KUALA LUMPUR -The whispers started after they were held to a shock 4-4 draw by Indonesia in the SEA Games water polo competition on Friday.
So when Singapore took to the pool at Kuala Lumpur’s National Aquatic Centre in Bukit Jalil yesterday, they had two aims: To win the gold medal, and to kill off any thoughts that the 26-time champions were vulnerable to being dethroned.
They achieved both by romping to an emphatic 17-4 win over hosts Malaysia in their final round-robin game of the competition.
Left driver Koh Jian Ying, the top scorer in yesterday’s match with five goals, said: “After the Indonesia game, it felt like perhaps the rest of the teams thought they could finally catch up with us this time round.
“Everyone was very fired up (after that game). We wanted to show clearly that we are still the best team in South-east Asia, so we went very hard today and I think we proved a point for sure. We didn’t let up even when we held a big lead today.”
The victory allowed them to seal a 27th straight SEA Games gold and continue Singapore sport’s longest winning streak. The Republic has won every gold medal since the competition started in 1965.
Entering yesterday’s game, Singapore needed a two-goal winning margin over the hosts to retain their title.
The first four minutes were goalless, but after Koh opened the scoring in the fifth minute and Bryan Ong added another within a minute, the floodgates opened.
Cheered on by about 200 red-clad, flag-waving supporters, the visitors stormed to a 6-1 lead at half time.
The defending champions kept the pressure on in the second half, with their goal-scoring rampage stopping only when the final whistle sounded.
Asked if he and his team-mates felt the pressure of expectations, captain Loh Zhi Zhi, 27, said: “(There was) some sort of pressure, but it’s about what you do under pressure and I think the boys handled that well today.
“I think we used it very positively, we defended well and we put the pressure back on the Malaysians so that was a big part of today’s game. We took control of the game pretty early on and... we managed to keep our focus throughout.”
A beaming Singapore coach Dejan Milakovic, who was dunked into the pool in line with the team’s customary celebrations, added: “I am more than happy, I am proud of these boys.
“They fought for their country like lions, (and) we showed here at the last game that one or two bad days don’t give the real picture.”
The Serb had been banished to the spectator stands during the Indonesia game due to a suspension after he had argued with the referee during their previous game against the Philippines.
“That was my biggest mistake this tournament,” he said. “But we’ve learnt a lot. We know that sometimes, even under strange circumstances, we just need to stay calm and play our game.”
Milakovic, who became national coach in February, added that the target of a top-four finish at next year’s Asian Games remains.
“These boys have great potential and today, they showed that potential,” he said, adding that he aims to help the players become faster, stronger and more adept at tactical play.
Come 2019, Singapore’s South-east Asian rivals, especially three-time runners-up Indonesia, will no doubt make another bid to knock the champions off their perch.
Indonesia defeated the Philippines 12-5 yesterday to finish second, but winger Silvester Goldberg Manik said: “We were unbeatable (at this tournament), we drew with Singapore. At the next SEA Games, we can beat Singapore for sure.”
The teams were presented their medals by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu.
Said Minister Fu: “The boys didn’t disappoint us. They did very well but they had to work hard for the gold medal. The Indonesian boys gave them a bit of a fight and a bit of pressure.
“The beginning of this Malaysia match was also equally challenging, but they overcame their nerves and delivered the gold that we expected of them. So it’s a very good win, we’re very happy for them.”