By Kenneth Tan
2008 was a campaign that promised so much, but delivered so little for Raddy Avramovic and his Singapore side.
Consecutive wins in two AFF championships since his arrival had seen the Serb’s stock rise even higher, as he soon became the darling of the Singapore public.
In the first-ever tournament where Suzuki came onboard as the title sponsor, the Lions had the unique chance of making it three successive wins and a record fourth triumph – something which even old rivals Thailand did not manage to achieve in their peak years.
Out went the old guard in Aide Iskandar and S. Subramani; lynchpins like Shi Jiayi, Mustafic Fahrudin, Noh Alam Shah and Baihakki Khaizan were retained, while 2004 hero Agu Casmir was recalled along while new citizen Aleksandar Duric entered the fray.
Things looked particularly rosy from the way they started the tournament: by collecting maximum points in the group stage for the first time in their history.
Despite being stifled for the majority of the first half in the opener against Cambodia, a 44th-minute effort scrambled in by Agu in a crowded six-yard box opened the floodgates; the score eventually ended 5-0 in favor of the Lions.
Things were much smoother in their second game against Myanmar, with Alam Shah nodding home a Fahrudin cross within a minute of kickoff. Agu duly added another two, as they cruised to a 3-1 victory and successfully qualified for the semi-finals with a game to spare.
The final game was a real test of the Lions’ resolve – a showdown against hosts Indonesia at the intimidating Gelora Bung Karno stadium. They passed it with flying colours though, as early goals in each half from Baihakki and Shi Jiayi saw them to victory and to the top of Group A.
The semi-finals proved to be a different kettle of fish altogether, however. Their opponents were Vietnam, who had recovered from an opening-day defeat to qualify from Group B along with Thailand.
In a chilly affair played out at My Dinh Stadium, Hanoi in the first leg, the Lions were largely under the cosh as the hosts dominated much of the proceedings.
Nguyen Viet Thang hit the post early in the first half from an narrow angle, before Nguyen Vu Phong’s second-half free kick was tipped over by Lionel Lewis.
The Lions could have earned the last laugh when Le Phuoc Tu inadvertently turned Fahrudin’s cross into his own goal 19 minutes from time, but it was chalked off with Alam Shah adjudged to be offside and interfering with play.
The decision sparked angry scenes from Singapore players and officials alike, with Raddy in particular storming down the touchline to rant at the linesman.
0-0 was still considered a good result though – after all the Lions had home advantage, heading back to the National Stadium.
However, despite all the huffing and puffing, the home side could not break the solid fort held by the Viet defence and paid dearly for it.
The moment of truth came in the 74th-minute. A momentary lapse in defence saw Vietnam's golden boy Le Cong Vinh burst down the left flank, hold off Ismail Yunos and lure out goalkeeper Lionel Lewis before teeing up Nguyen Quang Hai for an easy tap-in.
Singapore threw the proverbial sink at the Viet goal thereafter but they were denied by an-inspired Duong Hong Son in the Vietnam goal, as they slumped to a crushing defeat in their own backyard.
As such, Singapore would play no part in the final – one which was played out between Vietnam and three-time winners Thailand, who overcame Indonesia 3-1 over two legs in the other semi.
With the earlier group defeat to the same opponents still fresh in their minds, the Viets were not about to let the Thais strut their stuff.
A stunning 2-1 away victory achieved at the Rajamangala Stadium provided the perfect opportunity to seal the title in front of their fanatic fans in the second leg of the final.
The Thais did open the scoring via Teerasil Dangda’s header but the Viets remained mentally strong to hold them out for the majority of the match with Hong Son proving otherwise unbeatable in goal.
Nothing could deter them in their bid for their first-ever AFF Cup as they enjoyed a fairytale ending to the game by winning the game with the last kick of the game.
With extra-time looming, Vietnam was awarded a freekick 25 yards from goal. Captain Nguyen Minh Phuong’s inch-perfect delivery was met by Cong Vinh, whose header evaded the reach of Thailand goalkeeper Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool.
The goal sent the 40,000 fans at the My Dinh Stadium into raptures, as the 22-year-old tore off his shirt in celebration.
Coach Henrique Calisto was hoisted high up in the Hanoi air as the Vietnamese achieved success in the most unlikely of fashion.
Hong Son was deservingly named as tournament MVP while Agu, Teerasil and Indonesia’s Budi Sudardano were tied at four goals each of the Golden Boot award.
As for Singapore, they were arguably no longer the same side as the Lions would go on to crash out at the group stages in 2010.