03 July 13 The Straits Times by Wang Meng Meng
JUST a little over six months ago, the national football team brought joy to Singapore when they lifted the Asean Football Federation (AFF) championship title for a record fourth time.
But if fans think that was a one-off for local football, they were mistaken. The LionsXII gave local fans another reason to cheer at Jalan Besar Stadium last night.
At 9.41pm, referee Samsudin Ibrahim blew the final whistle to signal the end of the Malaysian Super League (MSL) match between the LionsXII and Felda United, with V. Sundramoorthy's young side posting their biggest win of the season, 4-0.
The victory confirmed their status as the new league champions and also installed them as one of the favourites for the Malaysia Cup, which starts on Aug 17.
This was the fifth time Singapore have won a Malaysian league title, following triumphs in 1979, 1981, 1985 and 1994.
Indeed, this has been a season of many staggering statistics. The LionsXII are the first foreign side to win the MSL; they have... the best home record (10 wins and one draw), best defensive record (13 goals conceded), scored 17 out of 32 goals via set-pieces, 13 players undergoing national service, 25 out of 30 players under the age of 23.
Most significantly, the team were 100 per cent made in Singapore.
After 10 years as a professional, skipper Shahril Ishak is finally a league winner and the 29-year-old savours the MSL triumph more than anything else.
"This is the one that Singaporeans will remember," the playmaker, who is the team's leading scorer with eight goals, said.
"Finally, I have my first league title and this is the one the country had waited 19 years for. This is the fulfilment of a childhood dream."
Midfielder Hariss Harun, 22, echoed similar sentiments, saying: "The MSL win feels better than the AFF title. It is not an easy campaign as it is played over a period of months. Mentally, it's draining but the boys were there for each other."
In the build-up to yesterday's crunch match against relegation-threatened Felda, Abbas Saad - the hat-trick hero of the 1994 Malaysia Cup final - said that Sundram's team pale in comparison with his swashbuckling side, dubbed the Dream Team.
However, the gutsy way in which the LionsXII handled the criticism, and other factors like injuries, suspensions and national service commitments, will go some way in inspiring a new generation of Singaporeans who had never seen Abbas and Fandi Ahmad in their pomp.
Centre-back Baihakki Khaizan said: "When I was 10, I made the trip to Shah Alam Stadium to watch Fandi lift the Malaysia Cup in 1994. But here I am now, doing what my heroes did.
"I hope that what the LionsXII have done will influence the youngsters of today to believe in Singapore football and to dream of playing for the country."
With the Sports Hub set to open next year, Sundram hopes the 55,000-capacity new National Stadium will be a sea of red cheering the LionsXII in their title defence next year.
The 47-year-old, who finally won his first trophy after 14 years in coaching, said: "In the last few games, people have been calling me non-stop asking for tickets. I'm very confident that we can fill up the new stadium when the big games come up next year."
FOR MORE ON THE BIG WIN
*****************Background Story *****************
LionsXII captain Shahril Ishak's inswinging free kick is headed past his own goalkeeper by Felda's Azrul Ahmad in the 47th minute.
It's 2-0 to the LionsXII after 58 minutes, as Shahril slams the ball home after Faris Ramli's cross is missed by a Felda defender.
Fazrul Nawaz taps in from close range in the 62nd minute after Shahril scuffs his shot into the ground. A rout is on the cards.
Shahril's through-ball finds Shahfiq Ghani, who coolly rolls it past Rozaimie Rohim in the Felda goal with six minutes to go.