Sunday 23 December 2012

Singapore win AFF Suzuki Cup 2012

Lions make history
Singapore survives Thai onslaught to clinch record fourth Asean football title
By Fabius Chen, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

In front of 20,000 passionate home fans, in the face of a highly charged Thai side, Singapore fought its way into the record books of Asean football last night.

Written off as outsiders at the start of this year's Suzuki Cup, the Lions clinched an unprecedented fourth Asean Football Federation title with a brave defensive display.

Despite going 0-1 down to Thailand at Bangkok's Supachalasai Stadium, Singapore coach Raddy Avramovic's men withstood wave after wave of Thai attacks to edge the hosts 3-2 on aggregate. The Lions had won 3-1 in the first leg at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday.

Singapore midfielder Isa Halim said: "The team is very grateful that despite our poor results before this tournament, football has united Singaporeans. We are so happy that we got everyone on our side."

Hailing their success, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted on his Facebook page: "Congrats to the Lions on winning the AFF Suzuki Cup for a record 4th time!! Well done! We're so proud of you!"

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean added: "Tenacity, grit and a lil bit of luck. Well done lions, champions of South East Asia. Thanks Raddy!"

His mention of Avramovic was poignant. Last night, the Serb confirmed that he would be stepping down from the post which he has held since 2003.

For the 63-year-old, the win was his third as national coach, adding to the AFF Cups he won in 2004 and 2007.

It was also 42-year-old striker Aleksandar Duric's final international match.

"I cannot believe that I'm retiring as an AFF Cup winner," he said, proudly donning a shirt, specially commissioned by kit supplier Nike, bearing four gold stars over the Singapore flag to represent the Lions' four AFF Cup wins.

"I really cannot describe the amazing feeling inside me now."

Other records were also broken last night. English-born defender Daniel Bennett became the Republic's most-capped player with 122 international appearances, surpassing former national captain Aide Iskandar.

Skipper Shahril Ishak was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player for his contributions to the Lions' success, which included four goals.

Only Thailand's Teerasil Dangda scored more - five - and he took home the Golden Boot award.

But hard as he tried, the striker failed to find a way past a stubborn Lions defence over the two legs.

Indeed, in the face of a 90-minute Thai onslaught, the Lions had their backline of Bennett, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin, Shaiful Esah and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud to thank.

The final attracted such a passionate following that local fans began queueing as early as four hours before the kick-off.

Throughout downtown Bangkok, red and blue replica shirts lined the streets as Thailand sought to end a 10-year wait to once again be crowned champions of Asean.

But it was the 400 or so Lions supporters who travelled to Bangkok who were left celebrating long after the final whistle.

"We are going to paint Thailand red and white," declared tour operator Akbar Hashim, who led a group of 70 fans on the trip.

The Lions will go on a victory parade today in an open-top bus that will take them from Changi Airport to Orchard Road, before ending at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

There will also be monetary rewards for the team - $700,000, which includes the US$200,000 (S$244,020) cash prize that comes with the trophy.

For centre-back Safuwan who, at 21, was celebrating his first AFF Cup success, the money would be a bonus.

"It's a feeling I can't describe," he gushed. "This is something I will remember for the rest of my life."

Champions champions champions ch4mpions
Singapore win historic fourth Asean crown after Bangkok thriller
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

For more than a month, they were away from their families. They trained tough. They played the best teams Asean football could throw at them. And when the journey at last ended in Bangkok, it was "Sawadee-Cup" for the Lions.

Joy, relief and exhaustion - each emotion was deeply felt by the Lions on the pitch when Uzbekistan referee Ravshan Irmatov finally blew the final whistle, after four minutes of added time, at the Supachalasai Stadium.

"I'm totally breathless," panted defensive midfielder Isa Halim, after an evening spent hounding his Thai opponents.

The prize was a record fourth Asean Football Federation Cup, and a cheque for US$200,000 (S$244,000) for winning the region's top football accolade. But more important was the redemption the Lions earned.

Two years ago, they were slammed, not just by the press, but by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) for an ignominious exit from the group stage of this tournament.

"For the past year, the team haven't been performing well but this win will give us something to cheer about," said Isa.

"The team are very grateful that despite our poor results before this tournament, football has united Singaporeans and we are so happy that we got everyone on our side."

And how they did get every one in Singapore cheering for them. First, a 3-0 hammering of traditional rivals Malaysia to begin their quest in style.

Then in the final group game which they needed to win, the Lions found themselves trailing Laos 0-2. But they fought back, won 4-3, and booked a place against Asean's most improved team, the Philippines, in the semi-finals.

A single goal at the Jalan Besar Stadium separated the Lions from the Azkals, Khairul Amri, the gifted striker cursed with injury issues, the hero.

No one imagined that the Lions would win the first leg of the final 3-1 against Thailand. But they did, Baihakki Khaizan's goal at the death proving the difference yesterday in the second leg.

