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Hariss Harun: ‘Fans are seeing the fight’

The love affair between the Lions and their fans has rekindled in the past week, with national captain Hariss Harun admitting that the last two matches against China have helped “reignite the connection” after a torrid 14 months.

Under new coach Tsutomu Ogura, the national football team have given supporters cause for cheer and optimism with their performances against the Chinese, holding the 88th-ranked team to a 2-2 draw at home on March 21 before losing 4-1 in Tianjin five days later.

The two outings in the Group C World Cup qualifier were Ogura’s first tests in the hot seat, after his appointment on Feb 1. They will next play South Korea at home and Thailand away in June.

The gritty displays by the Lions against a side ranked 68 places above them are a far cry from the grim state that Singapore football found itself in over a year ago, when the Lions lost 4-1 to Malaysia at the Asean Football Federation Championship in January 2023. Last May, the Under-22 team were thrashed 7-0 by their Causeway rivals at the SEA Games and suffered a meek exit.

Boos and chants greeted Ogura’s predecessor Takayuki Nishigaya during last November’s 3-1 defeat by Thailand in the World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium.

Hariss, 33, said in a phone interview from Tianjin: “In both matches, we were always in the game with a chance and kept going. So I think that endeared us to the fans.

“The link between the fans and the team had been missing for some time and I guess this (international) window has reignited the connection. The fans are seeing the fight and that is the bare minimum that they expect of us.”

The veteran midfielder has worked with eight different coaches since his Lions debut in 2007 and credited Ogura’s methods for bringing about positivity among the players and fans.

Calling the new set-up “refreshing”, Hariss shared that the coach had come in with a “no-nonsense approach” and set high standards in training sessions.

The Lion City Sailors midfielder added: “I like it when coaches come in and set their standards and demand something that the boys are not used to, something that is above their capacity and limits. That can only improve you as a player and as a team.”

Ryhan Stewart, who was deployed in a right-midfield role in both games, added: “Coach Ogura holds us accountable to high standards, so that’s one of the things that really pushes the players. For example, if he sees that you’re not chasing back, he will let you know about it.”

The push for excellence and the team’s showing has won over Lions fans like Ang Shao Heng, 24, a Peking University student who travelled by train from Beijing to Tianjin to catch the March 26 game. Ang said that he approached Ogura at the team hotel before the game to request a photograph, but the Japanese tactician had politely declined as he wanted to get “in the right frame of mind for the game”.

Commending the team for their brave display, he added: “It is evident that Ogura is someone who can inspire. After the match, he came over with the team to thank us and bowed which was very, very heartening. He strikes me as someone who is affable and I have been very impressed with his sense of responsibility and motivation.

“It was quite evident that some of the players were not fully fit but there was definitely heart and effort.”

But the work is far from done, say players and football experts.

Acknowledging that the Singapore-based players are not in ideal physical condition as they are still in pre-season, Hariss believes that they can only get better from here on.

He said: “Fitness is definitely important because of the way he wants us to play but having said that, most players are in the off-season and pre-season. We can also make better use of the ball and we can be more calm and composed. When we got to the final third, we didn’t use the ball well enough so these are aspects we can improve on.

“It is a good start that we can build on. We need to keep improving and there is a lot more we can show.”

Former Lion and current Geylang International head coach Noor Ali warned that the team’s high-pressing performances in the two games should serve as “wake-up calls” to certain players, as well as motivate those who want to be a part of the squad.

“If you want to be part of the team, you have to wake up and buck up and then get fitter, stronger and faster because Ogura is all about run, run and run,” he said.

“There is a proper structure in place and if you want to still be part of the team for the next five to 10 years, you have to work hard. For the young players especially, there is a good opportunity at this point in time to be part of the national team.”


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