournament. After all, he was involved in three triumphs, 1998, 2004 and 2007, and he featured in every game in the first two.

For the 40-year-old though, it is the first triumph that he holds closest to his heart.

“If I had to choose, the most memorable tournament to me [was] in 1998, it was the first ever international tournament we had [ever] won," he beamed.

"What was more meaningful was that group were all locals. We had [a] good mixture of the four ethnic groups.”

This is not to say the other two victories were not significant achievements.

“The case in 2004 was like in 1998, no one gave us a chance before the tournament as preparations were not good, we didn’t get results in most of the warm-up matches we played and we were also knocked out in the first round in the last tournament [in 2002]," Mani assessed.

"Nevertheless, the team was motivated to do well and wanted to make amends for 2002. We also had a well-balanced team with some youngsters and a few experienced heads."

Subramani went on to describe the high expectations in 2007 as they came into the tournament as the defending champions, and cited the fact that the majority of the 2004 squad making it to the following edition, as key to their successful title defence.

"That triumph [in 2007] was important for me personally as well as I had already announced it would be my last international tournament before retirement and I wanted to leave on a high note," he explained.

Those triumphs will not have happened if it was not for a man he spent several years alongside at both country and club level - Aide Iskandar.

“I played together with him from 1997 until I retired," he reminisced about Aide, who lifted the 2004 and 2007 trophies as Singapore captain.

"We complemented each other and it was a good partnership.”

Part 2 of the interview will be published on Sunday.