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Looking back - 1998

Continuing our series on past editions of the competition, looks back at the 1998 tournament when Singapore overcame the odds to record an unlikely triumph in Vietnam.

For 71 minutes, it had been virtually impossible to hear yourself speak at the Hang Day Stadium as the Vietnamese fans whipped up the volume in support of their national team.

But as Kadir Yahaya's hopeful high cross bounced off the shoulder of giant Singapore defender R. Sasikumar and into the back of the Vietnam net, the cacophonous din of the Hanoi crowd was suddenly replaced by near total silence.

"It was a bit eerie," says Sasikumar, recalling his first goal for his country. "I looked towards the linesman to see whether he had raised his flag for offside and then I looked over to the referee to see whether he had seen an infringement but he was pointing towards the centre circle.

"My teammates were all celebrating but otherwise there was absolute silence in the stadium."

It was far from pretty but Sasikumar's goal, which Singapore fans would dub the ‘Shoulder Blade of God', ultimately proved decisive as Barry Whitbread's side withstood wave upon wave of attack by the hosts in the closing minutes for a 1-0 win in the 1998 Asean Football Championship final.

Having failed to win the gold medal in the South-East Asian Games despite reaching the final on three occasions in the 1980s, Singapore had finally landed their first international football title – an unexpected triumph for a team that had been derided just two years earlier after they had gone out at the group stage of the inaugural Asean Football Championship on home soil.

Whitbread, who had been appointed as Singapore's head coach earlier in 1996, drew heavy criticism for that disappointing performance but the Englishman remained in charge as the Lions entered a period of transition during the next two years as veteran stars like Fandi Ahmad, David Lee and Malek Awab retired and a new generation of players emerged.

Many of the players that Whitbread brought to Vietnam came from the Under-23 side including goalkeeper Rezal Hassan, defenders Sasikumar and Aide Iskandar and teenaged playmaker Ahmad Latiff Kamaruddin. They were balanced out by the experience of skipper Nazri Nasir, midfielder Rudy Khairon and full-back Kadir Yahaya, the oldest player in the squad at 30.

They negotiated the qualifiers in March with wins against the Philippines and Cambodia but there was still little enthusiasm surrounding the team when they arrived in Hanoi for the group stage in August as borne out by the fact that only one Singaporean journalist had followed the team to Indochina.

However, the players were focused and they approached their opening Group B match against Malaysia in confident mood.

"Many people had written us off but we knew that we were there on a mission," says Sasikumar. "We felt comfortable because we had a good mix of youth and experience. The senior players provided good leadership and the youngsters were eager and determined to prove themselves.

"We had a good coach in Barry Whitbread, we had a very good plan and we didn't have any of the baggage from past tournaments. Overall, we felt that it was a good opportunity."

First-half goals by Rafi Ali and Ahmad Latiff gave the Lions a 2-0 win over Malaysia in their Group B opener and they played out a goalless draw with Vietnam before they despatched Laos 4-1 to top the group on goal difference over the hosts.

Despite winning their group, they had to make the long journey south to Ho Chi Minh City to face the runner-up of the other group, which was decided by the most controversial match in the tournament's history.

Both Indonesia and Thailand had already secured their places in the last four when they met in the final Group A match. But with a semi-final against the hosts in Hanoi on Vietnam's National Day awaiting the first-placed side, neither team showed any enthusiasm for winning the match.

A lifeless first half was followed by a second half dominated by half-hearted defending that culminated in Indonesia's Mursyid Effendi deliberately scoring an own goal to give the Thais a 3-2 win. Both teams were fined heavily for their poor sportsmanship but allowed to stay in the competition.

Watching the farcical match from the stands at the Thong Nhat Stadium, the Singapore players were far from happy.

Says Sasikumar: "It really got our blood boiling because both teams clearly wanted to play us instead of Vietnam in the semi-finals. After all that we had done to win our group, it felt like we were regarded as the weaklings of the tournament.

"That made us all the more determined to beat Indonesia. During the team talk before the game, Barry Whitbread didn't talk to us about tactics. He just told us to go out and do what we had to do because we were so fired up."

Goals by Rafi and Nazri in the opening half-hour put the Lions in control and although Miro Baldo Bento pulled a goal back for Indonesia, it was not enough to stop the Lions from reaching the final.

However, the home side were still considered as the favourites to win the title after goals by Truong Viet Hoang, Nguyen Hong Son and Van Sy Hung helped them to thump defending champions Thailand 3-0 in the other semi-final.

With the vast majority of the capacity crowd of 25,000 cheering them on, Vietnam dominated the final, putting the Singapore goal under intense pressure. But the Lions stood firm and followed their game plan to the letter.

"Vietnam were all over us from the beginning so we had to defend well although we knew what to expect from them," says Sasikumar, who was tasked with marking Vietnamese dangerman Le Huynh Duc. "We knew that defensively we were a solid team – we had conceded only two goals in our earlier games – and we had some hard runners in our team so we were also good for goals.

"I may stick out like a sore thumb because I'm 1.92 metres tall and I have been criticised for being slow on the turn and clumsy in the challenge. But I knew that I was good man marker and given a job, I could do it. I had a point to prove and that was my moment."

Having successfully kept the opposition at bay, Sasikumar then found himself in the spotlight at the other end of the field with 19 minutes left.

"Their goalkeeper (Tran Tien Anh) knew that he couldn't match me in aerial challenges. I had collided with him in the first half so he was a bit more cautious when we went up to meet Kadhir's cross after they had only half-cleared a corner kick.

"He was more concerned with me than the ball. He collided with me and the ball landed on my shoulder and went in."

Ahmad Latiff was sent off in the closing minutes but Singapore hung on for a truly momentous win.

"It summed up the character of that team," said Sasikumar. "We were down to 10 men in the last few minutes after Latiff got his second yellow card. But we didn't want to let the moment slip past us.

"It was the longest 20 minutes of our lives but we got the win and we made history."


Group A (Myanmar)
Myanmar 4 Brunei 1
Laos 2 Brunei 1
Myanmar 3 Laos 0

Group B (Singapore)
Singapore 1 Philippines 0
Cambodia 1 Philippine 1
Singapore 3 Cambodia 0

Final Rounds
Group A (Ho Chi Minh City)

Indonesia 3 Philippines 0
Thailand 1 Myanmar 1
Thailand 3 Philippines 1
Indonesia 6 Myanmar 2
Myanmar 5 Philippines 2
Thailand 3 Indonesia 2

Group B (Hanoi)
Malaysia 0 Singapore 2
Vietnam 4 Laos 1
Vietnam 0 Singapore 0
Malaysia 0 Laos 0
Singapore 4 Laos 1
Vietnam 1 Malaysia 0

Singapore 2 Indonesia 1
Vietnam 3 Thailand 0

Third place
Indonesia 3 Thailand 3 (5-4 penalties)

Final Vietnam 0 Singapore 1