By Teng Kiat
This is it. The final of the AFF Suzuki Cup will be upon us this Wednesday, and Singapore will be competing in it. All of which is still a little surreal to me.
To be honest, I never expected us to make it so far; I was simply hoping that we wouldn’t finish bottom of the group. After all, we were in with defending champions Malaysia, the unpredictable Indonesians, as well as what seemed like a much-improved Laos team.
Prior to this tournament, the Lions had won three and drew two out of ten friendlies. Opposition included the likes of Hong Kong, Philippines, India and Pakistan – not exactly world-beaters, with all due respect.
Couple that with a disastrous World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, where we lost all six group games in Round 3; sure, China, Iraq and Jordan were tough, but two goals scored and 20 conceded didn’t make for pretty reading.
Supporters started to get disgruntled and wondered why the likes of Ahmad Latiff and Jamil Ali were not called up, as Raddy seemed to persist in selecting the same old faces.
To further complicate things, the majority of the Singapore squad comprised LionsXII players; a project which divided opinions, and continues to. The fear was that the S-League would be shunned in favor of glory in Malaysian competitions; that our very own league would become a poorer cousin.
So with all the doom and gloom going around, you can forgive me if I was not exactly dripping with optimism as the Singapore boys took to the field against Malaysia in the opening match.
We all know what happened next now: Shahril fired in a clinical opener, grabbed an opportunistic second, then that old man Duric popped up with a third and I was quite honestly flabbergasted at what had transpired by the end of those 90 minutes.
You could literally hear the sound of jaws hitting the floor everywhere around Southeast Asia, and to say that 3-0 victory was against the odds would be mildly understating things.
But that is exactly what the Singapore players have done to reach the final of this Suzuki Cup: overcome the odds.
A narrow 1-0 loss to Indonesia, a stunning comeback 4-3 win over Laos and a hard-fought 1-0 aggregate victory over two legs against Philippines later, the Lions have arrived at a final I never thought they would make.
They will face Thailand in this final hurdle, and will head into the clash as underdogs, much the same way they came into this tournament. And boy do I hope they prove me wrong again.
The Singapore players will once again have to fight the odds, but this time they will surely be quietly confident about their chances. Chances which I, after having witnessed the work Raddy and his men have done throughout this campaign, am optimistic about as well.
Forget about the debate over tactics and squad selection, and all the negativity before the tournament – by coming this far, the players have proved that there’s a heart of a Lion beating in every one of their chests.
They will need to feel the full support of every Singaporean come this Wednesday at the Jalan Besar Stadium and on Saturday in Thailand, and I am fully prepared to back them to the hilt.
Come on you Lions - it is now your time to roar.