SINGAPORE - Despite crashing out of the Under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers with a 5-1 defeat by defending champions South Korea on Sunday (Oct 31), Young Lions coach Nazri Nasir feels there are bright sparks to build on as they turn their sights to next year's SEA Games and Asian Games.
He said after the final match of the qualifiers at the Jalan Besar Stadium: "I'm especially proud of how our boys competed against South Korea in the second half. Over the three games, we showed positive football. We didn't sit back or wait to be attacked, we were trying to create all the time.
"We know the level of South Korea's football is totally different, and the difference is stark. But this was a good learning experience, and the players understand what top Asian level football is all about.
"I hope next year we will have more international friendlies to play so that we can continue to improve."
The odds were stacked against Singapore before kickoff after Timor-Leste beat Philippines 1-0 in the earlier Group H match.
Only the group winner and the four best second-placed teams from the 11 groups will advance to the tournament proper in Uzbekistan next year. As some groups comprise only three teams, results against the bottom-placed sides do not count in determining the four best runners-up.
With the hosts needing an improbable win against the Koreans to qualify, there was some surprise when they started with five defenders, and omitted playmaker Joel Chew, who has been outstanding in this campaign.
And the gulf in quality between the next generation of Singapore footballers and Asia's best was evident, as the faster, stronger and sharper Koreans took just two minutes to carve apart the Singapore defence. They raced to a 2-0 lead after six minutes thanks to goals from Kim Chan and Cho Sang-jun.
While Glenn Kweh scuffed a shot straight at Lee Gwang-yeon in the 14th minute, the match was effectively over by half-time as Park Jeong-in forced a Jacob Mahler own goal in the 25th minute before scoring their fourth 15 minutes later.
The Young Lions reverted to a back four and introduced Chew in the second half, although the South Koreans made it 5-0 seven minutes after the restart through their impressive right-back Choi Jun, one of six players in the team that were runners-up in the Under-20 World Cup in 2019.
Chew did make an impact as he led the 57th-minute counterattack that ended with left-back Nur Adam Abdullah placing a lovely right-footer from outside the box which Lee Gwang-yeon could only tip into his own goal, giving the local fans among the 993 spectators something to cheer about.
Despite the loss, the national selectors do have some bright sparks to consider for the future, with the emergence of Kweh, Chew, Adam and 1.93m centre-back Jordan Emaviwe, who have impressed in this tournament.
The Young Lions expect a busy season next year with two major Games on the calendar, but first they will have to convince the Singapore National Olympic Council that they deserve to compete in both events.
After seeing his team concede their only goal of the campaign, South Korea coach Hwang Sun-hong said: "Singapore played good combinations in the second half and I think it is positive that they showed their own brand of football."