SINGAPORE - The Singapore national Under-22 team ended their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualification campaign unbeaten after defeating Mongolia 3-1 on Tuesday (March 26), but their joy was dampened by elimination from an insufficient points tally.
The 11 group winners and four best runners-up will join host Thailand in the 2020 finals in January.
Even before the last round of fixtures was played on Tuesday, Oman, Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Australia, Myanmar, Malaysia and Vietnam all occupy second place in their respective groups with six points.
Despite bowing out, Fandi was happy with how his charges fared in the campaign, saying: "It all went very well even though we have difficulties. The teamwork is there, the coaching staff are very together, the camaraderie is very good.
"We didn't qualify, but we gave our all. The boys sacrificed a lot and to finish second in the group, without a defeat, is something that has never happened in this age group."
In three previous editions of the AFC U-23 Championship in 2013, 2016 and 2018, Singapore had never reached the finals and suffered at least a defeat in each qualifying campaign and never finished higher than third in their group.
The Young Lions were stunned after just three minutes at the MFF Football Centre in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Tuesday when Mongolia's Batbayar Khash-Erdene steered a looping header past goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad.
The Republic equalised in the 33rd minute through forward Amiruldin Asraf's header from a Hami Syahin cross from the left.
Two minutes before half-time, centre-back Irfan Fandi arrived at the far post to meet left-back Syahrul Sazali's free kick and power his header emphatically past goalkeeper Sanchir Anand. And, in the 71st minute, forward Ikhsan Fandi flicked the ball on for Hami to sprint clear and score the third goal.
Fandi, 56, said: "We're just happy that the boys came back with good fighting spirit and good discipline. I know these Mongolian players are fighters, they fought very hard and they are good players and a hard-working team."
The Under-22s have another major assignment this year in November's SEA Games and Fandi hopes that he can mould them into a unit that can deliver a historic gold medal.
He said: "This is a good team that we have to keep together. The coaching staff are very satisfied with the performance of the players."