Football: Singapore and Yemen both looking for fresh starts in World Cup qualifier

(From left) Yemen captain Salem Awad, Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al Hadi, Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida and Singapore vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin during a pre-match media conference at Oasia Hotel Novena on Sept 4, 2019.
(From left) Yemen captain Salem Awad, Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al Hadi, Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida and Singapore vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin during a pre-match media conference at Oasia Hotel Novena on Sept 4, 2019.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Barring upsets of seismic proportions, world No. 162 Singapore and Yemen - ranked 20 spots higher - are not going to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Not with Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia (68th) and Uzbekistan (84th) pooled alongside them in Group D.

However, as Singapore and Yemen kick off the second round of the World Cup qualifiers at the National Stadium on Thursday (Sept 5), both teams will be playing gunning for three points but with a bigger picture in mind.

In August, the Football Association of Singapore revealed its intention to qualify for the 2034 World Cup, and while most of the current generation of footballers will not be playing by then, they can still pave the way for their successors.

Even if they do not place in the top two, a strong finish is required to progress to the next stage of the concurrent Asian Cup qualifiers, where the Lions will hope they can qualify for the continental showpiece for the first time.

Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida said at Wednesday's pre-match press conference: "It (Goal 2034) is a good challenge. The national team should be role models for the younger generation and we have to keep improving.

"The boys are ready and I trust their potential, ability and energy. Even if this will be a tough 90 minutes, we must try to win and I hope our fans come and support us and help us put pressure on our opponents."

Vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin added: "I have been involved in three campaigns. The coaches and players may be different in each campaign but the ambition remains the same, which is to reach the next level.

"We had a good chance to qualify for the Asian Cup in the last campaign, but this is a fresh start and we can achieve something special with coach Tatsuma."

Yoshida believes he has a competitive squad with a healthy mix of overseas-based players and youngsters, and on paper the Lions should match Yemen, who had lost to Vietnam and drawn twice with the Philippines in the last two years.

Thailand-based goalkeepers Hassan Sunny (Army United), Izwan Mahbud (Nongbua Pitchaya), centre-backs Baihakki Khaizan (Trat FC), Irfan Fandi (BG Pathum), as well as Malaysia-based utility players Hariss Harun (Johor Darul Takzim), Shakir Hamzah (Kedah) and Safuwan (Pahang) will provide Singapore the steel in defence.

 
 

Striker Ikhsan Fandi, who plays in Norway for Raufoss, is expected to plunder goals alongside Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quak, who have had overseas experience and combined for 23 Singapore Premier League goals so far this season.

Singapore skipper Hariss said: "Good performances and results are necessary to convince people we are on the right track and inspire the next generation.

"I believe we have a good team, with a handful of young promising players breaking through, that can be a platform to build for the future.

"We want a win to rally everyone to move in the same direction. It needs to start now, and the players, like all the stakeholders involved in local football, have to play our part."

But Yemen will not be sitting ducks despite the ongoing civil war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement that has destroyed the May 22 Stadium in Aden and forced the national team to play their upcoming home games in Bahrain.

According to sports website Deadspin, Yemeni footballers Ali Gharaba and Abdullah Aref were shot dead by Houthi forces in 2015, while the BBC reported that Yemeni footballers often have to find other jobs to supplement their meagre football allowances in the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula.

And still, the Red Devils managed to qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time earlier this year.

Yoshida identified attackers Ahmed Al-Sarori, who played in Brazil's fourth division with Central-PE, Ahmed Dhabaan, and Abdulwasea Al-Matari as the dangermen. Many of the Yemenis play in Qatar, while local-based players take part in ad hoc local tournaments back home.

Aiming to repeat the Asian Cup miracle, Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al Hadi said: "We are suffering. There is no football league for the last five years due to the war.

"This has affected our performance and preparations but with the emergence of some young players, we have coped well. Our ambitions are big and we are looking for a positive result against Singapore."

Yemen captain Salem Awad added: "We were so happy to make history for the right reasons by qualifying for the last Asian Cup, and we hope we can start this campaign well to bring cheer to our country by qualifying for China 2023."