Singapore will not be able to defend their AFF Suzuki Cup title after a disappointing 3-1 loss to archrivals Malaysia on Saturday night. In this special contribution to Football Channel Asia, supporter James Gow shares his experience of the heartbreaking night.
Going into Saturday’s crucial showdown with Malaysia, Singapore’s performance in the AFF Suzuki Cup didn’t live up to the expectations of the fantastic crowds that gathered at the regenerated National Stadium. The 2-1 loss to Thailand boasted a home crowd completely unique from that of the match against Juventus, but despite the result fans looked forward to Wednesday night’s game against Myanmar.
That game too drew a similar crowd that relied highly on loud, passionate, but strictly policed away support. But Myanmar’s fierce comeback and a late own goal to seal the deal for the hosts inspired an entirely different crowd of 48,183 to rock up to the SportsHub to witness Saturday night’s special occasion.
Malaysian away supporters had been allocated around 2,000 seats, half for active support and the rest for regular fans. It was somewhat different from the 3,000 Burmese who came out in droves for Wednesday night’s game, but they still made plenty of noise.
After living in Singapore for a little over three years now, this was my first experience of what the locals call the Causeway Rivalry. Like any other football rivalry, the conflict between Singapore and Malaysia is economic, mental, and in some ways spiritual; this is a battle beyond geographical borders
Club-level football also plays a role; it’s a well-known fact Malaysians take their local football a whole lot more seriously than the S.League and what it has aspired to become. The Malaysian FA Cup exerts huge passion both on and off the field, but the inclusion of the LionsXII to the Malaysian Super League and their title in 2013 has added fuel to the fire.
Arriving at the stadium, I met up with my friends in the S.League Support Group, a group of fans in S.League jerseys chanting for the full 90 minutes the home end. We deployed our flags and banners, but very little felt different from the previous fixtures against Thailand and Myanmar save for the larger crowd.
Neither team could say they were proud of their first half. Both Singapore and Myanmar had a fair share of chances, but shots fired straight to the goalkeeper became increasingly common as the number of free kicks from long distances continued. The aerial battle was barely existent.
Ahead of the match, our fan group worked with Ultras Malaya to applaud in the 17th minute for those who perished in flights MH17 and MH370. Unfortunately it didn’t catch on throughout the entire stadium despite our best efforts; there was simply too much happening on the field and it seemed many of the fans had forgotten of the cause.
We all remained hopeful at halftime; despite Malaysia finding plenty of chances, neither team dominated and the dream of a bore nil-all draw still garnered some anticipation despite meaning that our fate would be linked to the Thailand-Myanmar match.
The second half began with a slow start until the 63rd minute where out of nowhere Safee Sali fired a rocket from close range into the top corner of Hassan Sunny’s net, quieting the increasingly passionate home crowd and all those who criticized the Malaysian striker for a photograph that had appeared online of him smoking in public just the night earlier.
Singapore had scored goals from behind in both fixtures so far so the raucous atmosphere still remained. German-born Singapore coach Bernd Stange decided on a double substitution around the 80th minute and it paid off when Khairul Amri scored just a few minutes later to send the home crowd into hysteria.
Was this the return of the once-feared Kallang Roar? The crowd sure thought so. I could barely hear the drummers just two rows ahead of me during the celebrations. And of all the nights for it to happen, 48,183 fans got to witness it. It was what Singaporeans had been waiting for.
The celebrations continued until just a few minutes later, when Malaysian midfielder Safiq Rahim stepped up to the spot and converted what everyone in the stadium claimed to be a ‘soft penalty’ at the least. At first few understood that it was a penalty, as the referee appeared to be pointing to the corner spot. A closer look at the footage shows Hafiz Sujad had made very vague contact with the player he was marking, causing him to fall to the ground after the ball had passed over his head. It was always going to be controversial.
Boos rung around the stadium as Rahim converted and ran over to a very passionate Malaysian crowd, some of whom some even jumped the fence to hug the man himself. Not only fans, but players were furious.
LionsXII midfielder Gabriel Quak, who was part of the Singapore squad, received more than 800 retweets on Twitter for this exclamation:
He was not the only one fuming. Following the game, substitute Khairul Nizam, previously handed an eight month ban for his involvement in a 2010 ‘footbrawl’, had to be restrained by his teammates after he refused to shake hands and started kicking over water bottles and other supplies. Photographers immediately ran over to capture the ruckus he was causing, and security intervened after Nizam shoved his hand into the lens of a camera.
With just two minutes left in the match, our group continued to wave the giant Singapore flag we had been waving since halftime. Is it a bad luck charm? I doubt it. But as Singapore received a free kick just in front of the home end with two minutes left, they had one last chance to draw the game. We waved the flag, one of our players was brought down in a contest for the ball, and the crowd screamed shouted for a penalty.
Right at that moment, Malaysia’s Indra Putra received the ball and took a long shot from outside the Singapore penalty area. With Sunny brought forward to help with the free kick, the ball rolled into the empty net as the Malaysian bench emptied in jubilation.
At this point the crowd simply left, abandoning rubbish that was thrown onto the pitch and at players from both teams by those who remained. A man seated to my left, who had helped to wave the big flag during the second half, was ushered away by a police officer after spilling ice water on nearby spectators as he prepared to launch his own missile.
It was a cruel reminder of just how quickly one’s emotions can change within just 90 minutes of football. The referees exited under a hail of food and drink, even as military police lined the north end of the stadium.
The Singapore team walked around and thanked some of the fans for the match after our final chants, and I went over to the railings to take down my banner reading “4 the champions, let’s make hi5tory,” a sentiment that must be locked away until 2016.
Walking home from the stadium, I couldn’t help but think just how close Singapore was from a fairy tale ending in the group stage. This loss hurt so much, not only because we couldn’t defend our title as South-East Asian Champions, but because it came at home against our biggest rivals.
Perhaps Saturday’s result will mark a renewal of hostilities, and the return of a more exciting Causeway series. It will forever be recalled as the night Singapore let loose a chance to colonize the refurbished-stadium as their fortress, a fact that Malaysians will surely never let us forget.