Tamed in the den


It should be a blot on my copybook that this was only the fifth match I had ever seen at the National Stadium. Perhaps it should also be one on the Singapore national football team’s that they had come a cropper in every one of them.

This being our penultimate 2011 Asian Cup qualifier, the stakes were high and the prize tantalisingly within grasp. Three points from either of our remaining games would guarantee our first ever qualification for the Asian Cup finals. But against Iran, one of the strongest Asian national sides boasting three prior trips to the World Cup finals, the proverbial applecart looked very discouragingly stable indeed.

Thankfully I had long learned to expect as much.

My introduction to the spiritual home of Singaporean football was not a happy one. It was February 2001, and I was 16 then; a young and unworldly student who had hitherto never watched a football game live in the flesh. Tickets were dirt cheap (a ridiculous $2 I believe), and the ground was a stone’s throw away from school. So why not?

Our opponents in the third game of an ultimately lamentable 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign were a competent Bahraini outfit, blessed with greater size, talent and histrionics. We had at that stage a solitary point, creditably taken from the Kuwaitis in a 1-1 draw three days earlier. Our hopes, rather naively, were tingled.

Not that it lasted very long. We went behind after just 15 minutes, and conceded again ten minutes later. With over an hour to go, the Bahrainis even thought to put on a time-wasting masterclass; their welcome, to put it mildly, had been overstayed.

The team fought on gamely, even as the tie slipped inexorably away. Then, after 65 agonising minutes, with the Bahrainis flapping at a loose ball in their six-yard box, Mohd Noor Ali arrived fashionably late into the penalty area and fired home with great aplomb. Kallang roared; my adolescent angst purged in an euphoric instant. The previous hour of pain, the frustration at our guileless display, our disgust for Bahraini gamesmanship had all dissipated.

But the catharsis was short-lived. Singapore wanted a quick restart, but the Bahrainis thought the ball looked resplendent nestling in their net and wished to keep it there. Push had come to shove, so fisticuffs it was. When cooler heads eventually prevailed, the referee absurdly suggested that two of our players, Noh Alam Shah and Dalis Supait, take early baths, before telling Bahrain’s Abdullah Marzooki where to go.

And that was that. With no way back for us with nine against ten, we sportingly spent the remaining 25 minutes jeering the visitors and pelting them with ice cubes. The loss hurt but I loved it, the ludicrous theatre of it all.

Five months later the venerable Manchester United flew in for a pre-season friendly, and I duly forked out $10 for a student ticket. With fan service a priority and Singapore’s defeat a given, the game promised much entertainment at little emotional cost.

There was still some pride at stake, of course. Singapore managed to hold their own for a good 30 minutes before Ole Solskjaer nodded United into the lead. Normal service restored. But Singapore didn’t care for the script; the crowd could nary believe their eyes when our top striker Indra Sahdan, put clean through between Jaap Stam and Gary Neville, placed a precision finish into the bottom left corner.

Alas, après Indra le deluge. Phil Neville stroked home a David Beckham cross, before Solskjaer smashed a second to end the first 45. Beckham then opened the second half account with a deflected free kickDwight Yorke bundled in a half-hearted braceRuud van Nistelrooy poached a goal and Ryan Giggs rounded off with United’s eighth. We were so thoroughly shite, Fabien Barthez was even allowed a short cameo on the left wing.

My faith in the national side never really recovered from that. As it happened, almost seven years would pass before I returned to the crumbling monolith. This time, the Brazilian Olympic football team thought playing a Singapore XI would be good preparation for the Beijing Games, and I thought the chance to see the likes of Ronaldinho, Pato, Diego and Anderson outweighed the pain of another crushing Lions defeat. In the end, we were somewhat flattered by the 0-3 scoreline.

Then Liverpool came over last July, but I shan’t waste any words beyond saying that I took my father to see the Scousers roll us over by five goals to nil.

So when Iran dropped in, I was understandably reticent about our chances. In four matches at the National Stadium, all against superior opposition, I had seen Singapore ship 18 goals and score a paltry two.

This time we threw the game away even morely quickly. After nine promising minutes, the Chinese referee awarded the Iranians a non-existent penalty, and Hadi Aghily gratefully stepped up to score against the run of play. Just a minute later, Mustafic Fahrudin’s suicidal square pass allowed Madanchi to stroke home a clinical second.

Gutting, or at least I wished it was. The truth is I was numbed, and it was just as well that I wasn’t there to watch the game per se. Rather it was the couple of hundred Iranian pro-opposition supporters, all decked out in green, that had my professional journalistic attention.

Cue the customary curveball. When Noh Alam Shah headed a swerving corner past a static Iranian defence, it was only the third goal Singapore has scored with me present in the stands. Ironically enough, I didn’t see it. Instead I was making conversation with an Iranian fan, who had much to say about himself and his fellow Green Movement supporters who had journeyed down south from Malaysia.

Nonetheless, the game had been revived as a spectacle. Stunned and wilting in the sapping heat, the Iranians were there for the taking. I still had work to do, but damn if I were to miss the culmination of a glorious Lions comeback. My hand took notes, my mouth uttered questions, my eyes scarcely left the pitch.

The equaliser, however, never materialised. After some good possession and a thumping header against the crossbar to start the second half, the team gradually faltered. When Gholamreza Rezaei capped a brilliant flowing counterattack with a classy chip, it came almost as a relief. All hope was abandoned, and the agonising was done.

Now unburdened by football, I began to take in the Green Movement supporters’ pro-opposition chants and vocal exaltation of reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In a perverse way I was pleased for them. These committed and patriotic Iranian diaspora had braved long bus rides from Malaysia and risked surveillance by Iranian secret police, and in return they had won their victories, big and small, in their football and their politics.

But their hosts took a dim view of the revelry. Plain clothes policemen, replete with digital video cameras and stony faces, eyed them intently, recording their every move. Perhaps the Iranians clocked it too, and ignored it with the same stoicism they had mustered for their own oppressive regime. Or maybe the football opiate was working its ethereal wonders, casting for one night their political sorrows into the shadows.

As for the remainder of the 7,356 spectators in the stadium that night, I wondered if theirs, seemingly as intoxicating as ever, would ever wear off.


~ by spiegel2071 on January 11, 2010.

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