The Lions of Singapore roared this year, capturing the AFF Suzuki Cup and providing plenty of entertainment for faithful supporters of the country's domestic league
By Teng Kiat
However, it was the national team that brought true glory to the nation, as the Lions swept to a record-breaking fourth AFF Suzuki Cup crown to round off the local football calendar year on a high note.
After a cracking 6-4 aggregate win against Malaysia in a 2014 World Cup qualifier last year, Singapore proceeded to lose all six group games in the third round. Combine that with three wins and two draws in the country's ten friendlies this year, and one can understand why calls for coach Radojko Avramovic's head started to increase.
But a stunning run to the AFF Suzuki Cup final, including a 3-0 dismantling of deadly rivals Malaysia in the opening game, saw most supporters get back behind the Lions. Singapore then went on to beat Philippines in the semi-finals, setting up a sequel to the 2007 Cup final against Thailand. Widely considered underdogs, the Lions triumphed against the War Elephants 3-1 at home and held on for dear life in a 1-0 defeat in Bangkok to win 3-2 on aggregate, in the process becoming Asean football champions for a record fourth time.
|DOMESTIC LEAGUES AND CUPS
On the domestic front, defending champions Tampines Rovers sealed the title for a second consecutive season on the last day of the S.League as they successfully held off the challenges of foreign sides Albirex Niigata Singapore, Harimau Muda, and Brunei DPMM.
The Bruneian side did lift the League Cup for a second time in their return to football following a three-year exile. The uniformed group duo of Home United and SAFFC fell well short in their title bids, finishing 5th and 7th respectively, although the Warriors gave departing coach Richard Bok the perfect send-off with a Singapore Cup victory, denying Tampines a double in the process.
In Asian competition, the Stags disappointingly crashed out in the group stages of the AFC Cup, while Home were eliminated in the Round of 16. Despite the excitement of final-day title action for a second successive season, league attendances have been declining, and much work needs to be done to bring the support back to the stadiums.
The LionsXII side garnered massive support from Singaporeans in their debut season, as V. Sundramoorthy led his team to a runners-up finish in the Malaysian Super League and reached the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup.
Captain Shahril Ishak had an outstanding season, ending up as the side's top-scorer with 14 goals in all competitions, while the likes of youngsters Safuwan Baharudin, Irwan Shah and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud also grabbed the opportunity to shine. Many of the players now form the bulk of the national team, where it is hoped that their familiarity from playing with each other will help translate to success on the international stage.
Elsewhere, little-known 22-year-old Ahmad Hakimputra became only the fourth Singaporean after Fandi Ahmad, Sundram and Daniel Bennett to sign a contract with an European club. The striker arrived in Hungary via the Genova International School of Soccer and is now playing for the 'B' side of Hungarian Division One club Kaposvari Rakoczi FC.
|PLAYER OF THE YEAR | Shahril Ishak, LionsXII and Singapore National Team
There is no doubt that 2012 was a breakthrough year for the gifted attacking midfielder, who edged striker Khairul Amri for this accolade. His talent has never been in doubt but for a long time, Shahril had been inconsistent in his performances for the national team.
However, the Singapore skipper has been superb this season for both club and country, as the 28-year-old married his fine form for the LionsXII with his appearances for the Lions, leading by example in every game. Marking his 100th cap with a double against Laos in Singapore's third group match of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Shahril also fired in a double against Malaysia in the opening game and was intrusmental in leading the Lions to become champions.
Named as the tournament's Most Valuable Player, Shahril has undoubtedly stepped his game up to another level to become one of Southeast Asia's finest footballers.
|MOMENT OF THE YEAR | Bai's late goal seals Suzuki Cup for Lions
This might be a surprising pick to many, but it was this 91st-minute goal in the first leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup final by Baihakki Khaizan that was to ultimately prove crucial in Singapore's tournament triumph.
The centreback, who had a superb campaign throughout, lashed home from mere inches out following a scramble at a corner to make it 3-1 to Singapore. That strike was the difference as the Lions won 3-2 on aggregate to lift the Cup, also giving 'Bai' the remarkable distinction of being the first and last scorer of the season at Jalan Besar Stadium.
|WISHES FOR SINGAPOREAN FOOTBALL IN 2013
With the euphoria over the AFF Suzuki Cup victory, the hope is that the excitement generated will spill over into the local S.League, where the clubs can really do with better support.
On the international front, the relevants authorities have to build on the momentum generated by aiming for progress on the Asian front, starting with the Asian Cup qualifying matches in 2013. Development at grassroots and youth level have to be improved and continued, to groom the next generation of Lions.
Lastly, everyone at Goal.com Singapore would also like to thank Duric and Raddy for their contributions to Singapore football over the years, and wish them all the best in their future endeavours.