Singapore counting on golden ‘oldies’ at AFF Championship
Singapore’s centurion goalkeeper Hassan Sunny laughed when he regaled the story about how the senior players “bullied” a 16-year-old Hariss Harun when the teenager just broke in the national team.
He said: “After one training session, we saw him walking empty-handed, so we shouted at him, ‘Eh, you play national team for 10 years already, is it?’
“We made him carry footballs and clean boots, but it wasn’t anything mean-spirited, it was just a way of keeping the young players’ feet on the ground.
“In the blink of an eye, he is twice the age at 32 and national captain, while I am also 38 already.”
There is no denying the Lions’ Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship squad is an ageing one with 13 aged 30 and above.
While they can still do their job well – Hassan earned plaudits for making 10 saves in nine-man Singapore’s 4-2 defeat by Indonesia in the second leg of last year’s semi-finals, while 33-year-old midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman was named Man of the Match – they are approaching the twilight of their careers.
For many, this has actually made them hungrier to not just keep playing but maintain a proud tradition of winning the regional title at least once in every decade since the competition began in 1996.
But regardless of whether they replicate the success of 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012 this year, they hope their indomitable spirit can be a legacy for future generations.
Hassan, who will be involved in a record ninth AFF Championship, said: “I was the back-up when we won the titles in 2004 and 2007, so of course it would be nice to win one as the No. 1.
“It is an honour to be part of so many editions and I’m thankful coach Takayuki Nishigaya still trusts me because on paper it won’t be easy to pick someone my age.
“On my part, I have never taken a starting spot for granted, because I have gone through so many injuries and challenges and hard work to get to where I am.
“Argentina’s Emiliano Martinez is a perfect example - he was a nobody a few years ago, and now he is a key member of their World Cup-winning team. If you have no heart and no patience when you are on the bench, then you won’t achieve anything.
“There’s God’s will and hard work, and you make your own luck too, I hope the young ones can learn from this.”
Among the “oldies”, Hafiz Nor can perhaps claim to be one of the more “unlucky” ones, but showed great resilience and perseverance to be part of his second AFF Championship.
Making his international debut in 2013, he had to wait three years for his second cap, and another three years for his third. By the time he received his first AFF Championship call-up in 2021, the winger had become a wing-back, and still he almost missed the tournament because he contracted Covid-19.
Eventually he played 63 minutes across both legs of the 5-3 semi-final loss to Indonesia.
Hafiz, 34, said: “I know I’m at an age which people may think is old for a footballer, especially at the international stage, and I may have slowed down a bit, but I still can match the younger ones.
“While playing as a wing-back is more tiring than a winger because of more defensive responsibilities, I enjoy it more because I can assess the game better from a deeper position.
“Getting married and having two kids also made me more mature and hungry to make them proud. I want to make my family proud, and so I kept working and believing it will happen thanks to the support of my wife Hidayu, who encouraged me not to give up on making my dream come true.
“Competition between senior players who want to keep their place and youngsters who want to break into the first XI can only be good for the national team. I can see this desire throughout the team and the belief that we can build on our 2021 campaign and make it to the final.”
The Lions will have to do so the hard way at the ongoing AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup, after losing chief striker Ikhsan Fandi and key midfielder Adam Swandi to knee injuries before forward Taufik Suparno dropped out due to family reasons.
But Shahdan, now 34 and entering his sixth Asean showpiece, has ample experience of overcoming setbacks as he cited the 2012 edition, in which Hariss broke his leg during a group loss to Indonesia in which Irwan Shah was sent off. They also had to fight back from 2-0 down to beat Laos 4-3 to qualify for the semi-finals before going all the way.
He said: “Then, I learnt the national team are never about a single player. Yes, we have quality players, but we are also always greater than the sum of our parts when we fight for one another, those in the team and those who are left out for some reason.”
This is also why Hariss feels the Lions can make their blend of youth and experience work, as long as they pull together in the same direction.
Matter-of-factly, he said: “Older players being phased out and a new generation being blooded is a natural progression in football.
“But as the World Cup has shown, whether it is the twilight or a new peak in one’s career, you’ll never know. Cristiano Ronaldo was not great, but Lionel Messi had his best tournament at 35 and Luka Modric was impressive at 37 and we can take inspiration from them.
“Playing this tournament like it is our last will be a good mentality to have, and we must try our best to fight for our country and achieve something.”
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