Football: Singapore Under-22s hold group top seeds North Korea to keep AFC Championship hopes alive

Ikhsan Fandi at national team training last November during the AFF Suzuki Cup. He put the Singapore Under-22s up in the first minute but North Korea fought back to equalise for a 1-1 draw in the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifier.
Ikhsan Fandi at national team training last November during the AFF Suzuki Cup. He put the Singapore Under-22s up in the first minute but North Korea fought back to equalise for a 1-1 draw in the AFC Under-23 Championship qualifier.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - National Under-23 football coach Fandi Ahmad hailed his side’s 1-1 draw with North Korea in their AFC Under-23 Championship qualifier on Sunday (March 24) as their best performance since he took charge of the team in October 2016.

Ikhsan Fandi scored a superb solo goal within a minute of kick-off, but North Korea equalised six minutes later at the MFF Football Centre in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Singapore are third in Group G on two points from two matches, two points behind North Korea and Hong Kong, who beat hosts Mongolia 1-0 in the other match on Sunday.

The Young Lions  have a chance to top the group and qualify for the tournament finals for the first time if North Korea and Hong Kong  play out a draw in their final game on Tuesday and Fandi’s boys beat Mongolia by more than one goal in a later game.

The 11 group winners and four best runners-up will qualify for the 2020 Under-23 Championship in Thailand in January. The top three finishers in the tournament will qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Fandi told The Straits Times: “I’ve told the boys that miracles do happen, but we have to work to create them, too. All we can do now is work hard and enjoy the ride, and I’m happy to be on this journey with this bunch of players.”

He was delighted by the effort and application his players showed against North Korea, who were ranked ninth out of 44 teams in the qualification tournament – Singapore are ranked 30th.

The 56-year-old’s second son, Ikhsan, had put Singapore in front inside the first minute, latching on to a clever through pass by Hami Syahin and racing down the left flank before squeezing a shot inside the North Korean goalkeeper’s near post.

Ikhsan, 19, said: “After Hami played that pass, I could hear everyone on the bench shouting ‘take him on’ so I just kept running at the defender towards goal, and shot.
“I didn’t even see where the goal or goalkeeper was, my only thought was to get it on target.”

North Korea, however, equalised in the seventh minute through a cool turn and finish by Park Kwang Hun.

But the 2016 Under-23 Championship quarter-finalists were unable to add a second goal as Fandi’s side defended stoutly to deny their opponents clear-cut chances.

“North Korea are a very good team, but our boys battled till the very end, and we survived,” said Fandi.

“The tactical discipline was there, the boys coped very well. Now we look ahead to Mongolia and we will play to win. They are fighters but, tactically and technically, they are not stronger than us.”

Added Ikhsan: “We’ve drawn two games now (after the 1-1 draw with Hong Kong on Friday), and the boys are focused to get the win against Mongolia.

“They’re a good team with some fast and skilful players, but we have that in our team as well.

“We’ve worked so hard (to qualify) and we’re going to try our best and see how things work out.”