Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Under-Dolphins

27th May 2008, Tuesday

On Saturday, I answered the call of my fellow football-loving buddy, Foo who had been the main instigator for my recent surge in interest in local footballing scene, by heading down to his backyard to catch a live football match between home team, Sengkang Punggol and SAFFC in a round 14 tie of the latest season of our local professional league...

I had long history with this Singapore Sports Council-governed sports stadium, located barely 10 km or so from Ang Mo Kio since young when my Secondary School used to host our sports meet there and I recalled traveling all the way back home by foot...
We were last into our ailing football league was a good 5 or 6 years back when I was still in college and we would make effort to catch live games every fortnight or so but the interest eventually waned... But those were good times and I could masquerade as Secondary school students (really gullible of the ticketmasters to be deceived by the matured face of yours truly) by showing my bus pass;; in order to enjoy the special $1 ticket price.

Half a decade later, we came back to the same exact stadium where we witnessed a superb win (recorded as their biggest win) by Sengkang's previous incarnation, Marine Castle as they demolished Woodlands Wellington 4 goals to 1.
Our jubilations were recorded by the camera from our local TV station and I bemusingly informed Foo when I caught the highlights show on TV.
Nowadays there was no true highlight show to whet our appetite but then only a minority actually give a damn about local footballing scene, but secretly we hoped Singapore's successful run-in to the 2010 Worlc Cup could change the landscape.

Sengkang, our selected choice of club to support is the perennial minnows since their inception to the league many moons back.
Their woeful run of result makes every victory sweet and the objective every season was to not hold the honour of the wooden spoon.
This season was supposed to be a transition phase for the bottom side with a new gaffer at helms in former coach and ex-international fullback Saswadimata Dasuki (whom Foo pointed out how he had aged overnight with the entire crop of silver hair) taking over long-serving English coach, Trevor Morgan.
The season was buzzing with the signing of the goal-scoring veteran Mirko Gravobac from Tampines but little did they realized that he had problem passing the Beep Test at the ripe age of 36 and now served as an assistant coach to Saswa.
Seasoned players like Amos Boon, Tan Sio Beng, Farhan Farook etc were sold and released and there was a big overhaul in the foreign region with former Alibrex Niigata centerback Yamamoto and a couple of unknown Chileans signed onboard as well.

But our plights were soon realized when in 12 games, the Dolphins (Sengkang's nickname) failed to win losing 7 and drawn 5 before clinching their first win of the season in a home game just days before Saturday against the Young Lions.
Goal-scoring is the main issue at hand as in the early season Chilean striker Asenjo were injured and without Grabovac, Sengkang had a lost cause to find the scoring boots with Yamamoto scoring the first goal of the season for them.
However it was well made up by the true resilience of the defense which kept a few good clean sheets in 0-0 draws.

The opponents on Saturday was league leaders, SAFFC and the arm forces side who won the league last season was gaining from strength to strength, hoping to put another victory and more points clear of close rivals the resurgent Super Reds.

When we entered Hougang Stadium, the gallery seating was well sparse as we had anticipated but crowd were gushing in before the match between 3 quarter past 7 in a rather humid evening.
There were boisterous cheering and beating of drums on the left side of the gallery and the bnavy blue jersey the fans were wearing made us realized it belongs to the SAFFC traveling fans contingent who were never afraid shy about making themselves heard.
At this juncture we wondered were there actual Sengkang fans except the two of us.
We found good seating (which isn't hard) behind the media table where we saw 2 1970s footballing legend in Quah Kim Song & Dollah Kassim dropping by to have a taste of some local footballing action.
There were a couple of video camera to record down highlights of the match which one Foo pointed out to be from cable network Star Sports and the other we assumed to be from local tv network Mediacorp which had been under a baptism of fire for their lack of interest in our footballing scene.
A stone throw away, a local fan had his own tripod with a digital camera affixed to record the match for his own archiving.
That's the best part about local footballing stadium. With the exception of smoking within the premises (as the emcee kept emphasizing during breaks), you could basically bring anything into the stadium....

So the game began on time as Sengkang bouyed by a new sponsorship deal and the recent improvement of results, look to add another scalp.
The gulf of a difference was not evident for much of the game as the league leaders were finding it hard to beat the minnows in their own turf.
Boasting 6 national players (including 3 naturalized ones), 3 Japanese import and a Thai midfield wizard by the name of Thersak Chaiman, SAFFC should blow the underdogs away.
But recent stats shown that the Warriors (SAF's nickname) are reeling from tight schedule with AFC commitment as well had been now running a smooth engine despite the talents they had.
Beside a shot that hit the under side of the crossbar and rebounded out, the only good chance when reserve keeper Hafez Mawasi had a lucky effort to parry a goal-bound effort.
Our beloved home team didn't looked to be fazed by their more illustrious opponents as they carved out whatever opportunity possible counter attack with skipper Croatian, Zdravko Simic the one running the engine in the midfield.
He also had the best opportunity to score with a direct freekick which was on course towards the top left corner of the SAF's goal before custodian Sharil Jantan coolly grabbed it with his safe hands.
Kudos to vertically-challenge lone targetman, Fairoz Hassan in his flamboyant red boots.
Despite been well-shackled by Kenji Arai who dwarfed him with his built, he always tried to make a run at it and nearly carved a fluke chance at goal.

After a 15 minutes intermission, 2nd half was a nail-biting affair as SAFFC laid siege outside Sengkang's 30 yard box trying to find that elusive goal.
But their torrid accuracy at goal was further hampered by the goalkeeping of Hafez who even blocked a snap header from Duric who put the likes of Winston Yap and Ratna Suffian on their toes the entire night.
We then decided to labeled Hafez, "The Glass' considering how fragile he was everytime he went down after a good save and needed treatment from club physio.
Previously he looked dazed with oversized goalkeeping jersey, so we thought he look a bit psyched-out but now he should hold the No.1 spot since the actual No. 1, Adi Salleh seemed to had balloon after a constant diet of nasi lemak, kambeng soup and ayam goreng.

Sengkang tried to generate some counter attack on their left side which left a deep impression with Chilean leftback Luis Eduardo Hicks repelling some pressure from SAFFC winger Masahiro Fukasawa before trying to release his midfield counterpart the stocky Rozali "I want to play football" Johari who was perhaps the one true talent with attacking impetus for Sengkang.
Sengkang's midfielder Firdaus Salleh broke free towards goal in the final quarter of the game and was halted from an intentional tug by Arai which the referee only meekly rewarded a yellow card instead of sending the Japanese centerback off, much to the fury of the Sengkang supporters (at this point the attendance statistics stands at 2.4K which look more like 240 to me).
What's worst to follow as we entered the 4 minutes of added time...
Ratna Suffian who had another good performance seemed to had drew a foul just outside Sengkang's 30 yard box and a free kick was awarded.
Chaiman who had his freekick aimed at Serangoon several streets from the stadium didn't seem to miss from that range and the curler soundly beating the exhausted Hafez to much esctacy of the players and fans of SAF.
However it did seemed like the Thai midfield maestro might had carried his celebration too much and some Sengkang players nearly wanted to beat him into pulp.

So with that late drama and some injustice, Sengkang was robbed of a valuable point but the match was surely packed of drama which got the two of us well entertained.
Our under-dolphins surely did seemed unfazed by the challenges ahead and if they could get more attacking options when the transfer market opens up in July, Sengkang looks good on the rise...
The live game atmosphere surely got us into the mood for more and warmed us up enough for the crucial home game for the Lions against Uzbekistan in a week's time...

Japanese word of the day: 弾力性のある(Resilient) You can be down but should never be out

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