When I first heard of the MOU signed by our FA and the Malaysian FA in 2011 in the name of development, I was a little cautious. Then I complained about our our fixation on the Malaysia Cup and how doing well there might not correspond with success on a greater stage.
Under their first head coach V. Sundramoorthy, the LionsXII won the Malaysian Super League (MSL) in 2013, and enjoyed successful runs in the Malaysia Cup. Their home stadium, Jalan Besar, was inhospitable for visiting teams, and the King George Stand — specially built for this club — sparked many a cheer thanks to the likes of the raucous ExcluSinga.
While the LionsXII grew from strength to strength, the Singapore side notched their names on the AFF Suzuki Cup for a record fourth time, beating Thailand 3-2 on aggregate in the final. It would be a fitting farewell to the then national coach Radojko Avramovic.
So maybe I was proven wrong. So maybe the LionsXII weren’t such a bad thing after all? (Never mind that when V. Sundramoorthy took over as caretaker national coach, we lost comprehensively to Jordan.)
Enter the new national team coach Bernd Stange in May 2013. One of his first notable acts (apart from the now-infamous pebble interview) was to announce a new national squad of 23 local-born players. Ten of these were from the LionsXII. 13 players from the S.League were named, some for the first time.
We would now have to do without our naturalised stalwarts: the goals of Aleksandar Đuric, midfield bite of Mustafic Fahrudin, the defensive experience of Daniel Bennett, or the creativity of Shi Jiayi and John Wilkinson.
Still, Stange led that national team to a 2-1 victory over Syria in an Asian Cup qualifier, but downplayed thoughts about qualification, instead choosing to focus on the SEA Games. This caution was justified, as all the other qualifying matches ended in defeats.
At that SEA Games in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, both Hariss Harun and a certain Sahil Suhaimi each contributed three goals to see our Young Lions to the bronze medal. Not a bad result, and a decent end to 2013.
Stange’s “tiki-taka” vision flopped spectacularly at the AFF Suzuki Cup defense in 2014, with Đuric, among others, calling for him to be sacked as coach as the players apparently decided on their own match strategy on their way out of the group stages of the tournament.
The Young Lions’ centralised training ahead of the SEA Games was also interrupted when Faris Ramli, Sahil Suhaimi, Christopher van Huizen and Zakir Samsudin were asked to leave seven days into their boot camp to aid the LionsXII in the home leg of their Malaysian FA Cup semi-final against Terengganu. In a show of
submission unity, the Young Lions were also brought to the stands to support their team-mates in that match.
This eventually gave Fandi’s LionsXII its only piece of silverware thus far, thanks to goals from Faris and Sahil in the final against Kelantan FA. Despite the introduction of national legend Fandi Ahmad at the helm of the LionsXII, this squad has not finished in the top half of the table.
The SEA Games squad would pay a heavy price for that interruption, which included an uninspiring group stage exit at the hands of the Indonesians and the resignation of head coach Aide Iskandar.
Off the pitch, Singapore football has not developed either. The LionsXII have assumed their forebears’ roles of representing the nation in Malaysian competition, and accordingly have been mistaken more than once for the full national team. Nobody in the FA or the media seemed keen on distinguishing between the two.
FAS President Zainudin Nordin’s promise that the S-league will not become a “poorer cousin” to the LionsXII seems like mere lip service, as Damon Yeo pointed out in an opinion piece early on. He ended that piece on an optimistic note, which Neil Humphreys recently echoed for FourFourTwo.
I beg to differ. I think that emphasising the beneficial side effect that the LionsXII might have had on the S.League is like selling DNP as a weight loss pill. The successes of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia have not involved myopic exchange programmes, but long-term development plans and a willingness to start young.
When will we start crawling in that direction?