Wanted: Fit and disciplined Lions

The final of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes

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Four decades have passed, but Seak Poh Leong clearly remembers the day he tried to outsmart national football coach Mike Walker - and failed miserably.

The then-Lions captain, along with team-mate Mohamad Noh, had arranged job interviews (the players were all amateurs) to coincide with the Englishman's gruelling fitness session in the build-up to the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games.

They returned at lunchtime, just as their team-mates staggered back from training to their temporary accommodation in Toa Payoh.

But the only item on the menu for the duo was a personal workout with Walker, who dished out his favourite drill - running 20 laps of 400m, under 60sec each time, with minimal break in between.

"It was noon, scorching heat, but Mike said if we didn't do it, we wouldn't be back in the team," recalled Seak, still sprightly and with little sign of greying hair at 62.

As with most regional teams at the time, the mantra was "fitness first, egos second", a benchmark set by the 1973 Games gold medallists Burma.

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Sitting next to Seak as he recounts the story, national Under-23 striker Irfan Fandi chuckles wryly at the prospect of a run under the sun.

"I'd probably fail badly - I have a problem running laps," said the 17-year-old son of former Singapore hotshot Fandi Ahmad.

"Most of our fitness work is on the field, and involves a ball. The game has changed so much now."

Yes, it has.

But one cannot help but wonder how the current crop would cope with legendary Singapore coach Choo Seng Quee's training regimen, which harnessed 1960s talents like Majid Ariff and Lee Kok Seng.

Perhaps 1.87m-tall Irfan would boost his aerial prowess heading leather footballs soaked in water.

Or would Young Lions captain Al-Qaasimy Rahman be even more vocal if he had to lead his squad in singing the National Anthem at the top of their lungs at sunrise?

Today, a mini-army of sports scientists, nutritionists and physiotherapists surround Irfan and his team-mates.

Instead of stop-watches and weathered boots that require the studs to be screwed on, they don lightweight shoes and special vests that track heart rates, distance covered and average speeds during training.

The times are a-changing. As Seak put it succinctly, football in the 1970s was about "discipline, long balls, and running... plenty of running."

And, of course, the Kallang Roar.

The cauldron of noise at the old National Stadium was fuelled by an iconic Lions line-up.

In between bites of curry puff and crackers, the fans' appetite was sated by "gelek" dribbler Dollah Kassim, acrobatic forward Quah Kim Song and "banana kick" specialist S. Rajagopal - all heroes of the 1977 Malaysia Cup-winning outfit.

They adopted an attacking 4-2-4 formation, pressing high up the field to win the ball back and pounce on retreating backlines.

Sometimes, they left gaps in their own half.

"The crowd didn't mind us losing some matches as long as we stuck to attacking football," said Seak, the Lions' youngest captain at 20.

"I remember fans being happier with a 4-3 defeat than a 0-0 draw."

As the game got faster, tactics evolved to place greater emphasis on midfield superiority.

With a nascent attack of Fandi and V. Sundramoorthy spearheading a 4-4-2 set-up, Singapore reached the SEA Games final in 1983, 1985 and 1989.

Twice, they fell to Thailand, led by wondrous striker Piyapong Pue-on, and once to Malaysia, boasting hit-men Mokhtar Dahari and Dollah Salleh.

"Those were some of the most intense games I've ever played," said Sundram, 49, whose full-bodied mullet has been replaced by a short haircut with greying sideburns.

"Even as forwards, we had to drop back to pack the midfield because the more players you had there, you generally controlled the game better."

Try as they might, the Lions could never get their paws on the SEA Games gold, making their last appearance in the final in 1989.

Still, whether it was two in midfield during Seak's days or a pack of four when Sundram dazzled, there was one constant.

The Singapore team those days never backed down from a fight.

Following in the bootsteps of Syed Mutalib and Robert Sim in the 1970s, the next decade witnessed more unforgiving tacklers like Borhan Abu Samah, Sudiat Dali and Malek Awab.

"Something that I think that's missing among our footballers today is the pride and passion," said midfielder Malek, 54, who featured at seven different SEA Games.

"When I put on the national jersey, I was willing to bleed and break bones for my country."

He was first to tackles, but the ever-affable Malek was nearly an hour late for this interview at the Singapore Sports School, earning a gentle rebuke from former team-mate Sundram.

In their prime in the 1990s, the duo featured in matches worthy of repeat YouTube viewings.

Few will forget Fandi's diving header that sank Kedah, sparked by two ferocious tackles from Malek. Or Sundram's overhead kick against Brunei, where the ball was played out from the back.

"We played as a team - everyone pressed to win back the ball, and everyone was involved in our build-up play," Sundram noted.

Nodding in approval, Seak added: "Unless you have Messi or Ronaldo, you can't just depend on one or two players to win matches."

Today, intricate 4-2-3-1 and 3-3-3-1 formations are in vogue.

Full-backs are expected to cross like wingers, goalkeepers must have two good feet, and centre-forwards should be both mobile and powerful.

With Thailand's re-emergence as regional kingpins, Singapore - once again - find themselves playing catch-up, not helped by a stagnating youth pipeline.

