AFF Suzuki Cup 2016

Football: A quartet bonded by desire for cup glory

Key Lions players (from left) Baihakki Khaizan, Juma'at Jantan, Hassan Sunny and Shahril Ishak have dedicated their professional careers to helping Singapore win the AFF Cup after witnessing the Lions' embarrassing 4-0 home defeat by Malaysia in the
Key Lions players (from left) Baihakki Khaizan, Juma'at Jantan, Hassan Sunny and Shahril Ishak have dedicated their professional careers to helping Singapore win the AFF Cup after witnessing the Lions' embarrassing 4-0 home defeat by Malaysia in the same tournament in 2002.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Lions stalwarts from pioneer NFA batch get inspired from highs and lows in the AFF Cup

It was meant to be a field trip to break the monotony of training, an evening out to watch, relax and be entertained as Singapore took on Malaysia at the National Stadium.

But what Shahril Ishak, Hassan Sunny, Juma'at Jantan and Baihakki Khaizan witnessed that night was seared into their memories forever.

It was Dec 18, 2002 - an infamous day in Singapore football, as the Lions were thrashed 4-0 at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Cup at the old Kallang Stadium.

The quartet, then National Football Academy (NFA) trainees, watched in dismay from the stands as the drama unfolded.

Now senior stalwarts in the national team, they are key figures in V. Sundramoorthy's squad for this year's AFF Suzuki Cup, co-hosted in the Philippines.

But the chorus of boos around the old National Stadium 14 years ago is still a stark reminder of the flip side of wearing the red Lions jersey.

THE BIGGEST TOURNAMENT

It is one of the events we always look forward to. It's where we showcase our talents and prove our sacrifices are worth it.

BAIHAKKI KHAIZAN , Lions defender, on his special relationship with the AFF Cup.

"Our coach Vincent (Subramaniam) told us we might be the next crop. That frightened us," centre-back Baihakki recalled vividly.

"But it also motivated us. It made us want to win and be part of Singapore football's history."

Captain Shahril agreed, saying: "It was scary to see (the 4-0 defeat) but at that moment, I knew I wanted to be a Lion."

That resolve served them well. They are from the pioneer batch of 20 trainees in the NFA, which started in 2000. Six from that batch, all born in 1984, went on to become full internationals, helping Singapore claim three AFF Cup titles (2004, 2007 and 2012).

The other two players who are no longer part of the national set-up are right winger Ridhuan Muhammad and right-back Hafiz Osman.

From practical jokes to gatherings off the pitch, from tough training tours to the heat of competition, their long association has created an unique bond among them.

Juma'at said: "I guess we are the chosen ones. We were the group that grew up together and six of us went on to play for the national team."

Hassan added: "We grew up together since we were 14. For Bai and Shahril, they knew each other since they were 12. It's nice to see all of us grow as players and as adults.

"Our friendships helped us on and off the field. Even during the off season, we would text one another to go for gym or running sessions to keep fit."

After his appointment in 2003, former Lions coach Raddy Avramovic made the Class of 1984 a cornerstone of the team's success. From debuting as a raw 19-year-old in 2003, Shahril has become national skipper, earning a record 130 caps along the way. Baihakki has 128, Hassan has 59 and Juma'at, 35.

And they all have a special relationship with the AFF Cup, the biennial regional tournament.

Baihakki said: "It is one of the events we always look forward to. It's where we showcase our talents and prove our sacrifices are worth it. This is where I proved what I was made of and earn overseas contracts. It's all about wanting what we want with our careers."

For Juma'at, who had drifted in and out of the national side, never lifting the golden trophy, he has some unfinished business.

He said: "I played in three AFF Cups but I never won the tournament, unlike Shahril, Bai and Hassan. My biggest achievement so far had been winning a bronze medal at the 2007 SEA Games in Korat. That made me want to win the AFF Cup more."

For Baihakki, who has been released by Malaysian Premier League team Johor Darul Takzim II, the tournament is a chance to remind Asean clubs that his best playing days are not behind him.

He said: "This is the first time that I am going into this tournament without a contract. That is all the motivation I need, to prove I am still good enough."

And even though the Lions had won just twice in seven games under Sundram, Shahril believes that they should never be written off, even if they are in a tough Group A alongside co-hosts Philippines, defending champions Thailand and dark horses Indonesia.

He warned: "We feel bad about the results, we hate that but we will never give up. In 2004, during Raddy's early days, we kept losing (Avramovic lost 14 of his first 20 games in charge) but we went on to win the AFF Cup that year."

A similar ending in Manila will nicely bookend the careers of the Class of 1984.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2016, with the headline 'A quartet bonded by desire for cup glory'. Print Edition | Subscribe