Suzuki Cup: Football takes centre stage, with uncertainty now overcome

The pandemic, along with the sheer scale of the 10-team Suzuki Cup, meant that "a lot of pain points" were bound to arise, said FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The Suzuki Cup will kick off on Sunday (Dec 5) at the National Stadium, but Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Lim Kia Tong has revealed that Asean's biggest football tournament very nearly ended up in another part of the region.

Lim told The Straits Times on Saturday that, as the deadline for the submission of the hosting bid neared, "our burning desire to host the prestigious and flagship tournament of the Asean Football Federation (AFF) was extinguished because of financial reasons".

In fact, the FAS even informed the AFF that Singapore would not bid for the event.

"It was a nightmarish experience," he said.

But, with three days to go, he sought help from stakeholders, and Sport Singapore (SportSG) and the Singapore Sports Hub came forward.

Lim said: "That brought back to life our desire."

In late September, after a successful pitch, Singapore was named host for the tournament, and since then it has been two months of intense planning and organisation for the local organising committee (LOC).

The LOC is chaired by Lim, with FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari as deputy.

When Yazeen, 44, met ST for a chat at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday, FAS' headquarters was buzzing with activity.

About 48 hours before the tournament's start, some officials from the AFF, Asian Football Confederation and even world body Fifa were nipping in and out of meeting rooms, while others were seen inspecting the pitch at Jalan Besar, which is a back-up venue for games.

There was still plenty to do, whether it was putting the final touches on preparations, or trying to mend open wounds.

The latter involves prominent local fan group SingaBrigade and their boycott of Suzuki Cup games, owing to unhappiness over Government regulations that do not allow musical instruments - namely drums - into the venue. Yazeen hinted that a compromise could yet be reached.

He stressed that the regulation on instruments is one the organisers are "compelled to adhere to", but added that the fan group has a "special place" in his heart.

"I won't want to close the lid on this matter," he said.

The SingaBrigade issue is one of many the LOC has encountered since the Republic was named Suzuki Cup host.

The FAS and its stakeholders - which includes government bodies - had agreed on a "collective decision" to lobby for the right to stage the full tournament for the first time since 1996, he explained, as a way to move forward for all of local sport amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"Of course, it's a football competition, but (the bid) was not necessarily looked at purely as that," said Yazeen.

The pandemic, along with the sheer scale of the 10-team Suzuki Cup, however, meant that "a lot of pain points" were bound to arise, said Yazeen. On Saturday, he had another headache, with the coach of Myanmar, Antoine Hey, revealing that 10 members of his squad needed to be re-tested for Covid-19.

The Republic has welcomed more than 500 foreign travellers - players, coaches, officials, sponsors and delegates from regional and continental football bodies - for this edition of the biennial tournament, which has been delayed a year and is understood to cost over $5 million to stage.

Difficult decisions, after sometimes tense discussions, were made within the organising committee, which comprises key officials from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, national agency SportSG, the Sports Hub and Suzuki Cup rights holders Sportfive.

Yazeen said: "In our last LOC meeting (on Thursday), I did mention to our various stakeholders how much I appreciated all their efforts.

"There may have been some tough conversations that we may have had, but what was very clear is that every stakeholder wanted to ensure the role they played and their deliverables did not fall below expectations."

With all 10 teams now in Singapore - Malaysia was the last to arrive on Friday afternoon - the football will finally take centre stage.

Yazeen and Lim addressed the Lions before the squad went into the tournament bubble on Wednesday - the teams are allowed to move only between their hotel and the training and competition venues - and the key message they delivered to the players was that they were "in a privileged position" to have the opportunity to bring joy to the nation.

"It was very clear to me from the players' reactions that they needed no other motivation," said Yazeen. "Some of the squad members were involved in the 2012 (last Lions Suzuki Cup-winning) team, but most were involved in editions after, and they have some unfinished business."

The sometimes 16-hour workdays in the last two months for Yazeen and his team have been long and wearisome, but they will all be worth it if the Lions can pull off an unexpected fifth title.

"That," he said, "would be the best ROI (return on investment) we could get."

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