Story by Kenneth Tan/Red Sports. Photos by Les Tan/Red Sports
Ammirul Mazlan wheels in celebration after burying his penalty for Singapore’s third goal. (Photo 1 © Les Tan/Red Sports)
Jalan Besar Stadium, Wednesday, August 25, 2010 – After the heartbreaking 0-2 semi-final defeat to the Haitians, heads went down and team morale sank to an all-time low.
But the Cubs showed grit and character as they recaptured the imagination of Singaporeans with an unexpected 4-1 thrashing of Montenegro in the bronze medal playoff.
As coach Kadir Yahaya revealed, it was a tough couple of days for both him and the players with Sunday’s defeat a big emotional blow.
“It was difficult to explain to them after the defeat. Expectations were high and they were under a lot of pressure. Most of them only come out of their rooms for their meals and try to avoid the Haitians at the dining hall, so we tried to relax the atmosphere. They wanted the medal badly, ”said the 43-year-old.
Newspapers were made inaccessible and mobile phones were banned during certain periods of the day. Psychologists, including former national swimmer Joscelin Yeo, were also brought in to help the players deal with their emotions. Besides that, the 18 players also held their own discussions without the aid of team officials during trainings to sort out their problems.
The free flowing passing movement was back and the Cubs played with joy and freedom again, moving the ball around with confidence.
That was evident when they managed to break the deadlock with just five minutes played. Forwards Hanafi Akbar and Muhaimin Suhaimi combined with a superb one-two before the former thumped home from just inside the penalty box.
The boys’ rediscovered confidence could have suffered when Montenegro forward Lazar Lalosevic (#18) elbowed captain Jeffrey Lightfoot and it went unspotted by Tahitian referee Norbert Hauata just after the goal.
The centre back had to be sent to hospital for 15 stitches on his bloodied wound just under his right eye. For the first time, the Cubs had to play without their inspirational skipper.
Already playing with left back Dhukilan Jeevamani in the centre of defence, they had to shift debutant Firdaus Sham into the middle while Brandon Koh had to fill in at an unfamiliar right-back position. Only left back Irfan Asyraf was playing in his accustomed position in the back four. It was a total makeshift defence according to Kadir.
That briefly affected the Cubs with Montenegro centre back Jovan Baosic (#5) heading in the equaliser from captain Nebojsa Kosovic’s (#10) free kick on 13 minutes.
Goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar, who was criticised after his mistake lead to Haiti’s opener on Sunday, managed to keep the scores level at half time with a couple of good saves from Milan Vusurovic (#15) and Kosovic’s long shots.
That was when the Cubs made the decision to unite together in Lightfoot’s absence as they did their own pep talk without Kadir’s instructions in the dressing room.
“At half time, they wanted to be on their own. They rallied the team around themselves and said ‘Let’s do it for Jeffrey,'” said Kadir.
“Halfway through the game, my captain sacrificed for the team and was sent to the hospital, so we told ourselves, ‘Come on, we have to win this for him,’” said Dhukilan.
And so they did in an astonishing 25-minute period in the second half where they put in three goals without reply.
The hunger and desire was showing just five minutes into the half as diminutive forward Muhaimin won the ball back in midfield and set Bryan Neubronner down the right flank. The reserve winger’s early low cross found Hanafi unmarked in the box as he lashed home with aplomb for his second goal of the game.
10 minutes later, they extended the lead to 3-1. Montenegro centre back Igor Markovic’s (#3) shirt tugging in the box ensured a penalty was awarded to Singapore.
Centre midfielder Ammirul Mazlan stepped up and made no mistakes with his effort as he sent Montenegro keeper Marko Kordic (#1) the wrong way.
Their feat was completed on 65 minutes when Hanafi’s inswinging free kick from the right broke Montenegro’s offside trap as Ammirul rosed unmarked at the back post to head past Kordic for his second goal.
Coach Kadir dropped tears of joys when the final whistle sounded while the Cubs stayed around the pitch to applaud the thousands of fans that remained faithful enough to turn up.
“Their performance really shocked me. They’re supposed to follow instructions, but because they wanted to prove something, they went all out and did something extraordinary which is above themselves,” he explained.
Meanwhile Dhukilan, who had a good shift at centre back, said, “This medal is better than the gold. After the Haiti defeat, we went rock bottom but we managed to pick ourselves up. This is something amazing, I’ve never dreamt of this.”
Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin was a optimistic man when asked about the future of these boys.
“I’m really confident that these boys have lots of potential. They played their hearts out today. It showed their spirit that after defeat in the semi-finals, they have woken up and learnt from their lessons by beating Montenegro again with a resounding scoreline. If we put the supporting infrastructure, trainings and sports science, these boys can go as far as they can,” he said.
As for now, the boys will have to deal with their new-found fame when they go back to their respective schools before competing in the U-15 Asian Schools championship in November.
Ammirul rises to meet the ball with the perfect header for Singapore’s fourth goal. (Photo 2 © Les Tan/Red Sports)