Game Details

Singapore usurp Thailand on their way to the top

On paper it should never happen, but tiny Singapore have usurped Thailand and their other more illustrious neighbours once again to become South East Asia's pre-eminent footballing power.

Despite being home to just four million people, the city state once referred to by former Indonesia president B.J. Habibie as the 'Little Red Dot' rose above the giants of the region on Sunday to retain the Asean Football Championship title they won two years ago.

In 2005, Indonesia - with a population of over 250 million - were humbled by Raddy Avramovic and his troops and at the Supachalasai Stadium, despite having the baying Bangkok crowd behind them, it was the turn of the Thais to perish at the hands of Singapore.

A 3-2 aggregate win was sealed with a 1-1 draw when Khairul Amri scored the equaliser eight minutes from the end of a game that saw the hopes of Thailand's 70 million football fans dashed.

And with Malaysia and Indonesia having earlier succumbed, Singapore's giant slaying feats are now becoming commonplace.

The win maintained a record run for the Singaporeans, who have now gone 17 games unbeaten in the competition, their last defeat coming in a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of bitter rivals Malaysia in December 2002.

Fifteen of those have been under the command of Avramovic, who has also maintained Singapore's astonishing record of winning the tournament every time they have progressed beyond the group phase.

Sunday's victory was hailed island-wide with Today newspaper proclaiming Avramovic's team the 'kings of South-east Asia', a theme echoed by the nation's leading daily broadsheet, The Straits Times.

But for all the hyperbole, this year's success was built just as much on the forward planning of the national association and the man-management skills of Avramovic as it was on the technical ability of the men in blue shirts.

With a squad that boasts an array of overseas-born talent that has been integrated into the local footballing fabric, the Singaporeans have used their heads as much as their feet to climb the regional ladder.

Midfielder Mustafic Fahrudin, scorer of the controversial and crucial penalty in the first leg of the final against the Thais, is Serbian by birth and was granted Singaporean citizenship as part of the Football Association of Singapore's attempts to deepen the national team's talent pool.

China-born Shi Jiayi, another import, also played a key role while Avramovic's squad also featured Nigerian duo Itimi Dickson and Precious Emuejeraye as well as Daniel Bennett, an Englishman by birth.

The imports have complemented local-born stars such as Indra Sahdan Daud and Noh Alam Shah and under the control of Avramovic the mix has grown increasingly potent.

It is a policy that has provoked scorn throughout the region in the past, but it continues to reap dividends and is providing the platform upon which the nation is building towards its next goal: qualifying for the World Cup.

When Singapore first won the regional championship back in 1998, the country's sights were set on becoming the first country from South East Asia to make it to the finals since Indonesia - then known as the Dutch East Indies - represented Asia in France in 1938.

Disappointing showings in the Asean Championship in 2000 and 2002 suggested those goals were over-ambitious, but the securing of Avramovic's services saw fortunes change.

Victory over Indonesia in the final of the 2004 Tiger Cup reinvigorated the local scene before impressive performances against the likes of Japan, Oman and North Korea in the qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Cup gave an additional boost.

A win over Iraq and a draw with China in the qualifying tournament for this summer's Asian Cup have only added to the sense of progression within Singaporean football and retaining the Asean title - defeating Thailand for the first time in almost 30 years along the way - has cemented their position among the region's leading lights.

A stable structure both within the national side and at league level have paid off for Singapore but the danger now is that they could become a victim of their own success, with Avramovic a likely target for predators from both inside and outside the region.

The Serb is becoming one of Asia's most sought after coaches and, with Thailand's Chanvit Polchovin almost certain to be heading for a lucrative club contract in Vietnam, an opening has appeared at a side that will play at this summer's Asian Cup.

Avramovic's contract expires at the end of the year and the onus is now on the federation to secure his services through to the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, a timeframe during which Singapore will be aiming to become the first country to win the Asean title for a third tournament in a row.

But for now the Lions will revel in retaining a title few expected them to win two years ago. And for all the speculating, Avramovic made his immediate plans clear soon after captain Iskandar raised the trophy into the Bangkok sky.

'I need a holiday,' he said. 'After that, we will start planning for the SEA Games and, more importantly, the World Cup qualifiers next year.'

Singapore's football community will be hoping he returns revitalised and ready to lead the nation towards the next step in their football development.