League Cup: Surprise sides set up final intrigue
Tam Cheong Yan
Photography by Tan Chong Hua
Few who were aware of the four semifinalists in the StarHub League Cup at the start of the week might have tipped DPMM FC of Brunei and Geylang United to contest the showpiece final that is to take place at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday evening.
SAFFC and Tampines Rovers would surely have been the fans’ obvious picks, which would bring to mind all the subplots that arise from a battle featuring those two teams – especially with Noh Alam Shah back with the Stags and Daniel Bennett now serving as Warriors captain.
But such is the curious nature of football that both have been knocked out by their less fancied adversaries, leaving the Wasps and the Eagles with each other for company.
That, however, brings about a whole new level of intrigue, making Saturday’s clash a curious affair in its own right.
Certainly the prospect of meeting the men from Bedok is one that has caught Vjeran Simunic on the blind side, even if the DPMM coach has spent the last two days or so taking great pains to praise his upcoming opponents in front of anyone who may be willing to listen.
Friday’s lunchtime press conference was a case in point.
“I think that both teams deserve this moment, especially Geylang,” he began.
“People everywhere know that, even six months ago, I have said that Geylang have a team who should be in the top five. They have changed a lot of players, and I have been very lucky to see all their games in the League Cup, including their game against Albirex (Niigata (Singapore)).
“Albirex are the leading team in the S.League, they beat us, and Geylang beat them; Tampines also beat us, and Geylang beat them. We must respect a team who can beat both of the league’s top teams.
“Of course, it is my desire to play Tampines, because every coach wants to play the weakest team at the moment! But Geylang are our destiny; they are the team that made us decide to join the S.League after we met them in a friendly, and I respect them very much.”
The spiel was a very different one, however, from the one he had sung on Tuesday evening, moments after the 2009 winners had booked their place in the final by beating SAFFC.
Evidently giddied by his triumph then, the Croat oozed enthusiasm over the prospect of meeting the Stags, appearing to have given Geylang not so much as a once-over.
“I have said before that we are not ready to beat teams like SAFFC, Home (United) and Tampines,” he declared at the post-match press conference that day.
“But now, we have beaten SAFFC and Home, a nice record. And a big game against Tampines is waiting for us, they know it is not easy to beat us, and even though we’ve never beaten Tampines, I think our record against them will change.”
Only when it was pointed out to Simunic by one reporter that Tampines would be playing against Geylang the following day and had by no means booked their final berth yet did he give a brief ‘oh, right’ remark, yet whether he took that thought seriously enough there was no way to tell.
One thing he certainly was convinced about was that he and his charges are united in their conviction to put their hands on the League Cup, in the name of redressing a perceived injustice of history served upon Brunei by FIFA, the world’s governing body for football.
In September 2009, FIFA slapped the oil-rich sultanate with a worldwide ban in response to the government’s attempt to dissolve the Brunei Amateur Football Association, a suspension lifted only 20 months later when the association was reformed as the National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam.
Since DPMM’s readmission into the S.League this year, Simunic has often stressed how aggrieved the Bruneians have been over the ban, and he raised the ante at Friday’s press conference, hinting at a country’s desire for vengeance through winning the League Cup again.
“All my players very much want to play this game and win, all twenty of them,” he said.
“We are all still frustrated in our hearts about FIFA’s decision to push us out of football three years ago, when we showed we were the best team in the S.League. So we have been waiting three years, three long years to show that we don’t deserve to be stopped and kicked out.
“We are very, very, very hungry. We already showed that we are the best team again at the end of the first stage of this year’s S.League, and we reached this final by beating SAFFC and Home.
“Even in our losses against teams like Tampines and Home in other competitions, we showed performances that deserved wins. So we are very emotional, and we are very, very, very ready to play for all our fans in Brunei and make the result we deserve.”
The intense drama shown by Simunic was one that Geylang coach Kanan Vedhamuthu rarely seemed interested in imitating, as he took his turn to address the media.
The former national athlete has instead focused on praising his charges for doing a good job so far in the competition, before doing his best to downplay expectations on the Eagles despite their outstanding run so far.
