S'pore vs India... after eight years

IN THE past, whenever Singapore and India locked horns on a football field on this island, Little India would be a virtual ghost town. The majority of the Serangoon Road folks would be at the turnstiles of the now-defunct National Stadium at Kallang and soon the "sold out" signs would be on display.

That was back in the 1990s, with Singapore fielding star-spangled strikers V. Sundramoorthy and Fandi Ahmad and India countering with iconic marksman Baichung Bhutia.

Now, as the two nations clash in a football international encounter at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Oct 16, the big question is... will the "sold out" signs come out again?

The match promises to be a crucial sparring session as the Lions - as the Singapore national team is nicknamed - are preparing for next month's Suzuki Cup, ASEAN's biggest football tournament.

The Blue Tigers - the Indian team's nickname - are also getting set for the AFC Challenge Cup later this year.

The last time the two sides met was on Oct 13, 2004, when the Lions won the 2006 World Cup qualifier match 2-0. But now, with Sundram, Fandi and Bhutia having hung up their boots long ago, both teams are scratching their heads over inconsistent performances and scrambling to win over their fans.

Singapore is currently ranked a joint 162nd (with Malaysia) and India at 168th among the 207 football-playing affiliates of FIFA, the global body for the sport. Just over a decade ago, both nations were 60 places higher - Singapore's highest standing was 73, in August 1993.

The Blue Tigers are current South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) champions but the retirement of Bhutia (who played for English League Two club Bury FC in 1999 to become the first Indian footballer to play professional football in Europe) from international football in August 2011 and the changing of four foreign coaches over two years have done them no good.

Kolkata-based sportswriter Amoy Ghoshal tells tabla!: "For a long time, the game here has been run unprofessionally and we have fallen behind other Asian countries we used to beat easily until the 1970s. Every step we take is matched by five or six by the others."

Former Singapore title-winning Home United coach Steve Darby, who also had a stint at Kolkata's Mohun Bagan club, utters the critical five-letter word: Money. "I don't think India can return as No. 1 in Asia until there is a massive financial investment in training facilities, youth development and education programmes," he says, adding: "To be the best, you have to train in great environments such as you have in Japan and South Korea."

The Blue Tigers have a new coach - Dutchman Wim Koevermans who won a Euro championship with Holland in 1988 - and he wants them "to play the famous Dutch way of 'total football'," says Mr Ghoshal. "But he wants the change to come gradually and not overnight.

He experimented with this style of play in the Nehru Cup, which India won after beating Cameroon, but he admitted that the style should be the one that suits the players the most," he adds.

For the Lions, it's a make-or-break period under Serbian coach Raddy Avramovic. Having bagged three titles at the ASEAN football championship - in 1998, 2005 and 2007 when it was known as the Tiger Cup, now it is called the Suzuki Cup - they are still a far cry from championship-winning form for the 2012 series. Looking at ace striker Aleksandar Duric - at 42, the oldest and most consistent player in the team - offers a dismal glimpse of the future.

A Football Association of Singapore spokesman tells tabla! that 15 players from the Lions XII squad, which finished its debut Malaysian Super League season as runner-up, have been included for the India match, together with nine players from S-League clubs: Balestier Khalsa, Tampines Rovers, Home United, Courts Young Lions and SAF Warriors.

"The average age of the Lions is 25.7 and the team features five players below 23, creating a judicious blend of youth and experience," adds the spokesman.

Looks like Oct 16's friendly international is a great opportunity for both teams to raise their game. The match may not empty Little India but hopefully there will be enough football fans who make the trip to Choa Chu Kang to fill the 4,000-capacity stadium.

tabla@sph.com.sg

The Singapore-India international will be held at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Oct 16, 7.45pm. Tickets are priced at $10 (adult) and $2 (student/senior citizen). For more details, call 6293-1477 or log on to www.fas.org.sg

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