FAS ● Sep 06, 2018

Class of ’98 Tiger Cup warriors reunited 20 years on

The ‘Florence Nightingale’ of local football, Nurhafizah Abu Sujad broadens the reach of her quest to keep footballers in top condition, joining the Lion City Sailors while retaining her role as National Teams Head Physiotherapist.

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SINGAPORE, 6 SEPTEMBER 2018 – By all accounts, the Lions were expected to flounder at the 1998 Tiger Cup. They left for the tournament in Hanoi, Vietnam on the back of lacklustre results, little fanfare and even lower expectations from the Republic.

 

Yet, they defied the odds and brought home Singapore’s first title in an international tournament on 5 September 1998.
Twenty years on, the players have aged but their hearts are still very much a part of the young, victorious 1998 squad.

 

Last night, 15 members of the squad, including all five members of the backroom staff, gathered at Oasia Hotel Novena to commemorate their historic win. Of note was Barry Whitbread’s attendance at the dinner – the Head Coach of the 1998 team flew in specially from England to join the occasion, saying that it was one he “could not miss”.

 

The current National Team, who is in midst of preparing for their upcoming friendlies against Mauritius and Fiji, also had the opportunity to meet and mingle with the legends.

 

Football Association of Singapore (FAS) President Lim Kia Tong got the night underway, welcoming the Class of ’98 and thanking them for making time to attend.


Naturally, Whitbread was also invited to recount his experiences and among the anecdotes he dished out – the 69-year-old had the room eating out of his hand – there was an outstanding one about the recruitment of defender R. Sasikumar.

 

The Englishman felt that his squad lacked physically imposing players and when the 1.92-metre Sasi came in for selection trials one afternoon, he had said a prayer for the strapping 23-year-old: “God, I hope this one can play!”

 

The rest was history, guffawed Whitbread, and indeed it was as no discussion of the 1998 triumph is complete without a mention of Sasikumar’s winning goal in the final against hosts Vietnam.

 

The centre-back – who was in attendance – was not spared the jokes about how his “Blade of God” goal, off Kadir Yahaya’s cross, was just a poor attempt at a header!

 

It was a nostalgic night for the former players as they took a trip down memory lane watching the highlights from the final, along with their teammates and the backroom staff that had supported them throughout.

 

To cap off the night, the former players were also presented ‘Class of ‘98’ jerseys to mark the occasion and Sasikumar described the gathering as “unbelievable” afterward.

 

“Some of the others I do see when I bring my kids to ActiveSG (Football Academy) but there are some like Rudy Khairon and Basri Halis whom I haven’t seen in maybe 15 years,” he said.

 

“It’s also always great to see Barry, even though I’ve seen him in the last couple of years. Omar (Ibrahim) our team manager too, of course; I heard he suffered a stroke but it was good to see he was there.

 

“I am very glad to see all these people, it was quite nostalgic and I can’t believe we were allowed to gather. I must say that FAS did a great job on this; as ex-internationals, we criticise a lot (sometimes) but I think this was a great touch, which I think a lot of the boys really appreciated.”


The 20th anniversary dinner is part of FAS’ efforts to reach out to former National Team players and bring them back into the FAS fold.

 

Addressing the 1998 squad, FAS Vice-President Edwin Tong said: “Collectively, all of you have a lot of experience and knowhow and you know what it means to have tasted success. So one of the things we are trying to do at the FAS is to reconnect with our National players. We have lost that touch along the way, but moving forward from tonight we want all of you to be back into our eco-system.

 

“So come to our matches, come to support our players, come to be part of Team Singapore.”

 

Parallels between the 1998 squad and the current squad were inevitably drawn. Both teams face scepticism from the public in the lead-up to the tournament and have the odds stacked against them – which Sasikumar pointed out.

 

“We were probably in the same situation 20 years ago when nobody gave us a chance and we went on to do the impossible,” he said.

 

“If they can take anything away from last night, it’s the way Barry described us – we were a bunch of warriors and hopefully they can be that too.

 

“They just need to get their minds and heads straight – that they are the privileged guys, to be able to represent Singapore and hopefully we can instil in them that they have every chance, just like us 20 years ago.”

 

This time, the Lions are under the guidance of Fandi Ahmad and they will be fighting to win back the support for the Beautiful Game in Singapore – and they will need the fans behind them.

 

Tickets for the upcoming September friendlies against Mauritius (7 September) and Fiji (11 September) are available from fas.org.sg/tickets and onsite on match-days. Fans are urged to buy their tickets early online to avoid the queues on match-day.

 

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