A coronavirus-hit national Under-23 football team fell to a 3-1 loss to Thailand Under-23 in their Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-23 Championship Group C opener on Wednesday (Feb 16).
The match at the Prince Stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, saw the Singaporean side deprived of at least 10 players due to various reasons.
A Covid-19 outbreak in the squad wrecked coach Nazri Nasir’s training plans. He was left with only four outfield players and two goalkeepers on the bench, while Thailand had the maximum of 12 substitutes to choose from.
In response to queries from The Straits Times, an AFF spokesman said its competition rules state that a match may not start or continue only if a team is able to field fewer than seven players.
Three Singapore players – Raoul Suhaimi, Farhan Zulkifli and Zamani Zamri – had tested positive for the virus on the eve of the match and were moved to a local quarantine facility to recover. Five others, including captain Jacob Mahler, had also shown signs of fever and were unwell.
This led to the squad being unable to train on Tuesday.
When asked if he had thought of not playing the match, Nazri said: “It was a tough decision for me to make.
“We couldn’t train and had to wait for the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) results yesterday. We had players who were unwell. But the boys showed their character and desire in wanting to play. I am very proud. Given the circumstances we are going through, they fought very hard.”
Mahler, however, was able to lead the side out against the Thais, who have sent their Under-19 squad to the tournament.
The Singapore squad were also without four players – defender Irfan Najeeb, midfielder Daniel Goh and strikers Zikos Chua and Khairin Nadim – who tested positive last week and did not depart with the squad last Saturday.
In addition, Singapore Premier League Young Player of the Year Nur Adam Abdullah is ruled out through injury, while Joel Chew and Arshad Shamim could not travel due to national service commitments.
Last night, things got worse for Singapore after just 11 minutes when left-back Danish Irfan had to be taken off with an injury. He was replaced by Ryaan Sanizal, a centre-back by trade.
But despite the circumstances, it was Singapore who took the lead from an Ilhan Fandi header in the 16th minute.
The 19-year-old rose highest in the box to meet a cross which flew beyond the reach of Thai goalkeeper Narongsak Nuangwongsa.
But Thailand equalised on the stroke of half-time through Teerasak Poeiphimai.
While they were competitive in the first 45 minutes, Singapore could not sustain that in the second period. Jordan Emaviwe, who was unwell before the game, was taken off at half-time while Ilhan and fellow attacker Nicky Melvin Singh were also substituted with injuries in the second half.
The Thais added goals in the 57th minute via Niphitphon Wongpanya and the 62nd minute with Teerasak getting his double.
There was however a silver lining for the team, who earned the nod from the Singapore National Olympic Council last night for the May 12-23 SEA Games in Hanoi.
Singapore will hope to welcome back some of their players when they face Vietnam on Saturday (Feb 19).
But Nazri said the three players who tested positive on Tuesday (Feb 15) will be out as they have to isolate for nine days in accordance with Cambodian rules. “We don’t want to give up. We want to be ready for Vietnam,” he added.
The three group winners and the best-placed runner-up will advance to the semi-finals next Thursday. The tournament has already felt the effects of Covid-19, with Indonesia and Myanmar pulling out due to a number of virus cases in each of their squads.
While they were competitive in the first 45 minutes, Singapore could not sustain that in the second period.
Jordan Emaviwe, who was unwell before the game, was taken off at half time while Ilhan and fellow attacker Nicky Melvin Singh were also subbed off with injuries in the second half.
The Thais added goals in the 57th minute via Niphitphon Wongpanya and in the 62nd minute with Teerasak's second goal of the match.
There was however a silver lining for the team, who earned the nod from the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) on Wednesday night (Feb 16) to compete at the May 12-23 SEA Games in Hanoi.
Singapore will hope to welcome back some of their players when they face their next opponents Vietnam on Saturday (Feb 19).
A win then will aid their chances of advancing. The three group winners and the best-placed runners-up will advance to the semi-finals on Feb 24.
It was always going to be an uphill battle given the disrupted preparations due to the Covid-19 cases within the squad.
While Singapore were able to field 11 players, unwell players in the starting line-up meant that they were going into a gun fight with a knife.
But while the squad can be applauded for their determination and grit, there are no points to show for and in large portions of the match, the younger Thais pinged the ball about like a team with a plan and panache as they starved Singapore of possession.
Injuries to Ilhan, Danish and Nicky in the loss to Thailand now casts doubt on the clash with Vietnam. Coach Nazri might be relieved just to be able to name a starting 11 in their second match.