Bai back in Lions fold

Veteran defender, 35, makes U-turn on int'l retirement & vows to give his all for country

He called time on his international career barely six months ago, but Baihakki Khaizan could not resist the lure of donning the Singapore national kit again.

That is why the 35-year-old defender had no hesitation in accepting a call up by Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida, as the Japanese tactician prepares his side for two upcoming World Cup qualification matches next month.

Baihakki, who has 134 caps, is the most experienced player in Yoshida's 23-man squad for home games against Group D rivals Yemen (Sept 5) and Palestine (Sept 10).

The veteran centre-back, who plays for Trat FC in Thailand's top tier, said a visit by Yoshida late last month convinced him to return. Yoshida travelled to the Thai coastal province to catch Trat's home game against title-chasing Port FC, which they lost 2-1.

Said Baihakki: "When (Yoshida) brought up wanting me back in the national team, the memories of my previous call ups and giving my all for the team, immediately hit me.

"It was like I was brought back to that mindset at the snap of a finger. I may not be the greatest player, but if my country needs me, I'm ready.

"I did not even think about whether I was going back on my (retirement decision) or anything like that."

  • LIONS SQUAD TO FACE YEMEN AND PALESTINE

  • GOALKEEPERS Hassan Sunny, Izwan Mahbud, Zharfan Rohaizad.

    DEFENDERS Amirul Adli, Baihakki Khaizan, Darren Teh, Irfan Fandi, Irwan Shah, Nazrul Nazari, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Zulqarnaen Suzliman.

    MIDFIELDERS Hami Syahin, Hariss Harun, Shahdan Sulaiman, Yasir Hanapi.

    FORWARDS Faris Ramli, Gabriel Quak, Hafiz Nor, Hazzuwan Halim, Ikhsan Fandi, Khairul Amri, Shawal Anuar.

Baihakki has played in 21 of Trat's 25 league games this season, helping the newly promoted team climb to seventh in the 16-team league with just five games left in the season. Only four other players have played more. He has scored twice, in a 4-0 win over Chiangmai in April and an injury-time winner, in a 3-2 triumph over Prachuap in May.

Yoshida, who was appointed Lions coach in May, said he was impressed by the level and consistency of Baihakki's performances, having watched videos of Trat's games over "three or four months".

Said the coach: "When we met, I told him he still has the quality and the opportunity to play in the national team. But if he does not have the motivation to play for the national team any more, then I said we would not involve him.

"He said he was motivated, and so we spoke about his (role) in the squad and how he has to earn his position in the starting XI. There are no promises, because there is always competition in our squad."

There are four uncapped players in Yoshida's squad: goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad, defender Darren Teh, midfielder Hami Syahin, and forward Hazzuwan Halim.

Yoshida made his final decision having assessed local-based players across four training sessions in August, and said he was eager to claim wins in the Lions' first two qualification matches.

This is despite Singapore's world ranking of 162 being the lowest in Group D. Yemen are 142nd while Palestine are 102nd. Saudi Arabia (68th) and Uzbekistan (84th) are the other teams in the group.

Only the top two from each of the eight groups progress to the third round of World Cup qualifiers.

Yoshida vowed his side would not adopt a defeatist mentality against any opponent in their group.

The Lions have played two friendly games since his appointment, a 4-3 win over the Solomon Islands which was followed by a 2-1 defeat by Myanmar.

"All the preparation we have done is for the three points," he said.

"We have to try and try and try. I have seen many games where teams are scared of the opponent's strength, and do not try to win the game (and set up defensively), only to lose 1-0. We have to try and win."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2019, with the headline 'Bai back in Lions fold'. Print Edition | Subscribe