Turning up for only his second pre-match press conference in his coaching career – his first was, ironically, a routine affair in Brunei in his first game in charge back in March – there were signs that Kanan was still feeling somewhat overcome by the occasion.
Apart from all the safe and polite statements, however, he reiterated a theme he has touched on many times in the last fortnight – the desire by everyone at the club to restore a good name he considered somewhat tainted by their current last-place standing in the S.League table.
Noticeably, he was much more careful about speaking on victory as a given, even after engineering the string of upsets his charges have pulled off so far.
“I don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on my players,” said Kanan, suppressing his nerves well.
“We go into this game as underdogs, we know that. We just want to maintain the momentum and the performances that have brought us this far, simply do what we have been doing in the last four weeks.
“The boys have surprised me with their performances in this competition, but they have worked very hard and have been very disciplined. We want to do well for the club, and if we win, it will be a good morale boost to everyone linked with the club.”
In a separate interview, Kanan also went at lengths to remark how Geylang have come far despite having few players with known international pedigree.
Even Yazid Yasin, Syed Fadhil and Ishak Zainol, the team’s three elder statesmen, have rarely been linked with the Singapore national team in recent years, and it is noteworthy that none have made the squad picked by Radojko Avramovic for next week’s friendly clash with Hong Kong.
That fact, however, has both dwarfed the Eagles’ stature and sparked their hunger to rise above themselves.
“You look at Geylang, we have no national team players, only local youngsters,” stated Kanan.
“I’ve even got two Prime League players in the first eleven, but I thought they did an excellent job so far. The hard work we’ve been putting into the last few weeks have paid off now, and I have even managed to make discoveries, hidden talents who have surprised me!
“Tampines had Jufri Taha selected for the Hong Kong game, and I was hoping Raddy would be at our semifinals game to see Jufri Taha. He might have had a second look at my boys along the way if they did well then; that’s what I told the boys anyway to keep them motivated!”
Both teams go into the final with largely full squads – a point that was never really in question for Geylang, who have seen a number of youngsters like Ridhuan Barudin, Fabian Kwok and Nurhazwan Norasikin impress.
More interestingly, however, Basiru Osman has been cleared to play for DPMM, despite collapsing dramatically in the second half of his team’s semifinals clash with SAFFC.
Simunic had made light of the incident then, saying that the Ghanaian had fainted because he had been fasting, as Muslims do in this month of Ramadan, and had merely pushed himself too hard.
He even declared his wish to start the 23-year-old, although he gave no updates on wingback Sairol Sahari, who picked up a bruise allegedly caused by SAFFC striker Mislav Karoglan, and on defender Sallehuddin Damit, who was crocked in the quarterfinals victory over Home.
With two surprise candidates lining up to fight for trophy – the only one the Bruneians have ever won, and the only one the Eagles have never won – opinions are split within the S.League fraternity over its destination.
“I might go for DPMM; I think Geylang’s luck will finish by then,” tipped Tampines coach Steven Tan.
“DPMM will know what to do after seeing Geylang play their game. And after beating SAFFC, their confidence will be high up.
“Whatever it is, though, hopefully both teams will come out to play. I don’t think anyone wants to see both teams sit back, and then the game ends up 70-30 in terms of possession, with the team with 30 percent winning the game.
“That wouldn’t be interesting. But then football is about results now, so maybe both teams will be happy with 30 percent!”
Gombak United coach K. Balagumaran had a different view, however, having seen his side fall to the Eagles at the quarterfinals stage.
Being classmates with Kanan in a recent AFC coaching course that was held in Japan, the former national youth coach was of the view Geylang’s new counterintuitive approach could give them a better chance at trophy success than many would imagine.
“Every coach has his own philosophy, and many coaches play wanting to entertain the crowd,” he observed.
“But Geylang prefer to play on the counter, and they are willing to wait for their chance, even if it goes to penalties. Something must have changed about their game in the last few months, because they play so defensively now, I found it impossible to penetrate them.
“I was surprised, even shocked, because they did not play like this when we met them in the league (in April), they were more attacking then. If they keep doing this, then they have to be rated as dark horses.”