Asian Football

My Cambodian Diary: Reflections On the AFF U-23 Championship

As I trudged off the field, hearing the cheers and roars of the thousand Vietnamese fans in attendance, seeing my teammates limping into the tunnel, knowing that we had not just lost, but lost in that fashion, I was distraught.

Regardless of the circumstances which plagued the team, I didn’t perform to my potential. We didn’t perform to our potential. The five lads who tested positive before we flew off would have killed to be there. So would the two who were stuck in their respective camps and the five who tested positive while we were there. Everyone in the U23 Team, from those that managed to fly to Cambodia to those stuck back home, did everything in our power to ensure that we would be able to compete and represent our nation. All our players and officials worked around the clock to give ourselves the best opportunity to compete and perform amidst the relentless waves of bad news.

It was undoubtedly mentally tough, with new developments emerging every couple of hours. Players’ PCR results, illnesses, and transferring in and out of isolation were just the tip of the iceberg. Crucially, I can’t stress how amazing all our members of staff were. They worked tirelessly to give us the best chance to compete during our matches, but also for never forgetting about our welfare during that stressful period. For us players, all we had to do was focus on playing, but they had the responsibility of organising all the logistics from meals, buses, to COVID procedures etc. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had, the uncertainty day to day, hour to hour over whether we were going to have enough players to play. I spent plenty of time on calls with my teammates discussing who would be available, working out potential line-ups based on isolation protocols, the return of PCR results and people recovering from separate illnesses.

Image Credits: Lions of Asia

Physically, having played two full matches in the space of four days, I felt drained. I can’t imagine how the boys that were battling illnesses feel, but again, no one would have missed the opportunity to go out there and fight. Losing key players every other day put more strain on the squad, and with the isolation protocols, being stuck in our rooms instead of on a pitch training certainly didn’t help. When we did train, numbers were thin so it was difficult to effectively and realistically prepare for the game ahead. I’ve never played at this level, but the demands playing against the notoriously hard working Thais and Viets cannot go without mention. They are relentless, and when you see your opposing number get taken off and a fresh pair of legs is ready to run at you for the remainder of the game, you know it’s going to be even more difficult. That wasn’t a luxury we had, but we had chances to put ourselves in a position to win the game against the Thais. However, that is the game of football. The Thais took their chances and punished us for our mistakes. There was neither time to sulk or moan, and we had to fight to be ready for our next game against what would be even tougher opposition. We lost Danish within ten minutes and Nicky would only be fit enough to make the bench, so we knew it would be an uphill battle. However, the day before the game, our captain, Jacob, tested ART positive. This definitely hit the group hard. 

I didn’t think it could get any worse, but as we were finishing up breakfast on the morning of the Vietnam game, we were struck another blow. Our medical staff was informed that Nicky had tested positive as well. The whole room went silent as they broke the news and escorted him back to his room to isolate immediately. We were all ushered back into our rooms as we sat and waited for news on what was going to happen next. Even with everything that had happened in the past week, this was a blow out of nowhere. We were together having breakfast together one minute, and the next we were isolated and he was preparing to move off to the quarantine facility.

There wasn’t any pressure, we had a 14-man squad with only one outfield sub. We were banged up to say the least, but I felt the heat. From the moment we arrived in the changing room I felt at ease, listening to music and watching players in my position on Youtube. During the warm-up, I felt myself gliding across the pitch, strangely lacking the nerves and anxiety that engulfed every inch of my body leading up to the Thailand match. Speaking to teammates after the game, they didn’t feel the pressure. In the tunnel, the Viets were noisy, bouncing, joking, laughing. I felt insulted, I felt like they didn’t take us seriously. I was eager, maybe too eager. I sang our national anthem with pride, with hunger and confidence that we could do the unthinkable. But as I received the ball in the third minute, with two Vietnamese players breathing down my neck, I crumbled. As I lost the ball and they swarmed forward with their first attack of the game I felt helpless as they put the ball in the back of the net. That was my fault. We had started our journey up the mountain and I’d knocked us back below the starting point. The team didn’t recover.  Neither did I. I capitulated. I was in my own head, and I couldn’t help myself. Every time I received the ball I feared it. In that moment, I was my own enemy, and I was losing not to my opposition but to myself. I couldn’t bring myself to make a noise and demand the ball, to play forward, to take a risk. All I wanted was to hide where I couldn’t be seen. I remember at one point, mid-way through the first half looking around the beaming Prince Stadium and the hundreds of traveling Vietnamese fans, unable to hear my own heart pulsing over their chants. I felt breathless, scared and lost. A feeling I’d never experienced.