The Thais pushed desperately for that one goal that would see them end a 10-year Asean drought, but while they wilted in Singapore, the Lions held firm in Bangkok.

"All of them have done well," coach Raddy Avramovic said of his defence. "Bai and Safuwan (Baharudin) were really under pressure but, as they have been throughout the tournament, were secure."

As his charges celebrated their victory at the final whistle, the 63-year-old buried his craggy face in his hands. Then he disappeared from view, as staff and players surrounded him, thanking the Serb for his tactical wisdom and faith.

"Look at how many players he has improved," said goalkeeping coach Lee Bee Seng, as sadness of Avramovic's departure tinged the happiness of the team.

"Singapore does not have the biggest talent pool but he has delivered a quality team."

An emotional Amri wished: "I hope he doesn't leave us. The FAS definitely can find a role for him for sure."

At the trophy presentation, Avramovic stood silent, letting his players, which included a dancing reserve goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma'at, enjoy the fireworks.

His work with the national team is done. But he had this message for the boys he nurtured into the kings of Asean, for the third time.

In his grizzled tone, Avramovic said: "If we're happy with what we have now, we will not achieve anything. It's not right to think that we're there, there are many areas that can be improved."

Captain Shahril lifts Cup, is MVP to boot
By Fabius Chen, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

The smile on Shahril Ishak's face said it all.

As if leading Singapore to an unprecedented fourth Asean Football Federation Cup was not enough, the Lions' captain was last night named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) at this year's tournament.

"I'm proud and honoured but for me, the team come first," said the 28-year-old, who received a cheque for US$10,000 (S$12,000) shortly before lifting the glittering AFF Suzuki Cup gold trophy.

"This is just a bonus; all I wanted to do was bring the Cup back to Singapore."

With four goals in the Lions' seven matches, Shahril also finished runner-up to Thailand striker Teerasil Dangda in the race to be named tournament top scorer.

But his importance to the team went beyond goals, national coach Raddy Avramovic stressed.

"He's a big part of this team and as captain, has done a great job," the Serb said of Shahril, to whom he handed the captain's armband in August 2010.

And in the face of a Thai onslaught last night, Singapore's No.17 stood tall, abandoning his usual berth in attacking midfield to help with the defensive duties.

In the end, he was rewarded with the distinction of becoming just the third man to lead Singapore to AFF Cup glory - following in the footsteps of Nazri Nasir (1998) and Aide Iskandar (2004 and 2007).

Last night's triumph helped make amends for their farcical group-stage exit in Hanoi two years ago.

But there was one man in particular that this tournament's best player wanted to dedicate the team's success to - coach Raddy Avramovic, who confirmed last night that he will step down after nine years.

"This was for coach Raddy," Shahril stressed. "He's been excellent for us."

Not MVP but Bai, Farra and Amri also shine
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 24 Dec 2012

FOR his goals and all-round play, Singapore's Shahril Ishak was named the Most Valuable Player for the 2012 Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.

The skipper took the bouquets, scoring four goals and leading by example through his hard work and sterling display.

But as far as some Lions are concerned, three others also stood tall - Baihakki Khaizan, Fahrudin Mustafic and Khairul Amri. The no-nonsense defenders also came up for special mention.

Shahril himself led the plaudits, saying: "The defenders, from (goalkeeper) Izwan Mahbud to (right-back) Daniel Bennett, (left-back) Shaiful Esah and (centre-backs) Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin, were the backbone of the team.

"They stood up to the best the region could throw at them and they defended stoutly."

But for rookie Safuwan, there can only be one winner: Baihakki.

"He marshalled the backline so well," the 21-year-old said. "He communicates well and it is so easy to work with him. I'm looking forward to playing alongside him for many more years."

Amri feels "the whole backline was brilliant".

"In some matches, we were unable to score but they defended so well that we didn't have to worry too much."

This was especially true in the crucial stages of the AFF Cup when the Lions kept clean sheets in the two semi-final legs against the Philippines and held out against Thailand both home and away. In those games, Safuwan and Baihakki drew kudos from their peers.

"Safuwan and Bai had a great tournament as a partnership," said defensive midfielder Mustafic. "They were extremely consistent. From the beginning of the AFF Cup to the final in Bangkok, they stood tall."

Mustafic himself earned praised from his gifted partner Hariss Harun, who was injured in the group stage.

In the final against Thailand, the midfield became a battleground with the Elephants deploying playmaker Datsakorn Thonglao. But the dangerman was effectively shackled by Mustafic over two legs.

"Farra battled away for Singapore," said Hariss. "He suffered injuries and was bruised and battered but he kept playing without any fuss. He's a real fighter and a real force in the engine room."

And when the Lions needed goals, there was another source - Amri, who is defensive midfielder Isa Halim's pick for MVP.

He said: "Before the tournament, nobody gave Amri a chance. Apart from Shahril, he was our best performer. His brilliant free-kick turned the tide in the win over Laos and he scored great goals against the Philippines and Thailand.

