Thursday 4 July 2013

LionsXII crowned 2013 MSL champions

LIONSXII make history
Young and totally made up of locals, MSL title win augurs well for future
By Wang Meng Meng, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2013

JUST a little over six months ago, the national football team brought joy to Singapore when they lifted the Asean Football Federation (AFF) championship title for a record fourth time.

But if fans think that was a one-off for local football, they were mistaken. The LionsXII gave local fans another reason to cheer at Jalan Besar Stadium last night.

At 9.41pm, referee Samsudin Ibrahim blew the final whistle to signal the end of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) match between the LionsXII and Felda United, with V. Sundramoorthy's young side posting their biggest win of the season, 4-0.

The victory confirmed their status as the new league champions and also installed them as one of the favourites for the Malaysia Cup, which starts on Aug 17.

This was the fifth time Singapore have won a Malaysian league title, following triumphs in 1979, 1981, 1985 and 1994.

Indeed, this has been a season of many staggering statistics. The LionsXII are the first foreign side to win the MSL; they have... the best home record (10 wins and one draw), best defensive record (13 goals conceded), scored 17 out of 32 goals via set-pieces, 13 players undergoing national service, 25 out of 30 players under the age of 23.

Most significantly, the team were 100 per cent made in Singapore.

After 10 years as a professional, skipper Shahril Ishak is finally a league winner and the 29-year-old savours the MSL triumph more than anything else.

"This is the one that Singaporeans will remember," the playmaker, who is the team's leading scorer with eight goals, said.

"Finally, I have my first league title and this is the one the country had waited 19 years for. This is the fulfilment of a childhood dream."

Midfielder Hariss Harun, 22, echoed similar sentiments, saying: "The MSL win feels better than the AFF title. It is not an easy campaign as it is played over a period of months. Mentally, it's draining but the boys were there for each other."

In the build-up to yesterday's crunch match against relegation-threatened Felda, Abbas Saad - the hat-trick hero of the 1994 Malaysia Cup final - said that Sundram's team pale in comparison with his swashbuckling side, dubbed the Dream Team.

However, the gutsy way in which the LionsXII handled the criticism, and other factors like injuries, suspensions and national service commitments, will go some way in inspiring a new generation of Singaporeans who had never seen Abbas and Fandi Ahmad in their pomp.

Centre-back Baihakki Khaizan said: "When I was 10, I made the trip to Shah Alam Stadium to watch Fandi lift the Malaysia Cup in 1994. But here I am now, doing what my heroes did.

"I hope that what the LionsXII have done will influence the youngsters of today to believe in Singapore football and to dream of playing for the country."

With the Sports Hub set to open next year, Sundram hopes the 55,000-capacity new National Stadium will be a sea of red cheering the LionsXII in their title defence next year.

The 47-year-old, who finally won his first trophy after 14 years in coaching, said: "In the last few games, people have been calling me non-stop asking for tickets. I'm very confident that we can fill up the new stadium when the big games come up next year."

Well done, LionsXII

"Sundram's team of young Singapore players did us proud. Though they started the tournament as underdogs, LionsXII displayed courage, determination and most of all teamwork to achieve the historic win. Well done!"
- President Tony Tan Keng Yam

"Congrats LionsXII - champions of the Malaysian Super League! What a match! We were still 0-0 at half-time, but four excellent goals in the second half won the championship for us.

"I am very proud of our LionsXII squad. Despite their youth, they played with poise throughout the season. I wish them many more wins in future matches. Well done Lions XII!"
- Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

"The team defied the critics and became the first Singapore team to win a Malaysian title since 1994!

"It's a historic win for the team, and for all Singaporeans cheering for them - at home and abroad. With so many promising players under 23, the future is definitely looking up for Singapore soccer!"
- Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth

My team's better than class of '94: Sundram
By Fabius Chen, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2013

EVEN as the LionsXII were edging towards their first Malaysian Super League (MSL) title, they were constantly compared to the famous 1994 Malaysian league and Cup Double-winning side.

Not any more.

"There's no comparison," coach V. Sundramoorthy said last night, after his side clinched the MSL title with a 4-0 win over Felda United at Jalan Besar Stadium. "These boys - all locals, all young - have outshone the 1994 team."

Indeed, the LionsXII's success is arguably more satisfying than that of 19 years ago.

After all, the class of 1994 boasted household names like Fandi Ahmad, Malek Awab and David Lee, together with foreign stars Abbas Saad and Jang Jung.

Sundram's side, on the other hand, have just five players aged over 23 - Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan, Fazrul Nawaz, Irwan Shah and Isa Halim.

