Monday, 25 May 2015

LionsXII clinch 2015 Malaysian FA Cup after 3-1 victory over Kelantan

Double caps amazing run
Sahil not the only hero as long shots stun hostile stadium to bring home FA Cup
By Wang Meng Meng, In Kuala Lumpur, The Sunday Times, 24 May 2015

Call it the exuberance of youth, innocence from footballers still years from their peaks, the LionsXII, Singapore's boys-to-men project in Malaysia basked in glory yesterday evening after an improbable win against near-impossible odds.

Few gave this team, who are struggling in the 12-team Malaysian Super League in eighth place and facing the two-time Malaysian FA Cup winners with four foreign players, any chance.

But for the first time in 26 years, the trophy crossed borders and no less to the home of bitter rivals Singapore. And the 3-1 shock victory over Kelantan was earned with sweat, tears and sacrifice in a show of character from Fandi Ahmad's team.

That they did it fighting in a Bukit Jalil Stadium packed to its gills, to brave a blizzard of hate in front of 85,000 fans, of which only 6,000 supported the team in blue, would have made it a night to remember.

An early seventh-minute strike from winger Faris Ramli, then sustained pressure from a rampant Kelantan side, pegged back by Wan Zack Haikal's brilliant equaliser only for substitute striker Sahil Suhaimi to smash and grab with a late brace in the 81st and final minutes, it was 90 minutes that encapsulated the LionsXII's Cup run.

The final was turned into a matter of national pride, with the Malaysian newspapers tugging at the patriotic heartstrings of its people to show up and inspire the Red Warriors to retain the silver cup on the peninsula.

But throughout Fandi's line-up, stories abound of individuals winning their personal struggles.

As a 20-year-old, goalkeeper and captain for the day Izwan Mahbud silenced Bukit Jalil in one of his first international games for Singapore in a 1-1 World Cup qualifier that the Lions won 6-4 on aggregate in 2011.

Last night, he returned to the same stadium and pulled off a series of quality saves to deny Kelantan and earn the Man of the Match award.

Tiny winger Nazrul Nazari, standing at just 1.65m and not known to fancy the physical side of football, pulled off one of the blocks of the match as the emergency right-back lay prone in the 26th minute to deny Erwin Carillo's effort with his back.

Stocky midfielder Izzdin Shafiq is noted for his personal Battle of the Bulge but his radar-guided through ball, with his weaker left foot, proved too much for Kelantan to stomach as it sent Faris clear to open the scoring.

His knees ravaged by numerous ruptured ligaments and recently, a torn hamstring, striker Khairul Nizam bounced back with vital goals in the Cup run and worked himself until he had to limp off with another knock in the 49th minute.

It was a family triumph of sorts for him. His frosty relationship with half-brother Khairul Amri is public knowledge but the Cup campaign has seen them fighting for each other, passing to each other and ultimately, celebrating goals together.

For Sahil, criticised for his work rate, he answered those doubts with two deadly pieces of marksmanship.

He ran deep from his own half for the first, pouncing on a loose ball and beating two defenders before rifling into the bottom corner and then in the final minute, drew the foul inside the box before thumping home the penalty.

In an age of 4-2-3-1, inverted wingers and other fancy tactics in vogue, Fandi turned back to the dated 4-4-2 to win his first trophy as a coach since lifting the S-League with Singapore Armed Forces FC 13 long years ago.

It may be prehistoric but the players breathed new life into the old system, their hard running, massed defending and precise counter-attacks finally ended a run of six defeats in seven previous meetings against Kelantan, who threw on at least five recognised strikers towards the end.

That this victory was won with sheer grit spoke volumes of the team's character as it brought much-needed light at a time when Singapore's senior and age-group national teams have found it almost impossible to win.

And Fandi and the team can now reflect on a job done and a job well done.

