LionsXII for life

Hiranand Sunny Naresh

When we first started the Malaysia Cup Diaries, I had no doubt we would be covering the LionsXII’s journey from the first match at the Jalan Besar Stadium to the final at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

I refused to make plans on any of the match days, memorised the players’ names, faces and squad numbers and studied the team to know who the set-piece and penalty takers were. I was ready to make the trip to Malaysia should my editors call on me to report on the game.

Unfortunately, that was not to be.

The LionsXII were kicked out of the tournament in the most brutal fashion. The 4-1 defeat at the hands of Angkatan Tentera Malaysia (ATM) FA was their heaviest loss of the season and more importantly, it signalled the beginning of the end of a brilliant chapter of Singapore football.

But let’s not forget that this was never going to be an easy tournament for the LionsXII.

Having been crowned Malaysian Super League champions in July, the Malaysian teams were determined to do everything in their power to prevent a Singapore side from repeating the 1994 double.

While many fans believed referees had the same intention, I never gave up on the LionsXII.

But after they drew one and lost two of their opening three group games, I started to lose faith. I did not believe that they would be able to reach the quarter-finals. I was wrong.

The LionsXII then produced three of their most gutsy performances – playing some excellent football along the way – in the second half of the group stage to do just enough to reach the quarter-finals. Like the rest of Singapore, I started to believe in them again. And that belief only grew stronger after their 1-0 win over ATM in the quarter-final first leg.

The return leg however, was heart-breaking.

The LionsXII were not their usual self. Simple passes were misplaced, shots were not hitting the target and the defence was being exposed too often too easily. To make matters worse, ATM striker Marlon James decided to pick that match to record his first goals against the LionsXII, bagging a hat-trick in the process.

Being a superstitious person when it comes to sport, I believed playing in the new white-and-black kit for the first time had something to do that. More analytical fans I know insisted that it was due to an overly-defensive approach. Regardless of explanation, none of us could hide our disappointment at the LionsXII’s exit, and what was to follow pained us even more.

Coach V Sundramoorthy confirmed his departure to Negeri Sembilan and the backbone of the team comprising of Shahril Ishak, Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khaizan, Safuwan Baharudin and Isa Halim are all expected to leave the LionsXII in the near future.

That will give the likes of Faris Ramli, Nazrul Nazari, Gabriel Quak, Aqhari Abdullah and more youngsters the chance to seal a spot in the starting line-up and stake a claim in Bern Stange’s national squad.

While they are talented, they do not have the Shahril’s experience, Hariss’ composure and Baihakki’s aggression and I fear the future will not be kind to them, even if Fandi Ahmad is hired as the new coach.

But will that stop me from supporting the LionsXII? Never.