SINGAPORE - As the Negaraku rang out on a breezy Monday (Dec 6) evening at the Bishan Stadium, Malaysian Ariff Jamaludin's emotions welled up in his chest.
Stranded in Singapore for over 20 months due to the pandemic, the 24-year-old's pain and despair disappeared for 90 minutes as he joined several hundred of his countrymen as they watched the Harimau Malaya begin their Suzuki Cup campaign with a 3-1 win over Cambodia.
Ariff, who works in the aviation industry, was one of 518 supporters who watched the Asean Football Federation Championship's Group B opener.
Tickets for the day, which included the later kick-off between Vietnam and Laos, were sold out, with a maximum of 1,000 allowed into the venue.
Indonesia complete the quintet of teams in Group B.
Arif, who was last across the Causeway almost two years ago, said: "For a while, when watching the football, I forgot that Covid exists. Since I bought the tickets, I was very excited to be here and I cannot explain how happy I am to be around other Malaysians watching our national team.
"To be honest, I did feel very emotional when the national anthem was played before the game. At that moment, I thought of my family back home and the last two years of being away from them.
"Today is one of the best days I have had in recent times."
Arif was one of many Malaysians who scrambled to enter Singapore in March last year, before Malaysia's movement control order came into effect. The border closure, which was supposed to last for just two weeks, was extended multiple times.
His colleague Hakim Rafar, 28, who expects Malaysia to reach the final of the Dec 5-Jan 1 tournament, said that he was over the moon just watching his national team again.
He last watched football live in November 2019 at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, when Malaysia ran out 2-0 winners over Indonesia in a World Cup qualifier.
He said: "At that time, I don't think anyone would have thought that the next time I would be watching football would be in Singapore, wearing a mask and thinking I am lucky just to be here. Today, I am very, very happy."
The Malaysians were also joined by pockets of Cambodian and Laos fans and an army of red-clad Vietnamese.
Tan Nguyen, 30, a software engineer from Hanoi who has been based in Singapore for the last three years, was also at Bishan to watch his national team for the first time.
He said: "When I was in Vietnam, I didn't get the chance to watch the team because they did not play in the city I was in too often. The moment the tickets were released, I quickly bought tickets to all of Vietnam's games."
Compatriot Dinh Ha Nguyen, 38, who was at the stadium with his son and daughter, said that while he was overjoyed to watch live football, he was happier to see fans in and around the venue in numbers.
The stay-at-home dad said: "Vietnamese people love to be with each other so I am very happy to see all the red shirts here.
"But I look around and see the fans from all the other countries like Malaysia and Cambodia, it makes me feel like we are all in normal times again."