SINGAPORE - Ahead of Timor-Leste's clash with Singapore at the Under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, forward Paulo Gali - who had been in the centre of an age-fraud storm - had wanted people to focus on his football skills instead.
However, speedy and tricky as he might be, he just could not run away from the drama at Jalan Besar on Monday (Oct 25) as the game ended 2-2, but not before he was sent packing.
In the 42nd minute, the 16-year-old put his team 2-1 up following a poor throw-in from the Young Lions in the Timor-Leste half.
Gali, who had been embroiled in controversy owing to the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup website listing him as a 22-year-old, celebrated wildly as he thumped his chest and pumped his fist in the direction of the Singapore fans among the 953-strong crowd who had been heckling him during the match.
After a couple of minutes, fourth official Hussein Abo Yehia was seen talking to referee Majed Al Shamrani, who flashed the red card to Gali's disbelief.
Post-match, Timor-Leste coach Fabio da Silva said: "He did nothing wrong. If he did, I would be the first to tell him he deserved the red card.
"Overall, I'm very happy with the result and I expected this because we know what we can deliver on the field. If we had 11 men, we could have an even better performance."
Gali felt aggrieved by the referee's decision, saying: "I didn't show bad attitude or say any bad words to the Singapore fans. I truly respect them not just as a opponent during this game but also as a fellow Asean country.
"I've seen many professional players showing their emotion after scoring and there were no cards given to them."
Midfielder Filomeno added: "With 10 men, we had to work harder to defend and control the ball. It was difficult, like playing two games, but we got a good result."
Indeed, the hosts could not find a way to win despite a numerical and fitness advantage - Timor-Leste frequently went down with cramps in the second half and used all five substitutes by the 73rd minute - and required a late equaliser by Jordan Emaviwe to avoid defeat against the Asean minnows.
Earlier in the game, forward Glenn Kweh had given Nazri Nasir's side the lead after 34 minutes when he instinctively swept in Joel Chew's corner that was parried into his path by the goalkeeper.
The lead lasted only five minutes as Timor-Leste equalised from a corner themselves as Gali's cross went through to Elias Mesquita, who slotted in at the back post, before turning provider for the second goal.
Despite enterprising play from Kweh and Chew, the Young Lions could not create many clear opportunities, with Junildo Pereira saving from Farhan Zulkifli and Chew seeing a shot cleared off the line.
In the last minute of added time, centre-back Emaviwe lashed in from a pass by Chew to save his team's blushes.
Nazri said: "I'm proud of our players who gave 100 per cent and didn't give up. Our players executed our game plan, built from the back and applied high pressure. We created many chances, but just couldn't score.
"The boys will learn from such international exposure after not playing at this level for two years because of the pandemic.
"Moving forward, we will need to improve on winning more second balls. We have two more games and we will focus on how we can beat the Philippines first."
The opening draw leaves Singapore joint-second but with a mountain to climb in Group H with matches against the Philippines and defending champions South Korea on Thursday and Sunday respectively.
Only the top teams and four best runners-up from the 11 groups will make it to the tournament proper in Uzbekistan next year.
In the earlier game, South Korea beat Philippines 3-0 with three second-half goals to top the group.