SINGAPORE - After three straight group stage exits, Singapore's Under-23 football team will head to next month's Hanoi SEA Games desperate to end that unwanted streak. But their task will not be any easier after the triple blow of key absentees captain Jacob Mahler and siblings Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi.
Centre-back Mahler, 22, tore the cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee during the Young Lions' 3-2 defeat to Tampines Rovers in the Singapore Premier League on April 20. He will also miss the Sept 10-25 Asian Games in Hangzhou.
The Fandi brothers meanwhile, have not been released by their Thai club BG Pathum United as the May 12-23 Games falls outside of the official Fifa window.
In Vietnam, the Young Lions open their campaign against Laos on May 7. Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia complete Group B.
Mahler said: "It is the worst news that I have ever received in my life. As a footballer, this is an injury you don't want to suffer. It is really heartbreaking especially in a year with the SEA Games.
"But I've come to the point where I have accepted it and I just want to work hard to come back stronger."
He backed his teammates to do their best. "The boys know what is at stake," he added. "I will be rooting for them and I have a good feeling that they will produce the results."
Young Lions head coach Nazri Nasir has called up Geylang International goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, Young Lions defender Syahrul Sazali and Hougang United midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin to fill the three overaged slots.
He said: "The boys look up to him (Mahler) both on and off the pitch. So it is a blow that he will not be with us in Vietnam. However, we cannot be over reliant on him and the challenge now is for all the players to step up.
"Its is also a good opportunity for players like Jordan Emaviwe, who is having a good season so far, and Shah Shahiran, who is one of the vice captains, to rise to the occasion and show their growing maturity at this Games."
Zaiful, 34, will be the skipper of the 20-player squad.
Nazri said: "He is a top professional and will set a high standard for the rest of the players to follow. I trust in him and believe he has what it takes to lead the team."
Zaiful, who is the Eagles captain, will be making his Games debut. He said: "It's going to be my first and may quite possibly be my only one so I am determined to make the most of this opportunity.
"It will be a huge honour for me to lead the team to receive a medal and this is something I want to achieve."
The last time the Republic claimed a medal was a bronze at the 2013 edition in Myanmar. The country's best finish are three runner-up finishes in 1983, 1985 and 1989.
Nazri cited recent performances like the 4-1 win over Geylang and narrow defeats to Hougang United (2-1) and Tampines (3-2) in the SPL as cause for optimism.
He said: "It is important for us to minimally win a medal. From our games (in the SPL) so far we have shown what we can do on the pitch by playing attractive and attacking football.
"Now we just need the results as a further indication of our progress. I've told the boys this and I can see their desire and hunger to achieve this goal too."
Singapore's SEA Games squad
Goalkeepers: Zaiful Nizam, Ridhwan Fikri.
Defenders: Harith Kanadi, Irfan Najeeb, Jordan Emaviwe, Nur Adam Abdullah, Ryaan Sanizal, Ryhan Stewart, Syahrul Sazali.
Midfielders: Arshad Shamim, Harhys Stewart, Jared Gallagher, Joel Chew, Saifullah Akbar, Shah Shahiran, Zulfahmi Arifin.
Forwards: Glenn Kweh, Khairin Nadim, Nicky Melvin Singh, Zikos Chua.