Expectations low for Fandi Ahmad's Singapore ahead of AFF Suzuki Cup
Singapore's record at the AFF Suzuki Cup is black and white. In 10 out of the 11 editions of Southeast Asia's biennial tournament, the Lions have either won (four times) or fallen at the first hurdle (six).
As we head into the 2018 edition, it is safe to say that six becoming seven is much likelier than four becoming five, but that does not mean progress can't be made.
Just ensuring that the tournament extends past November into December would be a positive for Singapore. At the moment, a team that is ranked 166 in the world does not look like it has what it takes to finish in the top two of a group containing Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Timor Leste.
Much rests on the shoulders of new coach and long-standing national hero Fandi Ahmad, still the biggest name in Singapore football. The former international who moved to Dutch club Groningen in 1983 and gave as good as he got when playing against Diego Maradona, was given the job in May -- but only until the end of the tournament.
He will need all his charisma and leadership skills, but it won't be easy. Fandi had to wait until a large chunk of his contract period was over just to get together with his players in September. When the games came, they were not the kind of tests that Singapore fans were accustomed to just a few years earlier with Mauritius and Fiji providing the opposition with the respective outcomes a 1-1 draw and 2-0 win. Next Friday's home game with Mongolia should provide another victory, though the trip to Cambodia four days later will be a trickier test.
Whether Fandi's tenure turns out to be short or long, there are a few things he needs to do.
For fans there is one visible aspect that needs to change. Fandi's predecessor, V Sundramoorthy, was lambasted at times for his team's dour product even if there was some sympathy from those in the know at the lack of support he was given from his employers at Football Association of Singapore. Fans of Manchester United may empathise. Dour football that wins is one thing, dour football that doesn't is something else.
"The only way [forward] for us is to play good football," Ahmad said in September. "Win, lose or draw I will be responsible but the important thing is we must show we can play good football. When we play good football, the result will come."
Fans will hope so. After next week's friendlies, Singapore also needs to be competitive at the AFF tournament. The first two games come against Indonesia and the Philippines. Lose those, and their campaign will effectively be over. Singapore have won just one of their past six Suzuki Cup games, against Myanmar in 2014. There needs to be victory against one of the "bigger" ASEAN sides.
Outperforming Malaysia would also go down well. The one consolation as the team have struggled in recent times was that rivals Malaysia were doing just as badly, with the Tigers and the Lions keeping each other company in the nether regions of FIFA rankings. Things, however, are getting better for Malaysia with some impressive performances at various youth tournaments.
Fandi played in Malaysia and expected that the larger neighbour to the north would start improving at some point.
"I must say outright that I am not surprised," said Fandi in September. "We've been left behind in the last few years and I think they have a good development.
"If you watched the Malaysian team at the Asian Games, they played very well and even all the teams around us [from Southeast Asia], we used to be like them 10 to 15 years ago but now is a slump time for us and we have to wake up."
Appointing a figure like Fandi was always going to happen at some point, but with such a limited time in charge -- Singapore has acquired a recent habit of giving out short contracts to its coaches -- then the focus is expected to be very much on the short term.
Yet, Fandi should follow Malaysia's lead and bring in some youth. Singapore's latest 29-man squad does have some fresh faces in youngsters such as Jacob Mahler, Zulfadhmi Suzliman, and his two sons Ikhsan and Irfan, but it will be telling who among these make the AFF squad.
Fandi has a short contract but he should use that as a positive. Expectations are low and he will not be blamed for failure. He has the freedom to change the team's style and lower the average age to get fans back on board. Who knows? There may even be a win or two.