Conceding early was the worst possible thing. We didn’t need to chase the game and be on the back foot that early. We’d lost two men 24 hours prior to kickoff, we didn’t have the legs to chase a game before it had even started. That was my fault.

Image Credits: Lions Of Asia

It got better before it got worse. As I walked off the pitch, gandering again at the Vietnamese fans and the screen plastered with ‘7-0’ staring straight at me, I finally found the tunnel and dressing room that I’d been looking to hide in. As I sat down and my teammates and coaches slowly filtered in, the noise level never changed. The cheers and chants of the Vietnamese fans filled the air, I couldn’t escape. As I held my head in my hands, I pondered over what just happened, how on earth did it get so bad.

We left the stadium hastily, knowing we were likely going to be flying off the next morning. As I boarded the bus, you want nothing more than for the nightmare to be over, but it follows you. You turn on your phone, you see messages saying ‘it’s okay’, ‘you tried your best’ and then you delve deeper. You read what’s said about how you’re an ‘embarrassment’ or that they ‘expected nothing more from you’. You’re told to stay off social media, but who listens. As humans, we want nothing more than to read about ourselves, and it doesn’t help but we do it anyway. There were no redeeming factors about this game, unlike the 3-1 defeat to Thailand. We trickled into our rooms, I sat there with nothing but my own thoughts gnawing at me. It’s a slow burner that doesn’t leave you for a second. You try to reflect on what just happened out there, and you just keep coming back to the same overwhelming feeling of disappointment. 

I felt as if I let my family down, as well as my friends and Singapore as a whole. 

There wasn’t another chance to progress. You replay the events over and over again in your head, thinking about what you could have done differently, what you should have done differently. You watch the match back, and relive the mistakes you made. It’s painful, there’s no two-ways about it. You toss and turn as you go to bed, with the same flashes etched in your memory. You think about every minute detail that led up to the game, what you could’ve done differently. In that moment no sort of reassurance puts you at ease, least of all that of those closest to you. Hearing encouragement from your family and closest friends feels stained, you think they’re saying it just because of their relationship with you. Everything around me was stained, painted with the image of seeing the ball hitting the back of the net seconds after I gave it away out of nothing. I hear the roar of their fans again. I feel the same tightness in my chest. The same feeling of despair, of being lost. 

You toss and turn that night with the bad moments burned into your mind. Everywhere you turn, a reminder is there of how it feels like you failed everyone dearest to you.

I think this is the sensation many elite athletes speak about, in which mental fortitude is needed to put mistakes or setbacks behind you. To master the art of picking yourself up not just after the match, but seconds later. The ability to forget whatever it is you’ve just done and carry on with the same confidence in yourself is what separates the good from the great. None of my downfalls in football had ever come close to being on this stage, in front of an opportunity of this magnitude.

Image Credits: FAS

These experiences can make or break you, and I certainly don’t intend on the latter occurring. I tested myself at a level I’d never had the opportunity to previously and am a better player today than I was before kick-off against the Thais or Vietnamese.

All of us wanted nothing more than to have the opportunity to go out there and do something unprecedented for the country. Sure, we fell short, and maybe some Singaporean fans would have rather seen us pull out and save face, but we would’ve rather died trying to win than to just give up. That was the team’s mentality. Some boys nearly did, with Jordan and Danish Irfan suffering long-term injuries which could see them out for several months. These are my brothers, and every time we face the flag and sing the national anthem at the top of our lungs, pride washes over me, as it does all those alongside me. We are in the unique position to be able to represent our country internationally and give a good representation of ourselves, and although the results didn’t necessarily do that, I’d like to think we gave it our all.

An Alternative Route To Singaporean Professional Football

In a sport that is equally political as it is reliant on skill and determination, we often forget that even in the small market that is Singaporean football, many players take atypical routes to the top of the game, making their rise more remarkable and commendable.     This can definitely be said for Ryhan Stewart, who […]

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