National Teams – Age-group ● Oct 24, 2021
Singapore gear up for opening AFC U23 Asian Cup Qualifier against Timor-Leste
Raoul Suhaimi shields the ball from Farhan Zulkifli during training, 16 October 2021.
SINGAPORE, 24 OCTOBER 2021 – Singapore will begin their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U23 Asian Cup Uzbekistan 2022™ qualifying campaign against Timor-Leste at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Monday night (25 October).
Singapore Under-22 Men’s National Team Head Coach Nazri Nasir believes the team will be buoyed by playing at home, with tickets to all three match-days already sold out. The Philippines and defending champions Korea Republic are the other two teams in Group H. Fans can also watch all the matches LIVE on Singtel Ch 111, which is available on Singtel TV, TVGO and CAST.
READ: Singapore U22 Men’s National Team Profiles
“The thing that I am most looking forward to for this tournament is playing in front of the fans,” he told FAS.org.sg. “Of course the expectations on us will be high, but that is how you become a better player – by learning to cope with high-pressure situations.
“The mood and spirit in the camp is good, I can see everyone pushing themselves very hard in training so I am confident the players will put up good performances for all the supporters.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited international exposure for the U22s, with 15 of them having not played an international match at this level before. However, there are senior heads in the team. Captain Jacob Mahler has three international caps from 2018, while Vice-Captain Saifullah Akbar has the same number from his involvement in June’s FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ Qualifiers.
Having come off an excellent 2021 season in which he played a starring role in the Lion City Sailors’ maiden AIA Singapore Premier League (SPL) triumph, Saifullah is relishing the opportunity to be one of the leaders in this team.
“It is very important for me to bring my experience, qualities and try to be a role model to the other boys,” the 22-year-old said. “As leaders, it is important that me and Jacob encourage the rest and make sure they believe in themselves so that we can bring the best out of each other.
“I have been very fortunate to work under two top coaches like Aurelio Vidmar and Kim Do-hoon. That is why I have been able to bring my level a notch higher in terms of decision-making and off-the-ball running. I am really excited and eager to try and replicate the same level of performances when I represent the U22s.”
The 2020 SPL Young Player of the Year also aims to go one step further by qualifying for the tournament proper for the first time. A total of 11 groups from both the West and East Zone will contest the Qualifiers, with the group winners and four best second-placed teams set to advance to the final stage.
One of five players who were involved in the last Qualifiers in 2019 along with Jacob, Nur Adam Abdullah, Danish Irfan and Arshad Shamim, he only played briefly in the final game against Mongolia after missing the first two matches through suspension. Singapore failed to progress despite an unbeaten campaign, which was their best showing in four qualification attempts.
“It was a good experience then because I felt we had a quality squad – Ikhsan Fandi and Hami Syahin were there – and we performed well,” Saifullah reflected. “It was just unlucky we could not make it through as one of the best second-placed sides; hopefully some luck goes our way this time and of course, we will have to perform again.”
Timor-Leste U22 Head Coach Fabio da Silva speaks at the pre-tournament press conference, 24 October 2021
Timor-Leste will provide stiff opposition. Several players with Brazilian heritage are at their disposal and they can call upon seven players who have been capped at senior international level, such as Nelson Sarmento Viegas, who has made 15 appearances.
Nazri noted: “We all know the kind of players Timor-Leste have. They will be very physical and have two, three players who are very skilful and technically very good. For us, it is not so much about relying on individuals… we are a team and I am confident of them putting up a good show.”
Singing a similar tune, Saifullah added, “Physically we will try our best to match them… mentality-wise we can do so much (more), we just have to focus on our strengths and try to outwork them.”
Zikos Chua at training, 11 October 2021
While Ilhan Fandi’s injury-enforced absence is unfortunate, Nazri believes that the trio of Khairin Nadim, Glenn Kweh and Zikos Chua can step up and wants the rest of the team to contribute as well.
“I have been pleasantly surprised by Zikos, who was out for a while due to NS (National Service) but he has been sharp during training and I can see he has not lost his ability and touch,” the former Lions captain said.
“This is also where the midfielders have to stand up, especially like Saifullah or even Shah (Shahiran) and Harhys (Stewart). We have been encouraging them in training to take shots from outside the box. To be a good midfielder, it is not just about creating chances as scoring is also an important part of their jobs. I want them to take that responsibility upon themselves.”
Nazri is also keen for the team to display a brand of football that the fans can enjoy as they bid to make history.
“I want to see us playing very positive football, trying to keep possession and stroke the ball around, rather than being defensive,” he stated. “We are trying to lay down this national philosophy and we have to display this type of football be it against Timor-Leste, Philippines or even against Korea.”
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The opener on Monday also marks a return to the dugout for Nazri after almost a year. Mainly involved in an advisory role following a mild stroke that he suffered last December, the 50-year-old has recovered well and cannot wait to get going again.
“I am really excited to get the doctor’s clearance to be back,” he smiled. “I have been waiting for this chance for a few months already, but the doctor advised me to take a little longer to recuperate.
“Now, everything is fine and going well for me, though I still have to really take care of myself and cannot push or stress myself too much. Going through this has helped me to be a bit more relaxed and calm. Of course, my coaching staff is there to help me throughout the games so I am confident that I will be able to lead the team well.”