Asian Football

The [Almost] Christmas Miracle: Down to 8 Players and a valiant defeat, but Singaporeans brought back the Kallang Roar

One missed penalty. Three red cards. Six goals.

These are the figures that will be imprinted on the mind of every fan that tuned in to catch the second leg of the semi-final fixture between Indonesia and Singapore.

The first leg was a tense battle between both teams as they tussled for the winning goal, but alas, it finished 1-1. While many expected the same intensity, if not more of a fiery affair in the second leg, no one was expecting the rollercoaster of a fixture that has occurred.

Throughout this instant classic of a match, it was how the Singaporean fans rallied behind the Lions that made the night even more special.

The Rollercoaster

One Goal Down But Not Out

Knowing that Indonesia has the capacity to park the bus, as they competently did against the likes of Vietnam during the group stage fixture, it was imperative that Singapore did not concede first. Unfortunately, in the 11th minute, Indonesia’s lone starting striker Ezra Walian put his team ahead.

It was a poor defensive showing for the Lions as Witan Sulaeman easily weaved through the defence and found space in the box before squaring it to Ezra who easily slots it into the back of the net. Indonesia leads 1-0.

More crucially, the Singapore faithful did their part in encouraging the Lions and showing their support.

Down to 10 Men

If conceding early was bad, it was about to get worse for the Lions.

In the second minute of first-half stoppage time, the first episode of drama ensued. Singapore had a freekick from a promising position but a clash between Safuwan Baharudin and Rizky Ridho in the penalty box saw the referee brandish a second yellow card to Safuwan. Booked for a challenge earlier in the 36th minute, the referee whipped out his red card from his back pocket. After the red card was out, Singapore and Indonesian players got into a heated exchange and there was drama on the touchline too, between both teams’ technical staff.

Safuwan is arguably Singapore’s best centre-back and is an immense goal threat – in fact, with 12 goals to his name, he had more international goals than anyone else in this national team selection. Therefore, the odds were seriously stacked against Singapore (or so one thought).

The Singapore fans were unhappy with the sending off as they targeted their angst against the Indonesian players and referees with a united chorus of boos that swept through the stadium. The 12th man knew they needed to step up to fill the void left by Safuwan.

The Equalizer

The red card and clash between players and staff might have very well worked in the Lions’ favour as it seemed to have discombobulated the Indonesian defence. However, as things finally settled down and the referee blew his whistle for the free kick to be taken, Shahdan Sulaiman whipped in a cross that managed to find Song Ui-young, who buried it past Nadeo Argawinata with a low driven shot. The recently naturalized Singaporean had been looking to register his first goal for the Lions since making his national team debut against Kyrgyzstan in November. What a way to score your first goal.

The Singapore fans went absolutely nuts. Down to 10 men, Song’s goal instilled hope in the masses. The fiasco invoking the red card took a huge chunk of extra time, and so shortly after the restart, the referee blew for halftime. As the Singapore team exited the pitch, the players were given a standing ovation by the masses. But as the referees and Indonesian players followed behind soon after, the Lions’ fans targeted their disgruntlement towards them and made sure their feelings were known. The deafening wave of boos would have indeed unnerved the intended recipients. The 12th man was certainly doing their job.

Down to 9 Men

The second half began with Indonesia unleashing consecutive waves of attacks. The Lions were wounded and Indonesia knew it was their victory for the taking. Yet, the lions firmly held their ground and the Singapore fans under the charge of the SingaBrigade fueled the team’s resilience with united chants. At times, I often forgot that we were down to 10 men. When Tatsuma made the bold decision to sub in the attacking trio of Ikhshan Fandi, Shawal Anuar and Faris Ramli in the 60th minute, the Lions seemed more in control and became more threatening.

Then, tragedy struck in the 67th minute.

Hanis Saghara Putra’s excellent over the top through ball found Irfan Jaya who used his incredible pace to reach the ball first before Irfan Fandi. The Singapore international knew that his Indonesian namesake would be through onto goal if he did not commit the foul. At the same time, he knew that as the last man, that foul would result in an immediate red card. It was a decision he had to process and execute in the span of a few seconds – and he did. Irfan Fandi made the challenge and prevented Indonesia from leading 2-1 but in doing so, was subsequently sent off. The Singapore faithful were in an uproar and mercilessly abused the referee.

However, as Irfan Fandi made his way to the tunnel, the fans applauded him for his efforts and let him know they appreciated him. Nevertheless, they knew in the back of their minds that the challenge to win Indonesia became virtually impossible.

Swerve It Like Shahdan

7 minutes later, Indonesia conceded a setpiece near the edge of the box and Shahdan Sulaiman stepped up to take the free kick. It was familiar territory for the setpiece specialist who had scored from similar positions before. The crowd knew that Shahdan had it in him and everyone was hoping that the ball would land in the back of the net.

The referee blew his whistle and Shahdan ran up and hit the ball at its sweet spot as he had done countless times before. This time, his shot curled into the top corner with such precision that it sent the Singapore fans wild. They might have been down to nine men but the Lions were leading 2-1.