"You know the senior players' quality and capabilities," the LionsXII coach pointed out. "But the rookies have done a great job compared to the 1994 team."

When asked which players have stood out this term, it was the youngsters' names which rolled off his tongue first.

"Faris Ramli, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Aqhari Abdullah, Shahfiq Ghani... these players really helped us throughout the season," Sundram said.

"I encourage these boys to work harder and help us again in the Malaysia Cup."

The taste of MSL success, however, is motivation enough for one of the LionsXII's young players to hunger for more.

"The Malaysia Cup's next," said winger Faris, who has fast become a fan favourite with his trickery and willingness to take on opposition defenders.

Since joining the LionsXII from the Courts Young Lions at the start of the year, the 20-year-old has been on what he calls "an amazing journey".

"I've experienced so much," he told The Straits Times. "This team have worked really hard; we just hope that we have done Singapore proud."

12th man hails team
Fans take to the streets and social media to salute Sundram, LionsXII
By Sanjay Nair, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2013

THE 12th man was in seventh heaven last night, as LionsXII fans broke out in effusive praise for the newly-crowned Malaysian Super League (MSL) champions.

A capacity 7,650-strong crowd witnessed the historic win at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday and hundreds took to the streets outside the stadium to offer their congratulations to V. Sundramoorthy's conquerors.

"This is a true-blue Singaporean team who did our country proud by playing football the right way," said teacher Alex Wong, 39, whose face was painted in the red-and-white colours of the Singapore outfit.

As the hosts romped to a 4-0 win over Felda United to wrap up the title, cheers of "Ole, ole, ole" and "campeones, campeones" rang out from the Jalan Besar faithful, who queued up as early as 2pm - more than five hours before kick-off - to get good seats.

And, particularly in the second half, they were treated to a feast of attacking football reminiscent of the days when Sundram, a star striker in the 1980s and 1990s, laced up his boots.

Fans also took to social media to salute the team. And it was Sundram, who earned the nickname The Dazzler for his silky skills, who earned most of the plaudits on The Straits Times' Facebook page.

Said Michael Shanker: "The Dazzler has proven his critics wrong again; he has instilled discipline and teamwork in the LionsXII and brought the cup back to Singapore after 19 years."

Singapore had won the old Malaysian league in 1979, 1981, 1985 and 1994, before it was renamed to the current MSL in 2004.

Fans added that the team deserved extra credit as they had lost key national players who had featured last season, such as Shahdan Sulaiman, Khairul Amri and Shaiful Esah.

Said businessman Senthil Kumaran, 54, of the young squad, who boast an average age of just 22: "The younger boys like Faris Ramli (20), Nazrul Nazari (22) and Shahfiq Ghani (21) could have easily used their age as an excuse and shied away from the challenge.

"But they fought hard in every game, which is exactly what the fans want to see from a team they've invested in."

More than 500 fans waited for over an hour in the stadium carpark after the match to pay tribute to their heroes.

In response, captain Shahril Ishak raised the league trophy again to loud cheers. The fans, are after all, what this team is about.

Said vice-captain Hariss Harun: "We are not the stars of this team; the fans are what make LionsXII tick. This title is for every single one of them who stood by us through thick and thin. Thank you for believing in us."

From no-hopers to MSL champions — The road to glory
By Amir Yusof, TODAY, 3 Jul 2013


The LionsXII became a predominantly Under-23 side after several senior players were dropped from the 2012 squad which had finished second in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) and reached the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup. While the Football Association of Singapore still set them the same top-five finish, there was a general lowering of expectations for V Sundramoorthy’s men.


The LionsXII began the season with a 1-0 away win over ATM. But weakened by injuries and absent players who could not travel because of National Service commitments, they lost twice in five games (0-1 away to both T-Team and PKNS). But these would eventually be the LionsXII’s only losses throughout the season.


A good month for the LionsXII. After hammering newly-promoted Pahang 3-0, they almost pulled off a 2-1 away win over star-studded Johor Darul Takzim before Norshahrul Idlan Talaha equalised in the 82th minute. The LionsXII finished the month second, a point behind ATM.


The highlight of the month’s three matches was the team’s 1-0 home win over treble champions Kelantan, thanks to Shahfiq Ghani’s 87th-minute winner. The LionsXII also drew 0-0 with Felda United away and topped the table for the first time after beating bottom side Negeri Sembilan 1-0 at home.


The team kept their perfect home record with 2-1 and 3-1 wins over Perak and ATM respectively. On the road, they were stunned when lowly Negeri held them 1-1 but did well to draw 0-0 with traditional rivals Selangor.


The LionsXII could have made it four wins out of four. After beating PKNS 3-1, Terengganu 2-1 (away) and T-Team 3-0, they were seconds away from a 1-0 win over Pahang in Kuantan when Azamuddin Akil equalised. Still, the LionsXII continued to stay top of the league.


They did not win, but they did not lose either. After 1-1 draws with Johor and Perak (away), and Johor’s uncharacteristic stumble against lowly Felda (they were held 1-1), the LionsXII entered their penultimate game of the season against Felda needing only a win to lift the title.


The LionsXII beat Felda 4-0 at Jalan Besar to become league champions in only their second MSL season, and with a game left to play.

Sundram's goal: To end stormy career as good guy
By Sanjay Nair, The Straits Times, 15 Jul 2013

AS A footballer, V. Sundramoorthy was too fast and too furious, tormenting opponents with skill and taunting them with shoves and slander.

But, in 1999, approaching the end of an illustrious career littered with just as many wondrous goals as disciplinary hearings, he made a life-altering decision.

As it turned out, it would have major ramifications for Singapore football as well.

He said: "If I wanted to be a coach, which was my best option as my pace was gone on the field, I had to clean up my act.

"How could I expect youngsters to look up to me if I behaved like a clown?"

Then, he was 35. It was time to change his image - from a dashing striker to no-nonsense coach.

First to go was his iconic full-bodied crown, which was cropped for a shorter, conservative look. Subsequently, it took on deeper shades of grey after coaching stints with Jurong FC (1999-2003) and the Young Lions (2007-10) in the S-League.

Next was his flaming red BMW - usually mobbed by fans in a stadium carpark after a match.

It was ditched for a more sober Toyota Altis sedan.

Late nights out became late nights in. He spent hours poring over books and videos of the latest coaching and tactical philosophies, a routine he maintains more than a decade later.

Today, the thug-turned-taskmaster could write his own book as the man who led the LionsXII to Malaysian Super League (MSL) success after a 19-year wait.

Now 47, he deservedly received the loudest cheers when the names of players and staff were read out during the title celebrations at the Jalan Besar Stadium a fortnight ago.

Speaking to The Straits Times at the Amara Hotel last week, Sundram was stopped three times between the lift lobby and the entrance, fielding congratulatory handshakes and posing for pictures with grateful Singaporeans.

"I've not felt this kind of love from fans since winning the Malaysia Cup with Kedah in 1990," he said with a wide smile.

Incredibly, less than a year ago, the former FC Basel player was inconsolable and on the verge of stepping down from the LionsXII just months into the job.

The image of him slumped on the bench after a painful penalty shoot-out loss to ATM FA in the Malaysia Cup semi-finals is hard to forget.

He said: "That was the first time in my career that I needed to take a break from football and get away from the spotlight."

With Prema, his wife of 20 years, and several good friends in tow, the fiercely private Sundram spent two weeks travelling around India to "refresh and rejuvenate".

During the gruelling 10-month season, his downtime was limited to watching movies - Bruce Willis' action flicks are his favourite - or playing futsal at a popular facility in Balestier which Prema owns. The couple, who also run a restaurant in East Coast, have no children.

Perhaps that explains why Sundram has embraced the fatherly role in the LionsXII squad, whose members boast an average age of just 22.

Understandably, there were growing pains. A litany of injuries and national service commitments gave Sundram and trusty deputy K. Balagumaran cause to stock up on headache pills.

"We would spend a week devising a system with players in mind and then, a few days before a match, it would be useless because some of them won't be available," Sundram said wryly.

"This could destroy a team or, as it turned out, provide an opportunity for others to step up."

And so unsung heroes were unearthed, such as defender Shakir Hamzah, 20, and forwards Faris Ramli, 20, and Shahfiq Ghani, 21.

In a league of hard-tackling veterans and wily journeymen, the Singapore boys stood tall, winning 10 of their 11 games at Jalan Besar and staying compact across the Causeway.

Sundram noted: "People have criticised me for being too defensive in away games but I stuck to my belief that we were fitter and could outlast other teams.

"As I told the players, in the end, the fans will remember the result more than the way you played."

Besides the Malaysia Cup which kicks off next month, Sundram has also been given the task of leading the Singapore Under-23s to win a first football gold at the SEA Games in December.

They should earn the nod from selectors to play in Myanmar after beating their Indonesian counterparts 1-0 in a friendly here on Saturday.

With his contract expiring at the end of the year, the shrewd tactician has already drawn interest from several MSL clubs, including former employers Kedah.

But despite the lure of a fresh challenge, he hopes to pen the final chapter of his footballing story on home soil.

He said: "My ultimate target is to coach the national team one day. I used to be called the bad boy of Singapore football so this would be a nice way to end as a good guy."

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