"He really made his mark in this tournament."

Remember me as someone who gave everything to Singapore, says emotional Duric
by Dan Guen Chin, TODAY, 23 Dec 2012

BANGKOK - Thank you, Singapore. Thank you for giving me the chance to represent the country. 

Those were the first words that Aleksandar Duric uttered last night when asked for his thoughts on his retirement from international football.

The 42-year-old naturalised Singaporean, who has scored 24 goals in 53 matches for the Lions after being called up to the national team in 2007, may have been celebrating with his teammates after their 3-2 aggregate win over Thailand in the Asean Football Federation Championship final last night, but it was clear that he was feeling emotional about donning the Lions jersey for the last time.

And although he may have experienced a couple of downsides during his international career, including Singapore losing all six of their third-round qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup, he has nothing but fond memories of his five-year stint as a Lion.

"I will be leaving the national team with the fondest of memories, and I hope Singapore will remember me as a decent player who has always given everything to my adopted country," the Bosnia-born striker, who even skippered the Lions once, told TODAY.

The capture of the Suzuki Cup was also a fitting way for Duric to retire. After all, this will be his first title in three tournament outings.

He had fractured his leg in the opening match against Cambodia in the 2008 edition, and was a member of the Singapore side that crashed out of the group stage of the 2010 tournament.

Duric, who will be a player-coach with Tampines Rovers next season, is also expected to call time on his club career after the 2013 season.

"Maybe I will play one more season in the S-League and then I am finished with competitive football," said the three-time S-League Player of the Year award winner.

But for now, he does not want to think so far ahead.

All he wants to do is to savour the sweet taste of victory in the Suzuki Cup.

"All I want now is to spend time admiring the medal around my neck," he said, holding his Suzuki Cup medallion tightly in his hand.

Duric's international career:

No of caps: 53

No of goals: 24 goals.

Debut: vs Tajikistan in a World Cup qualifier in Nov 2007. Scored both goals in the 2-0 win.

Other milestones:

- Helped Singapore to reach the third qualifying stage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups

- Helped Singapore to win the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup

Take a bow, Raddy
by Gerard Wong, TODAY, 19 Dec 2012

Over the past two weeks, a 63-year-old Serbian must have been wryly smiling to himself at the fickle love affair Singaporeans have with their national team.

And indeed, who can blame Radojko Avramovic for feeling that way?

After all, the public adulation that has been heaped upon his Lions after they reached the semi-finals of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship has been in stark contrast to the public disdain that had been so palpable even up to the eve of the biennial regional tournament.

Prior to his squad's departure for Kuala Lumpur, many were predicting a first-round exit for the Lions.

They had based their opinions on the string of beatings the national team had chalked up over the past 15 months, including six defeats - and thrashings by China and Iraq - in the third qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup and losses in international friendlies to the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaysia.

The critics called for Avramovic's head, never mind the fact that he has achieved so much for Singapore football since taking charge of the national team in 2003.

These included winning back-to-back AFF titles in 2004 and 2007, and taking the Lions to the final qualifying stages of the 2007 Asian Cup and the third round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

It is clear that the tide of public opinion about the Lions turned after their embarrassing first-round exit from the 2011 AFF Championship.

Apart from poor performances on the pitch, that fall from grace was also aided by media reports of indiscipline among some of the players during the tournament.

So in many ways, the past two years have been a long and lonely slog for Avramovic. He bore the criticism and insults stoically as he continued to keep faith with many of his young Lions. Now, he is reaping the fruits of his own vision and persistence - and having the final laugh.

Against the odds, Singapore have reached the AFF Championship final again and are fighting with Thailand to become the first country to win the regional crown for a fourth time.

That is not all - Jalan Besar Stadium will be packed to the gills with 7,800 cheering fans for the second time in a week and the terraces will be a sea of red.

I am still not sure if the Lions can beat Thailand over two legs. After all, this Thai side have been an absolute joy to watch throughout the tournament with their marauding ways. They bring back memories of that golden generation of Thais - including magicians like Kiatisuk Senamuang, Tawan Sripan, Thawatchai Ongtrakul and the two J Surachais - which swept three AFF titles and got them the nickname of the Brazil of South-east Asia in the late '90s and the early part of the century.

At the same time, they strike fear in my heart as I wonder whether the likes of Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin and Daniel Bennett can handle their speed and stealth.

It will be a nerve-wracking time for me today and in the return leg on Saturday.

I do know something though.

Even if the Lions fail to win the AFF Championship, I will still stand and applaud Avramovic and his band of players for the team spirit they have shown these past three weeks, their discipline, gritty determination and desire to prove their critics wrong.

Win or lose, this tournament has been the perfect swansong for Avramovic, who is expected to step down after it is all over. He deserves to end on a winning note. More importantly, he deserves our respect.

And so, I will say it now: Thank you, Raddy, for what you've done for Singapore football.

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