Only three of the eight local S-League clubs run youth programmes, while the National Football Academy has been criticised for its limited outreach and inconsistent curriculum.

Seak, formerly the director of coaching at the Football Association of Singapore, wants to see more kids playing the game regularly, and at a younger age.

He said: "This is, by far, the country's most popular sport.

"We religiously follow European leagues, yet can't get our very own game right.

"Right now, for the most part, we don't have the right people or the right programmes to run football."

Finding more uncompromising coaches in the vein of Walker would be a good place to start.

nsanjay@sph.com.sg


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SEAK POH LEONG

TOP HONOUR

  • Seap Games

Bronze: 1975

He was the tireless dynamo in midfield who allowed his more skilful team-mates to flourish.

As Dollah Kassim and Arshad Khamis skipped past one opponent after another, and Quah Kim Song threw his body at odd angles to connect with diving headers at the end of crosses, Seak Poh Leong stationed himself near the centre circle.

He was the protector of the backline, using his keen football sense to intercept through-balls and close down dangerous adversaries.

As former Singapore coach Trevor Hartley aptly put it, Seak "held things together".

The midfielder, who was the Lions' youngest captain at age 20, may have never tasted success at the international level. But he has fond memories of being part of the team that inspired the Kallang Roar.

"I wouldn't swop my experiences with guys like Dollah, Kim Song and Mat Noh for any medal or trophy," said the 62-year-old businessman, who also served the game in various youth coaching roles at the Football Association of Singapore and Geylang International.

"It was a joy to win back the ball and pass it to those talents.

"I had a front-row seat to their magic show."


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MALEK AWAB

TOP HONOURS

  • SEA Games

Silver: 1983, 1985, 1989

Bronze: 1991, 1993, 1995

  • Malaysia Cup

Champion (with Kuala Lumpur): 1987, 1988, 1989

Champion (with Singapore): 1994

  • Malaysian League

Champion (with KL): 1988

Champion (with Singapore): 1994

Before he became a firm crowd favourite as a tireless midfielder, Malek Awab was heckled by fans at the National Stadium - for blocking their view.

As a 15-year-old with big dreams but a small wallet, he sold kuachi (melon seeds) at the storied Kallang venue during football matches to earn a living.

Although he was scolded as he went about his job in the terraces, a dream to become a professional player was born.

In school though, he was forced to play badminton as teachers told him that he was too small to play football. But a trial for Farrer Park United's youth team would change his life.

He may stand at a mere 1.66m, but Malek's energetic displays made him stand tall on the pitch.

"There were some people who didn't believe in me, even later in my career, so I played to prove them wrong," the 54-year-old says with his trademark toothy grin.

"There's always a smile on my face. But I like to think that I was a beast on the field."


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V. SUNDRAMOORTHY

TOP HONOURS

  • SEA Games

Silver: 1983, 1985

Bronze: 1993

  • Malaysia Cup

Champion (with Kedah): 1990

  • Malaysian Super League

Champion (LionsXII coach): 2013

Mention V. Sundramoorthy's name to Singapore football fans and the memory of his overhead kick against Brunei in 1993 inevitably crops up.

But for "The Dazzler" himself, the goal that stands out in his 17-year career was scored against Malaysia's "Spider-Man" at the 1983 SEA Games.

In front of 55,000 raucous fans at the old National Stadium, Sundram fondly recalls his 47th-minute strike against goalkeeper R. Arumugam, who earned the nickname for his exceptionally long arms and reflex saves. The custodian was tragically killed in a car crash in 1988.

Sundram's strike proved to be the decider in a 2-1 group-stage win over their arch-rivals, who boasted top Malaysian stars like Santokh Singh, Zainal Abidin and Lim Teong Kim.

Sundram, whose team went on to claim the silver, said: "Fandi (Ahmad) challenged for the ball in the box. I anticipated the second ball, beat my marker to it and volleyed it into the top corner. It was the one time I saw Arumugam helpless."


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IRFAN FANDI

Picture this: You are the youngest player of a team charged with ending Singapore's long chase for a first SEA Games football gold.

You are playing in front of an expectant home crowd, wearing the same jersey number of your father, arguably the country's most famous player.

Oh, and it doesn't matter that your dad never won the gold - you are expected to.

Welcome to the pressure-cooker world of 17-year-old Irfan Fandi.

The public first caught a glimpse of his talent at the 2013 Lion City Cup at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Faced with the pressure of living up to Fandi Ahmad's legacy, the teenager struck against the Under-15s of Arsenal and German club Eintracht Frankfurt.

Apart from his finishing, the 1.87m striker has impressed with his physical strength, aerial power and sound technique.

"Honestly, I'm quite used to the pressure and expectations people have of me," says Irfan, who has been attached to Chilean top-tier outfit Universidad Catolica since 2013.

"I just don't want to let my team down. Coach Aide (Iskandar) has picked me in spite of my age, so my aim is to prove him right."

Fandi picked 17 as his lucky number because one and seven adds up to eight, which means prosperity in Chinese. With Irfan taking on the same digits, Singapore fans hope this will translate into goals and gold.