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No talented footballers in Lions squad, say members of 1994 'dream team'

SINGAPORE — It was a "dream team" that many football fans remember fondly, when triumphs at the 1994 Malaysia Cup and league made household names of Fandi Ahmad, Abbas Saad, Nazri Nasir, Lee Man Hon and Samawira Basri.

No talented footballers in Lions squad, say members of 1994 'dream team'

(From L-R) Former Lions Nazri Nasir, Lee Man Hon and Samawira Basri will be travelling to London to watch the Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester United game.

SINGAPORE — It was a "dream team" that many football fans remember fondly, when triumphs at the 1994 Malaysia Cup and league made household names of Fandi Ahmad, Abbas Saad, Nazri Nasir, Lee Man Hon and Samawira Basri.

But for Lee and Samawira, Singapore football’s glory days are but a memory now. There was a wistful sigh, and a shake of the head, when the state of the sport and the current Lions squad were discussed in a recent interview with TODAY.

“N-o-n-e,” said Samawira, 47, when asked if there were any promising talents in the team now.

Lee, 44, concurred, although he added that only midfielder Hariss Harun has “come of age” and impressed so far.

The Lions squad that played at the recent Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup also included veterans Khairul Amri, Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin, and Fandi’s two sons Irfan and Ikhsan.

“The other countries in South-east Asia have improved while we have stayed stagnant,” said former midfielder Lee, who was a teenager when he lifted the Malaysia Cup in 1994.

Now a father of two, Lee owns a clothing shop at China Square and coaches with the ActiveSG football academy.

He added: “We are very far from being the best in the region and we have not been performing in the past six years. The coach changed but the results are still the same, so the issue lies with the players.

“I was impressed by the performance of Vietnam and Laos at the Suzuki Cup as they really played with heart. That’s what Singapore is lacking.”

Samawira added that player development here is “not up to mark” as compared to Europe, where teams such as English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur have youth academies catered to the development of players from eight to 23.

SINGAPORE HAS ‘BRIGHT YOUNG PLAYERS’

Former national captain Nazri, however, gave a more positive assessment of the present national football team. The 47-year-old is assistant coach of Football Association of Singapore (FAS) development squad Young Lions, working alongside head coach Fandi.

Pointing to “bright young players” such as Adam Swandi, Jacob Mahler, Ikhsan and Irfan, Nazri said: “They were fired up and motivated (during the Suzuki Cup) after the last two years of not winning any international games.”

During former coach V Sundramoorthy’s two-year tenure, Singapore had a wretched international record, winning just three out of 23 “A” international matches. Winless for the entire 2017 season, the Singapore football team saw their Fifa rankings dip to an all-time low of 173 in October that year.

At last year’s Suzuki Cup, four-time champions Singapore exited the tournament at the group stage after notching two wins (against Indonesia and Timor Leste) and two losses against the Philippines and Thailand.

On the future of the Lions, Nazri added: “We should have a good set of players in three to four years’ time but that depends on how quickly they develop. There is a lot of work to be done as they need training and proper coaching.”

Allowing the national coach sufficient time to rebuild and develop the team is also crucial, said Lee and Samawira, who stressed that Fandi — who was named the Lions’ interim head coach in May last year — should be given at least two years to prove himself.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH S’PORE PREMIER LEAGUE

While former team-mates Nazri, Lee and Samawira may have differing views on the Lions, they were in agreement when it came to the newly revamped Singapore Premier League (SPL).

During the relaunch of the league in March last year, the FAS introduced a slew of changes aimed at rejuvenating the ailing league, with the emphasis on a “youth philosophy” to increase the number of promising young players for the country.

The new rules included ensuring that all local sides in the SPL had at least six Singaporean under-23 players in their ranks, and that at least three must be named in the starting line-up for all league games.

Delivering a stinging criticism of the new SPL, Lee said: “It’s a joke, there is no league in the world like this. There’s not enough talent and the standard has dropped very badly. Even the Malaysian state teams play more interesting football.”

Agreeing, Samawira, who also coaches at the ActiveSG academy, said: “They need to raise the intensity of the games and improve the quality of the players. There is no point buying foreign players if they are of the same quality as the locals.”

The lack of quality players will impact the national team, said Nazri, who added that teams in the SPL need to improve in other areas such as player fitness and team management.

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THESE

While the trio remain active in the football scene here, they and others from the 1994 dream team seldom kept in touch until 2015, when they were reunited for a five-part television documentary series by Channel NewsAsia to commemorate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee.

They now meet more regularly and play in veterans’ games.

On Thursday (Jan 10), Nazri, Lee and Samawira will be making their first trip together to London to catch the Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United game at Wembley Stadium on Monday morning, courtesy of AIA Singapore. They will also be touring the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium ahead of its expected opening on March 16 when the London club hosts Crystal Palace.

AIA is Spurs’ global principal partner, and the Singapore office has partnered with Nazri to promote active and healthy living here.

Lifelong Spurs fans Nazri and Lee are looking forward to catching their team in action against the revitalised Red Devils, who have won their last five matches under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Nazri’s love affair with the London club began as a young boy in the 1980s when he saw former England international and Spurs midfielder Glenn Hoddle playing on television.

“He was my idol because he was a very creative midfielder and very stylish player,” said Nazri.

“I haven’t had the chance to see them live but I’m so glad to have this opportunity to go with my two buddies. I’ve been looking at the progress of the stadium on YouTube and I’m excited to see it in real life.”

For Lee, it was the 1984 Uefa Cup game between Spurs and Belgium’s Anderlecht that sparked his love for the club. He said: “I flew to Kuala Lumpur three years ago to see them… this time it will be a big game because Spurs cannot lose any more if we want to win the championship this year, and Man United are also facing their first big test.”

For Samawira, the trip to London to watch Spurs and Man United will be extra special. In 1995, the former midfielder scored the Lions’ equaliser against Spurs during an exhibition match played in front of 60,000 fans at the old National Stadium. With the match level at 1-1 at full-time, the Lions eventually won 4-2 on penalties.

A Manchester United fan, Samawira has kept all the newspaper clippings, photographs and even a videotape recording of his “most memorable goal” from over two decades ago.

He wants to meet Ian Walker, the former England and Spurs goalkeeper against whom he scored, and plans to show him his collection of photos and articles from the match.

He added with a chuckle: “I will shout his name if I see him. But maybe he will ask, ‘who the **** are you'?”

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