Cubs show the way

Last night was an amazing night.

Our Cubs, the Singapore under-15 football team, beat their Montenegrin counterparts 3-2 in the second group match of the Youth Olympics boys’ football tournament. But it wasn’t the result that was the most amazing, to be honest. I had half expected Singapore to win the tie, but I wasn’t taking anything for granted – in fact, my nervousness filtered through at my other responsibility on the night, the presentation at the NUS German Society’s welcome tea – and I knew that the Cubs could not afford to be complacent, either.

And yet, complacency would have been excusable, as both teams had already qualified for the semi-finals by beating Zimbabwe, meaning the Africans had to be content sharing 5th spot with vanquished Vanuatu. The match was to decide the group winner, and perhaps indirectly the fate of the respective teams, for winning Group D would have allowed either team to avoid a rampant Bolivian side which has looked a sure bet to book their place in the finals.

Just like in the opener against Zimbabwe, the Cubs scored first, through Muhaimin Suhaimi’s third goal of the tournament on three minutes. Then the European side stunned the home fans by finding an equaliser. Nebojsa Kosovic’s free kick drew his team back level, then his penalty fired them into the lead 23 minutes into the match. The incident was too far away for me to comment on, but a goal is a goal.

Full credit to Singapore for keeping their heads up, and to captain Jeffrey Lightfoot in particular. After the Montenegrin goalkeeper let Muhaimin’s corner slip out of his hands, Brandon Koh hit an overhead pass into the area and found Lightfoot, who rose to plant the ball in the back of the net. It was 2-2 at the break, and Singapore’s fans rejoiced.

Montenegro needed a win to finish top of group D, and their intentions were clear from the restart, practically setting up camp in the Singapore half. But then they went a man down when Nickola Jovanovic hit Ammirul Mazlan after the Singaporean’s challenge prevented Jovanovic from moving forward. The referee saw the incident, and gave the Montenegrin a straight red card. The relentless pressure eased off somewhat once they were reduced to ten men, and the Cubs began to show off the beautiful passing game they were capable of.

The Cubs’ persistence paid off, as Koh took advantage of a weak back pass by Danilo Sarkic to slot home the winner with 6 minutes left on the match clock. The home fans roared when the final whistle went after 4 added minutes, and applauded the young Singaporeans who thanked their supporters for filling the Jalan Besar Stadium.

And that was what was simply amazing. I had never seen the Jalan Besar Stadium packed to that capacity, and while there were still a few empty seats to be seen if one looked hard enough, it was certainly a far cry from the usual S.League attendances, no matter that tickets for live matches are quite often sponsored by at least one of the clubs.

Arriving ten minutes before kick-off, I could already feel the buzz as I was approaching. People were waiting in line at the ticket booths, or to pass the security checks, the fans who had turned up to watch Haiti beat Vanuatu 2-1 to book their semi-final spot were hyped and ready for the Singapore team to make their appearance, and the emcees were doing their best to rouse the crowd even more.

The official attendance figure was 5,850 fans, nothing like in the halcyon days of the Malaysia Cup and M-League, but to be fair, the National Stadium had almost ten times the capacity of the Jalan Besar Stadium, and when fully-filled, it was by far a more intimidating place for visiting teams. Yet the new generation – I say this only because I was lucky enough to watch the likes of Fandi and Malek ply their trade at Kallang, not because of any substantial age difference – must surely now have a taste of what a full house can do for their team. Shamir Osman at Today remembers.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the young Cubs played the roof off the stadium, ‎”like they had the lungs of grown men and the heart of warriors,” in the words of Today’s Ian De Cotta. I honestly hope that their performance last night will bring more fans back to the stands.

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