Congrats to the LionsXII on our convincing 3-1 victory over Kelantan! A big thank you to the team and supporters for...
Posted by Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday, May 23, 2015

23 May 20152015 Malaysia FA Cup FinalLionsXII 3-1 KelantanPhotography by Muhammad Shaari (FAS)
Posted by LionsXII on Saturday, May 23, 2015

Super sub Sahil Suhaimi
''It was a pleasure for me that Fandi sent me on in the hopes that I could do something special. I am glad to have helped the team.''

Coach Fandi Ahmad on

His kind of celebration
''I would just like to sleep. I haven't had proper sleep thinking about the match and how we would do.''

Keeping his promise
''We did it in such a frustrating way. But we did it with grit. We didn't have any stars and I am glad we proved everyone wrong, especially the Kelantan fans.''

Winning his first Cup
''I have won the league before but this is my first Cup as a coach. A Cup is always very special and this is such a sweet feeling.''

24 May 2015Photography by Alson Ong (FAS)
Posted by LionsXII on Sunday, May 24, 2015

I will stick to my guns, says Fandi
He dismisses critics, says team will continue playing attacking football
By Wang Meng Meng, In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 25 May 2015

IT WAS a short coach ride for the LionsXII from the hotel to Bukit Jalil Stadium but the streets were lined with thousands upon thousands of Kelantan supporters, whose preferred home colour is, coincidentally, red.

Some 79,000 of the estimated 85,000 crowd for Saturday's Malaysian FA Cup final cheered for the Red Warriors, making the occasion more daunting than usual for the Singaporean football side.

Fandi Ahmad gazed at the seemingly endless stream of Kelantan fans. But he wondered aloud, maybe he should just pretend that they were supporting his team.

For 90 gripping minutes, he blocked out the noise and the distraction to mastermind the LionsXII's 3-1 upset of Kelantan to become the first foreign side to win the trophy.

But when the final whistle went, it was clear he had gone through the wringer, his face looking exhausted yet impassioned, joyous yet poignant.

And to re-emphasise a point he made to The Straits Times before the final, Fandi said emphatically: "I was born for this. Since I was 18, I've had to win trophies for Singapore. I have been doing this for more than 30 years now.

"Singapore football has definitely been uplifted by this Cup win. We have been down for a while and I kept hoping I could lead the LionsXII to bring some joy back.

"I wanted this win so badly to help spur the SEA Games team, to make the fans happy.

"The SEA Games boys (Faris Ramli, Christopher van Huizen and Sahil Suhaimi) have benefited from coming back to play for the LionsXII. They now have experience playing in a big final and in a packed stadium.

"I hope this win will motivate kids, too. Let them see that if they train hard and be humble, they can one day play in a big final like this for Singapore and contribute to the country."

Fandi took charge of the team last year, but he inherited a squad significantly weakened by the departures of captain Shahril Ishak, first-choice centre-back Baihakki Khaizan and all-action midfielder Hariss Harun, who all signed lucrative contracts with the two Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) clubs.

Finishing eighth in the 12-team Malaysian Super League in his first campaign, a year after the team won the title, Fandi endured brickbats and there were even some quarters who doubted his coaching ability.

Now, with the FA Cup added to his collection 13 years after his last trophy, the 2002 S-League, Fandi was not in the mood to snipe at his detractors.

He said: "I take all criticism positively and the team and I have proved the critics wrong but there is nothing negative I want to say to those who say bad things about me.

"It is quite normal for me to hear criticism."

Instead, he preferred to lavish praise on the LionsXII, who have even moved his old employer from JDT, the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Idris, to note that the FA Cup win over Kelantan was "similar to a Scotland under-23 team defeating Manchester United".

"I think all will agree the boys gave the opponent a real fight," Fandi said.

"It has been a tough 11/2 years (since his appointment).

"There have been so many ups and downs but we deserve this Cup after a fantastic team effort.

"I want the team to play attacking football, I want to groom youngsters and I will stick to my guns."

And he was at pains to point out the scale of his players' achievement.

