Now or never for Lions to earn historic Asian Cup berth, say veterans
Midfield linchpin Shahdan Sulaiman and evergreen custodian Hassan Sunny have a total of 172 national caps and between them have competed at three Asian Games, nine Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championships and a number of World Cup campaigns with the Lions.
But the veteran duo know that their next three appearances for Singapore could be the most important yet, as the national football team target a historic qualification at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup.
On Wednesday (June 8), the 158th ranked Lions face Kyrgyzstan (95th) in the Asian Cup qualifiers, before taking on Tajikistan (114th) on June 11, and Myanmar (152nd) on June 14.
Their Group F games will be held at the Dolen Omuzakov Stadium in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The six group winners and five best second-placed teams will advance to the finals next year.
The Republic's sole appearance came as hosts in 1984 when the side was led by the late national coach Hussein Aljunied and featured the likes of Razali Saad, Malek Awab and goalkeeper David Lee.
Shahdan, 34, wants his team to seize the day and end their 38-year absence from the quadrennial event.
Said the Lion City Sailors midfielder: "Most of the core players in the squad are in their 30s. We won't know if we will be at another qualification campaign again and this could be our last. We need to make sure that we grab the opportunity with both hands."
Along with Shahdan, the core of the squad includes players like Hassan, 38, Yasir Hanapi, 32, and Safuwan Baharudin, 30. Captain Hariss Harun, Gabriel Quak and Nazrul Nazari are all three are 31.
Hassan, who is five caps from becoming the Lions' newest centurion, echoed his teammate's sentiments, adding that it was "now or never". He said: "It's a great opportunity for us, for Singapore football. This might be the last time we may get a chance to play at such a high level and in fact, it is the highest level we would be able to get to."
Ahead of the qualifiers, the Lions played a closed-door friendly against Kuwait on June 1, losing 2-0 in new head coach Takayuki Nishigaya's first match.
Noting that the team have adapted to the new man at the helm, Shahdan stressed that qualifying for the Asian Cup "would mean everything to me".
He added: "The majority of the players have been together for a long time now and we all know what is expected of us. The understanding is there and we are confident that we can work together to get a good result."
Their confidence stems from a kinder draw, having avoided heavyweights Uzbekistan (83rd), Bahrain (89th) and Jordan (91st). The qualifiers are also played in a single round-robin format instead of home-and-away as in previous editions, which means that a win and a positive result in another - a win or draw - could put the Lions in good stead.
Hassan also pointed to their narrow 2-1 loss to Kyrgyzstan in an international friendly last November as a reason for feeling bullish. Then, the Lions were unfortunate to have an equaliser from Ikhsan Fandi chalked off in the fifth minute of added time for what was perceived to be a foul in the box.
Said Hassan: "It was a close fight and we did compete well against them. This is the toughest game of the three given their ranking and the fact that they are hosts. A good result will mean a morale and confidence boost for the rest of the matches."
Head coach Nishigaya added: "We will take it game by game and not think about all the matches now. The opponents have home ground advantage but we should not be afraid. The players are ready and committed."
All of the Lions’ matches in the AFC Asian Cup 2023 Qualifiers will be livestreamed on the FAS YouTube page.