Football: SEA Games: From setbacks to the Young Lions' armband

Singapore men's football team has never won a gold medal at the SEA Games. Team captain Shahrin Saberin sees this as a kind of motivation for the players to go for gold in Kuala Lumpur.
Singapore Under-22 football captain Shahrin Saberin has had to go through several disappointments in his young career before earning the right to represent Singapore. The Young Lions have been drawn in Group A with hosts Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and
Singapore Under-22 football captain Shahrin Saberin has had to go through several disappointments in his young career before earning the right to represent Singapore. The Young Lions have been drawn in Group A with hosts Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and Laos at the KL Games.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

S'pore U-22 skipper feels team are in the mix for SEA Games gold despite being written off

He may not have a glittering resume that lists success after success. It might not even bode well that in the mission to win the SEA Games gold medal that has eluded Singapore, the Under-22 football team are captained by a young man who has faced failure after failure.

But maybe, just maybe, he is the right man for the job. After the hype of the 2015 tournament on home soil that produced zero returns, this year's vintage are going to Kuala Lumpur with low expectations and the distinct tag of underdogs.

Chief among them is their skipper Shahrin Saberin, a young centre-back who has been down and out, and yet continues to stand up in the face of adversity, a specialist in chasing lost causes, a man who makes lemonade from lemons.

To understand the man, it is necessary to rewind to his beginnings. Like many footballers, his journey started during childhood at the age of eight when classmates at Jingshan Primary School asked him to take up the sport as a co-curricular activity.

Practise. Learn. Practise. Improve. Practise. Match. Repeat. That time-honoured process took him all the way to the Singapore Sports School, a recognition that he had talent in those legs. Then the tailspin began.

"I attended the trials for the Youth Olympic Games (YOG). More than 1,000 boys were there and I was there all the way until the final 20 were selected," Shahrin recalled.

"(But) I didn't go to the AYG (Asian Youth Games), I didn't go to the YOG and I was not even selected for the NFA (National Football Academy). It was disappointment after disappointment when my schoolmates were guys like Hanafi (Akbar) and Dhukilan (Jeevamani), guys who were part of that famous YOG team (of 2010)."

  • SINGAPORE SEA GAMES FOOTBALL SQUAD

  • GOALKEEPERS

    Hairul Syirhan Mardan, Fashah Iskandar (both Garena Young Lions)

    DEFENDERS

    Irfan Fandi (Home United), Rusyaidi Salime, Amirul Adli, Shahrin Saberin, Syahrul Sazali (all Young Lions), Lionel Tan (Hougang United)

    MIDFIELDERS

    Ammirul Emmran, Armin Maier, Joshua Bernard Pereira, Illyas Lee, Hami Syahin, Mulhelmy Suhaimi (all Young Lions), Hanafi Akbar (Balestier Khalsa), Adam Swandi (Home)

    FORWARDS

    Haiqal Pashia Anugrah, Ikhsan Fandi, Taufik Suparno, Muhaimin Suhaimi, Zulkarnaen Suzliman (all Young Lions)

    Squad will be trimmed to 20 pending Adam Swandi's fitness

  • Pressure comes in all forms for Singapore's athletes . For the Games debutant, the defending champion, the young star hoping to seize her chance or the veteran returning from injury, pressure is something they have to deal with. The Straits Times looks at six individuals ready to leave their mark in Malaysia in our build-up to the 29th SEA Games. Tomorrow: water polo

As his buddies went on to win the bronze medal and enjoyed a brief stint in the spotlight, Shahrin was left behind to stew and simmer. He decided enough was enough.

He said: "When I was in Secondary 4, I made the decision to quit the Sports School and go to ITE (Institute of Technical Education) West.

"I was totally demoralised. I wanted a new environment and maybe (the chance to) build a new career somewhere else."

 

That somewhere else was with Warriors FC, where he played for their U-18 team coached by Herman Zailani. But as he bid for a place in the first team, Shahrin found Daniel Bennett, the veteran battleaxe, too difficult to dislodge.

National Service followed and the youngster was allowed to continue playing football for Home United's Prime League team.

It was there that then-Protectors coach Philippe Aw gave the defender his S-League debut last year. He ended the campaign with 18 appearances and established himself as a first-teamer.

And after a long roundabout journey, Shahrin was finally picked to wear national colours, when many of the famed YOG cohort of 2010 fell by the wayside.

He went from the scrapheap to the armband, but there is no time to enjoy the view.

The Kallang Roar is blessed, or some say cursed, with an elephant's memory. Fans long for a crack team who play beautiful football, one studded with entertainers like Dollah Kassim, Quah Kim Song, V. Sundram Moorthy, Fandi Ahmad and Hasnim Haron. All revered names but none are winners of the SEA Games gold medal.

Hopes are not high for Shahrin and Co. At last month's Asian Football Confederation U-23 Championship qualifiers, the Young Lions lost 0-2 to Myanmar and were hammered 7-0 by Australia before a consolation 4-1 win over Brunei. They will miss out on next year's Finals in China.

The bulk of the squad, who play for the Football Association of Singapore's developmental team Garena Young Lions in the S-League, are floundering in the top flight, rooted to the bottom of the nine-team table with no wins after 13 games, scoring just six times while conceding 33.

But Shahrin is staying optimistic, even though Richard Tardy's team have a tough draw in Group A alongside hosts Malaysia, Myanmar, Brunei and Laos.

He said of the draw: "It's not easy, it's not too hard. We have met Myanmar and Brunei, we know their style. Malaysia will give us hell because they are at their home ground and they are the favourites, but I still feel we can give them a good fight.

"We can't dwell on past results. It's already in the past."

Typical of his determination to turn make the most of what he has, he thinks the Young Lions are good enough to hit their semi-final target or even better.

Shahrin said: "It is normal to feel pressure, especially as this is the medal that Singapore wants. But I want to turn that pressure into a boost for my morale. I am not thinking about all the previous failures. I am thinking that there is a chance that we could write history by becoming the first Singapore team to win the football gold.

"I feel blessed to be here. I guess that I am a person who does not give up easily if I want something badly. Success might not come now but it might come later. The important thing is to never give up."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 13, 2017, with the headline 'From outsider to leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe