S'pore back in Champs League

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Tampines captain Mustafic Fahrudin lifting the S-League trophy this season, but hopes are slim he will get his hands on the AFC crown.

AFTER a three-year hiatus, a Singapore club is finally set to return to top-flight continental football.

This, after the Asian Football ConFederation confirmed yesterday that the Republic has been awarded a play-off spot in next year's AFC Champions League.

It means that Great Eastern-Yeo's S-League champions Tampines Rovers will make their bow in the competition when the qualifying rounds, scheduled for February, get underway.

But it promises to be a big task for the Stags, as chairman Teo Hock Seng admitted at the club's annual dinner two weeks ago.

"Let's not kid ourselves - I don't think we can make it," the 67-year-old said.

"If you saw the teams who played in this year's final (Guangzhou Evergrande and FC Seoul), the standard was far superior."

Indeed, making the group stage alone will not come easy. Vying with Tampines for two spots will be Muangthong United and Chonburi from Thailand, China's Beijing Guoan, Melbourne Victory (Australia), South China (Hong Kong) and Hanoi T&T from Vietnam.

But should they successfully negotiate the qualifying rounds, they will be the Republic's second representatives among Asia's elite. Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC) made the cut in 2009 and 2010.

Having played in both campaigns, Tampines' Aleksandar Duric knows exactly what awaits.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for the club to play in a competition followed by so many fans," the veteran striker said.

"But it will be a huge step up for us. There are no weak teams in the group stage - we're talking about teams with huge budgets, where one player could be earning more than our entire club."

Certainly, it will be a test for new coach Salim Moin.

Teo yesterday confirmed the appointment of the former Lion on a two-year deal, which will allow Tay Peng Kee to return to his role of general manager.

Salim, 52, will join from Woodlands Wellington together with right-hand man Clement Teo, following an impressive season in which they led the perennial strugglers to a fifth-place finish.

"We looked around for a while and decided that he is the right man for us at this point in time," Teo told The Straits Times.

"He's a humble man who gets along well with his players."

That said, Salim is also known for being a disciplinarian - a quality which Teo hopes can relight the fire in the Stags.

"We've got a complacent team," the chairman lamented.

"Some players start thinking that they are stars and asking for more money, even when their performance levels are dropping.

"In such cases, we need the right people to rule the team."

fabiusc@sph.com.sg


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