Lions unlikely to roar in Asia
Singapore: Away from the raucous, outdoor sports bars that broadcast wall-to-wall TV coverage of the English Premier League, national pride is burning bright ahead of the latest Asian qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.
The tiny island state is preparing to enter new territory: the third qualifying round, for the first time in its history.
Singapore will face Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Lebanon in Group 4, with the top two teams advancing to the next stage, on the long road to South Africa.
The Lions are considered favourites to be eliminated but won't be taken lightly, having compiled an impressive record since 2005: just three defeats in 23 competitive fixtures. And over the past two years, they've beaten Asian champions Iraq, drawn with regional powerhouses China, and toppled Thailand to win back-to-back ASEAN Championships.
It's a massive improvement on their ill-fated qualifying campaign for the previous World Cup. They were knocked out in the first round after finishing bottom of their group with five defeats in six matches, including a 7-0 thrashing by Oman. Even India finished ahead of them.
Their Serbian coach Raddy Avramovic has transformed an under-achieving side that leaked goals and was overawed by big-name opponents into a combative unit that defends strongly and can eke out good away results, despite difficult conditions.
Singapore progressed to the third round after beating Tajikistan over two legs in November: a 2-0 victory at home followed by an impressive 1-1 draw on the road, despite many of the squad being afflicted by a stomach bug.
It means that Singapore fans no longer have to keep talking about the 'good old days', with the current crop exceeding the achievements of the beloved 1977 and 1994 teams.
In their inaugural World Cup campaign ahead of Argentina '78, Singapore finished a gutsy second in their group after wins against Thailand and Malaysia. But they were dumped out before the final qualifying round after losing a play-off with Hong Kong.
After missing out on the USA World Cup, the 1994 team sent Singapore into national ecstasy by winning the Malaysia Cup and league double, overcoming the best club sides from across the causeway.
But the Lions' latest success hasn't come without controversy, namely the Foreign Talent Scheme which targets overseas players. No fewer than seven of the current 22-man squad were born outside Singapore, in countries like Nigeria, England and Serbia.
The newest star recruit is 37-year-old Aleksandar Duric who scored both the goals in the first-leg win against Tajikistan, the oldest international debutant less than two months after becoming a Singaporean. Duric was born in Bosnia, represented Bosnia and Herzegovina in canoeing at the 1992 Olympics and played in Australia's old National Soccer League (NSL) as an Australian citizen.
He's become the biggest star of Singapore's S-League: last season's top scorer with 37 league goals, voted player of the year and a key member of champions, Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC).
The inclusion of Duric - and so many other imports - has irritated Singapore's most capped player, Malek Awab, who made 123 appearances in the red and white. Awab says foreigners are holding back local talent.
'Look at Shahril Ishak. He's the finest midfielder now, but, because of the foreign-born players, he has to sit on the bench,' Awab told the Straits Times.
Singapore, with a population of 4.5million (roughly the same as Croatia), is as passionate about football as any European or Asian nation. The back pages of the newspapers are dominated by coverage of Serie A, the Primera Liga and the Bundesliga, in addition to its beloved EPL.
But holding back the development of the elite player base is the fact that its ethnic Chinese majority - around three-quarters of the population - tends to be football watchers instead of serious football players. These educated and business-minded people usually choose less risky career paths instead of the uncertain life of a professional footballer.
It's left to Singapore Malays and Singapore Indians to wear the national strip on the football field - along with naturalised Singaporeans like Shi Jiayi, Daniel Bennett and Agu Casmir.
Even so, much of this vibrant island nation identifies with, and closely follows, the achievements of the Lions. As soon as they start winning matches, everyone, it seems, is jumping on the bandwagon.
In football, like anything else for such a tiny speck on the map, Singapore uses planning and ingenuity to make up for a lack of natural resources and usually ends up doing better than most of its much bigger neighbours.
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host of Soccernet SportsCenter and SportsCenter on ESPN