THE 36-SPORT COUNTDOWN CONTINUES WITH FOOTBALL AND WUSHU

Motivation stems from underrated football team: Young Lions coach Aide

The quest for balance in the Games will draw on notion that Young Lions are outgunned

Aide Iskandar knows what it's like to be underestimated. In fact, the former Singapore football captain embraces it.

In 2004, he skippered the under-fire Lions - plagued by a run of 14 losses in 20 matches - to a fairy-tale victory on home soil at the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship.

As a rookie coach, he led an unheralded Hougang United side of apparent misfits and has-beens to the 2011 Singapore League Cup final.

Today, 121 international caps, three AFF crowns and two S-League titles later, he is being written off once again. And it doesn't worry him.

The 56-year chase for Singapore's maiden SEA Games football gold has come home. More than any other sport, this is arguably the medal every Singaporean is yearning for.

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But even after training trips to Turkey, Austria and Japan and a string of friendly matches, the Under-23 team Aide helms have not exactly been a paragon of excellence and confidence.

They suffered a 1-8 loss to Japan's U-22s and a 2-1 defeat by Syria's U-23 side in February. They were also stunned 3-1 by the Cambodia U-22s in March.

Within the squad, uncertainties linger. Left-back Shakir Hamzah was stripped of his captaincy, while 17-year-old 1.87m Irfan Fandi - Lions great Fandi Ahmad's eldest son - has been shuffled between defence and attack to find the best use of his physique.

Despite avoiding defending champions Thailand as well as contenders Malaysia and Vietnam in the SEA Games group stage, doubts remain over Singapore's ability to even finish in the top two of Group A and book a semi-final spot.

But, if Aide is to be believed, this is just how he likes it.

"It's always good to be underestimated," the former centre-back tells The Sunday Times, with a wry smile.

"People are talking about Thailand cruising to the gold and not putting the limelight on us."

It is a feeling echoed across the dressing room. Goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari said: "The criticism is good for us because we can use it as extra motivation to try and make a name for ourselves.

"We are using these Games to show people we are good."

Experience was gained from the last edition in Myanmar two years ago, when Aide's troops held their own in the semi-final against Thailand, only to lose 0-1 after a mix-up between centre-back Safuwan Baharudin and goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud. They eventually settled for their third football bronze in four editions.

"That's why I keep talking about balance in my tactics," said Aide, who is assisted by former national defenders S. Subramani and Kadir Yahaya.

"Of course, I want the team to attack and score goals - but we must defend properly first. If we don't stay compact... we will be out."

When the 40-year-old noticed training standards and discipline were slipping during their week-long stint in Japan this month, he was said to have given his players the hair-dryer treatment.

They have since responded with a 3-0 victory over Japan's Shizuoka Sangyo University and a 5-1 thumping of Laos' U-23s at home last week.

Still fans doubt them, especially since previous Singapore teams have failed. The 2013 batch, for instance, boasted established national players like Hariss Harun, Safuwan and Izwan, all of whom were coming off the highs of winning the Malaysia Super League with the LionsXII.

But even they failed to become the first Singapore outfit to reach the final since 1989, when the team were powered by a frightening front line that included Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy.

So what makes the latest crop, featuring promising but unproven talents like Irfan and Adam Swandi, different from two years ago?

"This team are more of a unit and have a lot of character," midfielder Anumanthan Kumar said ahead of his second Games outing.

"We have been together for two to three years, so we all know one another very well. If we focus and follow coach's instructions, we will do well."

Words will have to translate into action when Singapore open their campaign against the Philippines at the Jalan Besar Stadium tomorrow.

The hosts are looking to extend the feel-good factor from the LionsXII's stirring 3-1 Malaysian FA Cup triumph over Kelantan last week.

Aide, a bronze medallist himself in 1995, has a simple message to rally his boys: "I've experienced that winning feeling with the national team, being adored and praised by fans.

"I told the boys it's something money can't buy. This is their chance to write history and leave a legacy behind."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Deepanraj Ganesan