Fists clenched, arms pumping, Fandi gesticulated to ram home his point.

He said: "At the end of the day, we did it. We did it without any stars. We did it without any foreign signings.

"We came here to prove a point. We came here to prove we are Singaporeans and we don't go down without a fight."

Clearly overcome by emotion that had been pent up inside him, Fandi unexpectedly broke out into song at the end of the interview.

"We are Singapore, we are Singapore..." he sang.

And he sang all the way back to the team coach, flashing the thumbs-up.

Ride the momentum to SEA GAMES 2015. FAS President Zainudin Nordin and FAS council members reflect on LionsXII success in the FA Cup Malaysia.
Posted by SuperSports 360 on Sunday, May 24, 2015

This was what greeted the LionsXII, #MalaysiaFA Cup champions, when they arrived at Changi Airport Terminal 2 this evening. Video from Rozana Mahmood, who was in the crowd of more than 2,000 fans.
Posted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Sunday, May 24, 2015

Praise for LionsXII, blame for Kelantan
The Straits Times, 25 May 2015

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak commended the LionsXII after they became the first foreign football team to lift the Malaysian FA Cup on Saturday.

The Singapore side defeated Kelantan 3-1 in the final at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, and Datuk Seri Najib urged his compatriots to regain the title next season. "Congratulations to LionsXII as 2015 FA Cup champions. Kelantan had put up a good fight, do not despair, we will try again next year," he tweeted.

Tunku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, however, had harsh words for the losing team and slammed the state of Malaysian football.

The Crown Prince of Johor likened the result to a "Scotland under-23 team defeating Manchester United".

"(It) shows LionsXII not only played against the best Malaysian team (which had) the support of four foreign players, but also against the referee and the system, which is the FAM (Football Association of Malaysia)," the president of the Johor FA wrote in a post titled "BIG SLAP ON FAM'S FACE" on the Johor Southern Tigers' Facebook page on Saturday night.

"It's blatantly obvious from the game tonight that the standard of football in Malaysia is still lacking. LionsXII's victory tonight is similar to a Scotland U-23 team defeating Manchester United..."

The post - written in both Malay and English - has since garnered more than 19,500 likes and has been shared more than 1,300 times.

Huge welcome for victorious LionsXII
By Isaac Neo, Lok Weng Seng and Ho Si RuiThe Straits Times, 25 May 2015

IT WAS as if the football fever of the 1970s and 1980s was back.

More than 2,000 people gathered at Changi Airport to welcome back the LionsXII heroes, whose unexpected win made them the first foreign side to capture the Malaysian FA Cup.

A deafening roar greeted the victorious team, who beat Kelantan 3-1 last Saturday, as camera bulbs flashed away.

The manner of the win, in an intimidating atmosphere against a team with more experience and foreign stars, has convinced coach Fandi Ahmad and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong that it could lead to a change in fortunes for Singapore football.

"This will be a good beginning of a new football era. Hopefully, young people will be inspired by this," said Fandi, who was feted by the adoring crowd, reminiscent of scenes in 1980 and 1994 when he helped Singapore to the Malaysia Cup.

Scenes we've not seen for over 20 years as 2000 fans turned up at Changi Airport to welcome back the new Malaysia FA Cup champions, LionsXII.
Posted by SuperSports 360 on Monday, May 25, 2015

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who paraded the trophy with Mr Wong at the airport, said: "This really brings back memories. You can see the reaction of the crowd. I think it's not just the older generation but pretty (much) all (of) Singapore."

Mr Wong added: "It will be a very significant boost for our SEA Games preparation. I'm sure our SEA Games team will get a lot of confidence from what the LionsXII have done."

The LionsXII, a developmental squad made up mostly of young national players, also tasted success in 2013 when they won the Malaysia Super League.

But whether there will be more magical moments made across the Causeway is up in the air for now as the agreement for Singapore to play in Malaysian football expires at the end of this season.

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