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Can Lions finally win first Sea Games football gold?

IF the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) team which did Singapore proud had been kept fully intact, we could have raised significantly our expectations for the nation's first South-east Asian Games football gold medal.

But no, the team's captain Jeffrey Lightfoot and many of his brave boys who won a YOG bronze medal on home soil with some heroic displays have gone their separate ways, and Singapore is yet again left wondering when it can create football history.

The consolation, though, is that five players of that promising young side have remained active and are in coach Richard Tardy's current SEA Games squad.

They are goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar, defenders Dhukhilan Jeevamani and Illyas Lee, midfielder Ammirul Emmran and striker-winger Muhaimin Shuahimi.

At the 2010 YOG, Singapore had the distinction of scoring the tournament's fastest goal when Ammirul's first touch of the ball inside a minute saw the player set his team to a 3-1 win over Zimbabwe.

When Lightfoot suffered a serious cut on his head during the third-place playoff match against Montenegro, he received treatment in hospital before returning for the award ceremony.

As coach Kadir Yahaya shed tears after seeing his boys step off the podium with the bronze medal, Lightfoot said: "From here, we should continue to develop and become a real power."

It is sheer coincidence that the boys who played at the YOG and were born in 1995 or later, will feature at next month's Sea Games in Kuala Lumpur.

It's anyone's guess whether Tardy's tenacious team can raise their game, endorse Lightfoot's assessment of "real power" and bag the gold medal that Singapore most wants now that at least the spine of the team seems to be intact.

We know that Olympic swimming champion Joseph Schooling will enjoy a multi-gold haul and Singapore's men's water polo team are confident of making yet another sweep, stretching their historic gold run to 27 in a row.

But the football gold is the most sought after, as Singapore has been competing in the Sea Games since its inauguration in 1959 and have come close three times, in 1983, 1985 and 1989, in their bid to clinch the football title.

As the Singapore team gears up for yet another assault, returning to the Malaysian capital where we harboured our biggest hopes in 1989 with a star-studded team, there won't be pressure on our young Lions to deliver the gold.

That Tardy's team have been tagged "mere underdogs" against the likes of perennial powerhouses Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia is a welcome sign.

In contrast, before the final in 1989, Singapore were touted as slight favourites because that team included wonder boys Fandi Ahmad and V Sundramoorthy, along with "Captain Marvel" Terry Pathmanathan in the heart of defence.

But Singapore could not defeat Malaysia despite Fandi equalising for the Lions after defender Borhan Abu Samah had conceded an own goal. Lim Teong Kim and Dollah Salleh scored later to confirm Malaysia's title.

Now that it is an Under-22 tournament for the first time in SEA Games history, the belief in the Singapore camp is that the playing field has been levelled somewhat. What's also in Singapore's favour is that the fighting spirit of the 2010 YOG squad is intact and firmly with Tardy's team.