Football: 'Malaysian players thought it was a goal kick', claim Lions of penalty decision

For nearly 15 minutes, Oman referee Al Kaf Ahmed and his assistants were prisoners on the National Stadium pitch.

Accompanied by angry shouts, water bottles rained in from Singapore fans, furious with a controversial penalty in the dying minutes that handed Malaysia back the lead and a semi-final spot in the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup.

At 1-1, with the hosts on course for the point they needed to qualify, Ahmed pointed to the spot when Shakir Hamzah and Hafiz Sujad were adjudged to have fouled Malaysia forward Amri Yahyah in mid-air.

Replays showed it was a harsh decision as Amri was already falling as the ball sailed over his head.

According to a Singapore team official who declined to be named, referee Ahmed said he awarded the penalty based on his assistant's advice, but refused to pinpoint the culprit.

"From my view, it didn't look like a penalty," said downcast Singapore coach Bernd Stange.

"It's a heartbreaker, what a shame for a match to be decided like that."

When The Sunday Times asked his Malaysia counterpart Dollah Salleh if he agreed with the decision, he just smiled and said: "Of course."

As the match officials stood stranded on the pitch, the Singapore team refused to return to the dressing room until police officers intervened.

While the penalty decision may have been dubious, few would argue that, overall, Malaysia were deserving victors for their more incisive attacks.

Still, the manner of the loss was hard for the Lions to accept.

"Even the Malaysian players thought it was a goal-kick because not one of them appealed," said Hafiz, his eyes red from tears.

Captain Shahril Ishak added: "Everyone can see that's not a penalty. Malaysia played well but when we equalised (through Khairul Amri), we thought we had the game in the bag."

Dogged by controversy the day before a must-win game for his country, Malaysia striker Safee Sali ensured his name was in the headlines for all the right reasons when he broke the deadlock with a piledriver into the far corner.

The 30-year-old had been hounded by the media after a picture of him smoking was circulated online but he had the last laugh against their Causeway rivals.

The Johor Darul Takzim star said: "It's fantastic to score that goal, especially after all the issues that had been happening before the game which was trying to distract us.

"I always knew I would prove myself on the field and that's what I did."

On the decisive penalty that swung the game in the Tigers' favour, he said: "We fought all the way to the end and never gave up. Thank God we got the goal which sent us to the semi-final."

Hariss Harun, Singapore's top performer at the tournament, best summed up the night: "We just didn't play well enough and we didn't do enough to win."