The last time a Singapore team were in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) in 2010, back-to-back losses to Japanese powerhouses Gamba Osaka sealed the Singapore Armed Forces Football Club's (SAFFC) fate as they exited the competition at the group stage.
As destiny would have it, Japanese outfit Gamba will welcome a Singaporean side back into Asia's elite club competition after more than a decade when they face tournament debutants Tampines Rovers tonight at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
A lot has changed since but one fixture remains: Tampines defender Daniel Bennett. Now 43, the former Singapore international was a key player for SAFFC in their two ACL group stage appearances in 2009 and 2010.
Speaking to The Straits Times from Tashkent, Bennett said he is relishing the opportunity to play against Asia's best again.
"To play on these bigger stages and against the best teams and players - that's what you aspire to do every year," he said.
"I think the youngsters with us don't realise how lucky they are to be here. There are plenty of fantastic footballers over the years in Singapore who never had the chance to play at this stage. We need to appreciate this and give the best account of ourselves."
It will be a gruelling introduction to top-level action for Tampines, who will play six matches in 16 days.
The Stags qualified for the competition - which has expanded from 32 to 40 clubs from this year - after finishing as the top-ranked local side in the Singapore Premier League last season. They are in Group H alongside 2008 ACL champions Gamba, two-time ACL winners (2006 and 2016) Jeonbuk of South Korea and Thai side Chiangrai United.
While Bennett played every minute of SAFFC's 2010 ACL campaign, it is likely his participation will be limited this time.
But the former Lion, who has a record 142 caps, will mark a milestone by becoming the second oldest player to ever compete in the ACL. Bennett is about four months younger than when record holder Hussein Abdulghani featured last year for Al-Ahli Saudi aged 43 years, eight months and nine days.
When asked if playing in the ACL is reward for his longevity in the game, Bennett said that "it's not a reward for myself".
"It's a reward for the club for how it performed last year. We are the best club in Singapore. My thinking has always been to come in, train and play to the best of my ability."
On Bennett, Tampines coach Gavin Lee said: "He is a model professional on and off the pitch, I cannot emphasise how important his influence has been on the younger boys. Age plays a part in recovery but if you look at him on the pitch, he has been great for us."
Daniel Bennett is set to become the second oldest player to ever compete in the AFC Champions League. He is about four months younger than when record-holder Hussein Abdulghani featured last year for Al-Ahli Saudi aged 43 years, eight months and nine days.
With half of the Stags' 24-man squad aged 23 or younger, defender Ryaan Sanizal said Bennett is a mentor who "always gives us a big boost".
The 19-year-old added: "After training or matches, he will come up to me and tell me the areas I did well in and parts of my game where I can improve… He's been telling us about the Champions League and I can't wait to taste it for myself in the days ahead."
While Lee is counting on Bennett and senior players like Baihakki Khaizan, 37, and Fazrul Nawaz, 36, to guide the squad, the coach is realistic about his side's chances.
Two-time J-League winners (2005, 2014) Gamba may be struggling this season in 17th spot but boast a roster that includes Japanese international Gen Shoji and South Korean internationals Ju Se-jong and Kim Young-gwon.
Still, he told ST he is sticking to his guns and will not abandon his principles of playing possession-based, attacking football.
He said: "What we aim to do is to showcase our brand of football and earn that respect. Playing against these bigger (opponents), the natural assumption is that we must sit back and defend our box or as some would say 'park the bus'. But that is not us.
"We will see less possession than we are used to but we will not lose our identity. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
TAMPINES V GAMBA
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