Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Johor FA 0 at Singapore Lions XII 1 (Malaysia Cup) - September 1, 2012

For the first time since 1994, Singapore has fielded a team in the top Malaysian soccer league, currently known as the Super League. Although the squad has been historically dubbed the Lions (Singapore comes from the Malay word Singapura which translates to “Lion City”), the new edition added a nod to its fans (commonly called the 12th man) and is now called Lions XII. Given Singapore’s historic rivalry with Malaysia, having a team play in the Super League is a source of patriotic pride. Most of the Lions also play for the national squad and there is not a single foreigner on the roster. When you attend a Lions game in Singapore, you will see much more nationalism on display than you would witness at a Blue Jays game for example.

Although the league finished in July with the Lions taking second spot in the 14-team table, there is still soccer to be played with the Malaysia Cup rounding out the domestic year. The Malaysia Cup has been contested since 1921 and Singapore teams have won 28 titles, all of which are commemorated with banners such as those shown above.

Sixteen teams compete in the tournament, including some from the second-tier in the Malaysian soccer pyramid, which is confusingly called the Premier League. Four groups of four engage in a home-and-away round robin with the top two from each group moving on to the knockout stage.

The Lions were drawn into Group A along with two teams from the neigbouring state of Johor Bahru, as well as PKNS FC, a team from the state of Selangor, which is also the home to the Sepang race circuit. The round robin is played over three weeks, with all teams playing on each of six match days. The Lions hold their home games at venerable Jalan Besar Stadium, which recently underwent renovations that increased capacity to over 8,000. This past Saturday, Johor FA (a Premier League squad) paid a visit and I made my way over to see what was afoot. The Lions were clear favourites but the teams had fought to a scoreless draw just four days earlier, so there were no guarantees for a home win.

Tickets were S$14 for the grandstand (the covered seats) and S$8 for the uncovered gallery seats, which were nearly sold out. I arrived about 20 minutes before game time and went for the more expensive option, finding a seat near the south goal. There were nearly 5,000 fans on hand and they made a lot of noise during the introductions.

The Lions must have taken that to heart as they attacked from the opening whistle and were immediately rewarded when Baihakki Khaizan made a perfectly timed pass to Khairul Amri who beat the offside trap and snapped a quick shot off the left post just 2 minutes into the game. The play happened right in front of me and looked to be offside, but after returning home I reviewed the videotape and found the linesman had made the correct call. Below you see Amri (#10) being congratulated while the ref urge them to return to the pitch.

Johor never really was able to attack after that, gaining only two scoring chances over the remaining 88 minutes. Late in the second half they had their best opportunity, but Lions keeper Izwan Mahbud cleared the ball away before a clean shot could be taken (below).

The Lions had several opportunities to extend their lead but sent shots wide or off the crossbar. Nonetheless, the early strike held up and with the win, the Lions moved to the top of the table, tied with the other club from Johor Bahru, Johor FC.

There were two rather annoying things on display here. The first was the invisible sniper with the quickly disappearing bullets. You know who I mean, the guy who shoots players in the ankle, causing them to fall to the ground, writhing in agony while the stretcher is called out. Shortly after being carted to the sidelines, the player jumps up and runs back on the field without a limp. The bullets have disappeared! At least four Lions were victimized by this unseen assailant causing extended stoppages in play. Hey, if you are really hurt, that’s fine, then feel free to leave the game. If you are not hurt, don’t waste everybody’s time by overacting, just man up and walk it off!

The other frustrating aspect of this game was the officiating, which was laughable. The Malaysian ref handed four yellow cards to the hosts while letting his countrymen off with nary a warning. Some calls were beyond ludicrous, with Lions being whistled for clean tackles, or even while being tackled! I’ve tried to find stats detailing the number of fouls per team but can assure you that it was so one-sided as to warrant investigation had this game been held elsewhere.

Next Up

I’m off to Indonesia this weekend for more beachside activities, although I won’t be watching any sports. The F1 reaches Singapore two weeks after that, and then I'm off to Sri Lanka to watch the T20 World Championship. All-in-all, a great variety of sports on tap, so check back often for updates.



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