Football: Veteran Baihakki to lead Lions' charge against Japan

Baihakki Khaizan (left) and Hassan Sunny during a training session at the National Stadium yesterday. The Lions will host Japan in their 2018 World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Baihakki Khaizan (left) and Hassan Sunny during a training session at the National Stadium yesterday. The Lions will host Japan in their 2018 World Cup qualifier on Thursday.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Eleven years ago, Baihakki Khaizan, a fresh-faced rookie, stood in the Jalan Besar Stadium tunnel shoulder to shoulder with Japan's stars Hidetoshi Nakata, Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono.

Today, he is a grizzled veteran with 120 international caps, a Lion who has earned his mane. And with skipper Shahril Ishak unlikely to start and experienced striker Khairul Amri hamstrung, the 31-year-old is the elder statesman in Singapore's starting line-up to face the Japanese on Thursday.

Ahead of the crunch World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium, Baihakki wants the team's younger players to show "true character" and justify their selection.

"You can make it to the national team but it's about how long you can sustain it," he said to The Straits Times yesterday.

"If these boys have what it takes to be here for the next 10 years, they will have to show it.

"Some can be called up today but will be gone tomorrow. You need an entire package - your talent, hard work, discipline and attitude."

While goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud stole the show in the Lions' 0-0 draw against Japan in the earlier qualifier in Saitama in June, Baihakki also played an integral role in Singapore's Group E campaign, leading the defence to two clean sheets from the four games he played.

Singapore currently sit third in Group E, with 10 points from their first five games. The Lions are level on points with Japan, who have a game in hand.

The Johor Darul Takzim II player said: "As a whole, that (the draw) was the turning point of the entire qualifying campaign. But we don't want to just do it once; we want to continue the momentum."

Apart from winning headers, sliding into tackles and trawling for strikers with offside traps, Baihakki has the additional responsibility of mentoring the youngsters.

And one rookie listening intently is Amirul Adli.

The 19-year-old said: "He's one of the best defenders Singapore has ever had. To learn from him is an honour and I'm very lucky to be part of a team that has him."

With Japan calling up top guns Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda in an attempt to win all three points at Kallang, Baihakki is relishing the challenge ahead.

He said: "These two games (against Japan and then Syria next Tuesday) really matter and play a big part in our qualifying campaign.

"At this point of time, it gives some meaning that we have something to play for, rather than just being the bullied boys.

"We respect Japan but we aren't afraid of them. We have been solid as a team and I hope that we maintain that and approach the game with the right frame of mind.

"The pressure is on them, not us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2015, with the headline 'Veteran Baihakki to lead Lions' charge against Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe