After winning Wednesday’s opening Airmarine Cup match at Shah Alam Stadium, Lions coach Nazri Nasir humbly went on his knees, kissed the turf and offered prayers.
During the post-game locker room huddle, he rightly gave his players a celebratory pep-talk, congratulating them for rising to the occasion and showing themselves to be “perfect football ambassadors for Singapore”.
He said all the “discipline during practice and regular season was to get them ready to win this game”, and that they were going to party and enjoy the moment. But before dismissing them, he told the team to pray in their respective ways because offering blessings to the Almighty matters a lot in football, or for the matter, any sports, or in any matter of life.
I could feel tears streaming down his face as the 48-year-old newly-minted national coach told me in a long-distance telephone interview: (In Malay) “Shukor, Shukor. Shukor!”
“I’m so proud of the spirit of the players, They were so personally demanding in wanting to perform and wanting to prove themselves in this big match. Quite honestly, I would have been happy with a draw as I only had 48 hours of makeshift preparation,” says Nazri, the captain of the Lions from 1997 to 2003, who led Singapore to the 1998 AFF Championship title.
“Full credit to the players. They rose to the occasion, after pre-match prayers and believed in their individual and team-spirit. They caught Malaysia with a late sucker-punch goal and held on for a very significant win every Singaporean can be proud of.”
SATURDAY’S FINAL: OMAN
Next match will be Saturday’s final against Oman, ranked FIFA No 90 and coached by Dutch legend Erwin Koeman. But Nazri is not overawed and daringly says he intends to give the “younger players a big break to play”.
“I will be bold to give fresher players a chance to prove themselves. The commitment of the Lions are unbelievable and they’re just raring to go, especially those on the bench. I’ll bravely give them a shot against Asian-class Oman, who thrashed Afghanistan 5-0 in the opening match.”
End of the day, Nazri, who was inducted into the FIFA Century Club in June 2007 after he retired as Lions skipper, wants to restore football credibility. He says: “Let’s have faith in Singapore football. Now’s the time to rise up the ladder with a bunch of hardworking and disciplined players with the ‘semangat’ spirit to move up the ranking.”
The solitary late match-winner in the 82nd minute, ironically, came off the boots of Hougang United striker Faris Ramli, who played for Malaysian Super League side PKNS last season, courtesy of a smart-thinking Khairul Amri Kamal’s defence splitting pass.
FAS Council member and former international goalkeeper Yakob Hashim, who played in the 1984 Asian Cup, praised the FAS for “taking a bold step to give Nazri a chance”. He says: “I’ve said many times that a home-grown coach can do the job if he’s given the right support. It’s just not about Fandi (Ahmad) only. We must now further groom Nazri for the next chapter.”
Former Lions skipper Razali Saad, also a FAS Exco Council Member who skippered the Lions from 1986-88 with 53 ‘A’ international caps, saluted Nazri: “When your back is against the wall with only two days to prepare for the opening match, he psyched the Lions to rise above themselves. Prayers, luck, whatever, the players gave their best shots because they wanted to prove a big point.”
Robert Lim, the former Lions assistant coach in the 1990s, acknowledged that Nazri Nasir’s Lions were “able to take the bulls by their horns in the Tigers’ den and came out victorious to do us proud”. He says: “Playing against Malaysia is much more than just football. Based on Malaysia’s performance in the last Suzuki Cup, the Lions had a gigantic task in their hands.
SLICK PASSING GAME
“I thought they kept the ball well, prompted by Nazri from the sidelines. This led to the winning goal by Faris Ramli after their slick passing game opened up the disorganised Malaysian defence in the closing stages of the match. More importantly, the players looked happy and motivated, something that’s amiss in previous matches. A job well done and Nazri deserves more than a pat in the back.”
Former Lions coach P.N. Sivaji, now a technical director with a Myanmar-based pro club Hantharwardy United, says: “I just caught bits of the match but I must admit that it was a fantastic and morale boosting win for Nazri , and more importantly for Singapore. Great to see Nazri confidentially taking on the challenge of leading the Lions for the first time, and coming and emerging with a very sweet victory.”
Malaysia’s leading English newspaper, ‘The New Straits Times’ (NST), smacked with the headline “Lions bite Tigers” and conceded that Singapore emerged as the”Kings of the Causeway”. It says: “The tournament was organised solely to boost Malaysia’s ranking in hope of being ranked among the top 34 teams in Asia but the move has now backfired. It does not augur well for Harimau Malaya in the F:30 Roadmap era.”
Biggest blow for the FA of Malaysia (FAM) was its last-ditch plea to stop Ultras Malaya (a group of hardcore supporters of the national team) from boycotting the tournament through a pre-match press release. But it miserably failed as only 3,741 paying fans were at the 90,000-capacity stadium. The Ultras were screaming mad as tickets were rather extraordinarily priced at RM35 (free seating).
The NST lamented, too, that the defeat is also “quite embarrassing considering that Singapore only gathered their players for the tournament on Monday while the Malaysian players were assembled for centralised training on March 12”.
LIONS’ SHARE OF POSSESSION
The tabloid ‘The Star’ newspaper laid the cards right: “Malaysia had the lion’s share of possession in the first half, but Singapore had the better chances in the match”.
For Harimau coach Tan Cheng Hoe, it’s back to the drawing boards after being on ‘Cloud Nine’ when he defied the odds to make it to the AFF Suzuki Cup final last year, losing 3-2 to Vietnam. Under his guidance, Harimau Malaya recorded eight wins, three draws and five defeats and also moved up seven rungs to World No 167 in the Fifa rankings.
For the record, prior to Wednesday’s clash, the last time Malaysia and Singapore (world-ranked No 165) met was in 2016, when they drew 0-0 in an international friendly at the Jalan Besar Stadium. Prior to that, Malaysia defeated Singapore 3-1 in the group stage of the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup competition at the Singapore National Stadium.
Indeed, in my final lines, let me reiterate that there’s a divine-send meaning when prayers matter in close-edged football confrontations. I’ve always believed that when you pray, God listens. When you listen, God talks. When you believe, God works.
That’s why the new Lions coach Nazri Nasir humbly went on his knees, kissed the turf and offered post-match prayers at the Shah Alam Stadium. He believed in his players and he trusted the Almighty for this God-send sensational Airmarine Cup victory. – By SURESH NAIR
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist, with over four decades football experience, who is also a AFC-Licenced coach and AFC Referee Instructor.