It seemed like Santa Clause was in town because a Christmas miracle was on the horizon…

Back To A Stalemate

…but it was not to be.

For 13 minutes, it was a party for Singapore fans. Shahdan’s goal got everyone singing in unison. The fans backed the Lions – cheering when Singapore made important challenges and booing the Indonesians whenever they were in possession. It seemed like we were on course for a historic victory but fate would have other ideas.

In the 87th minute, Hassan Sunny managed to save Witan Sulaeman’s initial shot but the rebound found Pratama Arhan, who tapped in to equalize for the Indonesians.

It was a real party pooper for Singapore who had done well up to that point to deny the Indonesians.

A Missed Penalty

Pratama Arhan almost turned from hero to villain as he brought down Shawal Anuar in the penalty box, a minute after equalizing Indonesia.

Faris Ramli stepped up and standing before him was the 1.87m-tall Nadeo Argawinata. Faris took his shot but the Indonesian custodian guessed correctly and stretched every fibre of his muscle to ensure that the Singapore no. 10 was denied his 11th international goal. Indonesia’s vice-captain Asnawi Mangkualam ran up to Faris and thanked him for missing – which has now become a meme – before being shoved away by Shahdan.

Minutes later the final whistle of regulation time blew and with the scoreline 2-2, the match moved into stoppage time.

First Half Of Extra Time – Two Goals Conceded

With a lot at stake, nerves were indeed jittery when the referee commenced the first half of extra time. The Indonesians immediately went on the offensive and forced a Singapore own goal in the opening minute. It was a bizarre one – as if the football gods were playing with the physics of the ball as Shawal Anuar somehow managed to put the ball in the back of the net while trying to clear it. It was a real sucker punch for Shawal who was brilliant after being brought on.

Once again, the Lions were a goal down, but not out. The SingaBrigade led the chants to spur the Lions on.

Then in the dying embers of the first half of extra time, Singapore conceded yet another goal. This time, it was from an Indonesian corner where Hassan blocked Evan Dimas’s cross but the ball ricocheted off his gloves and fell on to Egy Maulana Vikri who tapped it in to make it 4-2.

Pockets of Singapore fans began to exit the stadium at this point but the majority remained and showed their appreciation for the team. The team was giving everything they got and those that stayed did not want to abandon the Lions.

More drama was to ensue.

Down to 8 Men

The second half began with Tajeli Salamat being introduced to the fray. The utility man was finally given some minutes and he made the best of what he could do. Executing his signature over the top through balls, he repeatedly found his teammates down the flank. I had some glimmer of hope that Singapore could manage to pull off two goals but all hope was dashed 4 minutes later.

In the 119th minute, Irfan Jaya was through on goal and Hassan Sunny made the calculated decision to push forward and tackle the speedy winger. The Singapore custodian ended up taking Irfan Jaya out with a hard challenge and the referee whipped out the red card from his back pocket for the third time.

Hassan was giving a standing ovation as he exited the pitch. He made numerous saves and would have surely been named ‘Man Of The Match’ had he not been dismissed.

With Singapore using all of its substitutes, Ikhshan Fandi assumed the keeper role. Izwan Mahbud must have been kicking himself knowing that he could have featured for a few minutes – he ended the tournament with zero minutes under his belt.

The Singapore faithful did not waiver. They stood by their team and cheered loudly as Ikshan managed to save a freekick shot.

Singapore and Singaporeans Have Done Well

10 minutes later, the match came to a halt and the Singapore fans booed. However, the boos were not meant for the Singaporean players but for the referees as they exited the stadium. Additional security personnel were enlisted to guard the refereeing quartet clad in yellow as they walked to the tunnel.

As the Lions made their round around the pitch, the fans showed them their love. When the squad stood in front of the section housing the SingaBrigade, it was a genuinely emotional moment witnessing the SingaBrigade serenade the Lions with the national anthem.

Singapore football has undoubtedly raised its stock value. The Lions have demonstrated that they are certainly no pushovers. This was a debut tournament for several players like Amy Recha, Nur Adam, and Song Ui-young but they showed tremendous resolve and have become national heroes like the rest of their international teammates. The Singapore fan base helped to make up the numbers each time a Lion was dismissed and their efforts should never be understated. The booming drums and the thunderous chant of “Singapura!” that followed jolted the entire stadium and I could feel the vibrations on my desk at the media tribune.

This fixture was a prime example of what Singapore football can become in the years to follow. The hype behind our national team is real and there is an immense buzz on social media. What we do now matters more than ever. The Football Association of Singapore needs to capitalize on this sooner rather than later.

As a parting remark, allow me to thank other Singapore fan media outlets for doing their part this past year for helping to support the Lions and spread awareness and generate debates on numerous issues.

Thank you, Lions of Asia, The Goal Assembly, BoLASEPaKO, Junpiter Futbol, The Final Whistle, Futbolita, The SG Football Podcast, the12thsg, Granstandsgp, Futtytown, Football Network SG, and countless others for your efforts. Your initiatives have helped plug a gap where mainstream media has failed to do so.

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