AFF to introduce new format for next year's Suzuki Cup
Each Asean team will play two home, two away matches at group stage
In a bid to improve attendance figures, the Asean Football Federation (AFF) has confirmed a new format for next year's Suzuki Cup, after holding its latest council meeting on Sept 23 in Bali, Indonesia.
Since the fourth edition of the AFF Championship in 2002, the biennial competition has always had at least two host countries for the group stage, which typically features four teams in each group.
But, from next year, 10 countries will be divided into two groups, and each team will play two home and two away games to determine the final four.
The group stage will remain a round-robin contest in which the top two advance to the semi-finals, while the semi-finals and final will retain the current home-and-away format.
As there are 11 AFF members, Timor Leste and Brunei - the two lowest-ranked teams after the last Suzuki Cup - will play a two-legged qualifier on Sept 3 and 11 next year to decide who will join the tournament proper from Nov 8 to Dec 15.
Singapore coach V Sundramoorthy and his players welcomed the change.
"It will be good for us to have home support for two games during the group stage at every edition," said Sundram, who turns 52 today.
"It will also be good for the fans to experience a major tournament on home soil once every two years.
"We have to wait and see the draw and fixtures list. Playing four games, two of them away, could mean less rest with the extra travelling, but it should be quite the same for all teams so it's up to us to manage."
Lions skipper Shahril Ishak added: "This makes it a more level playing field for all teams and there will no longer be home-ground advantage for just one team per group.
"As the competition is brought to every participating country, this should help increase the level of support and attendance.
"Hopefully, this will help attract more sponsors and add to the prestige of the competition."
It is understood that the new format has been prompted by the poor attendances at the group matches, especially those that do not feature the hosts.
Singapore midfielder Hariss Harun is keeping his fingers crossed that the Lions will get to play their Suzuki Cup home games at the 55,000-seater National Stadium, which is not a given since they have had to play their last two Asian Cup qualifiers at Jalan Besar.
Said the Lions' vice-captain: "It will be great to play those games at the National Stadium.
"For footballers, there are few things comparable to playing in a big arena filled with supporters. It will be a great atmosphere for both the fans and the players."
To that end, Football Association of Singapore's assistant director for commercial and business development Rikram Jit Singh, said: "The FAS has been in discussions with the Singapore Sports Hub on the possibility of staging our matches at the National Stadium.
"Both parties are keen for this to happen, and we are working together on the premise of the competition period being blocked for the FAS - bearing in mind that the competition draw has yet to take place."
Since winning the Suzuki Cup in 2012, Singapore have failed to progress from the group stages in the last two editions, but Sundram believes they can make amends next year.
"It's up to us. It's still a pretty level playing field at the Asean level," he said.
"At the last Suzuki Cup, we were competitive against supposedly stronger teams like the Philippines and Thailand, and were unfortunate not to get better results.
"On our day, we should be able to beat anyone from this region."