Singapore must back Fandi Ahmad despite AFF Cup elimination
As all fans in Singapore know, it is either famine or feast when it comes to the AFF Suzuki Cup. Prior to the start of the 2018 edition, the Lions had won four out of 11 titles and crashed out in the first round in six others. Now it is seven.
After losing the final Group B game 3-0 to Thailand in Bangkok, Singapore finished third, two points behind the Philippines in that all-important second place. It marks a third successive group stage failure.
But there are first-round exits and then there are first-round exits. Compared to 2016, when the team collected one point and scored just one goal while producing the kind of football that those figures suggest, 2018 was a marked improvement.
Singapore produced a solid win over Indonesia, a narrow loss to the Philippines and a six goal thrashing meted out to Timor Leste.
In the end, Thailand were just too good, as many expected them to be -- as coach Fandi Ahmad noted after the game.
"Congrats to Thailand, they deserved to win," Fandi said. "They were much better than us today, tactically they were very sound today, they were fast on the sides and they controlled our movements on the flanks.
"But I'm very proud of the Singapore players, they gave it their all. We were the underdogs and people thought that we don't have a chance, but we fought to the last bit."
Singapore needed to win in Bangkok but lost to a team that was a level above. There is no shame in that. What would be a shame would be going back to square one and jettisoning all the positives that have been collected over the past few weeks.
Under Fandi, appointed in May until the end of this tournament, Singapore have improved. That is clear for all to see and that is why he should stay.
The favourite son of Singapore football lifted spirits just by taking on the job. That was the easy part but there is a much more positive atmosphere around the camp in 2018 than in recent times, when players and coach smiled about as much as they scored. The style of play on the pitch has not exactly been gung-ho but it is much more energetic, ambitious and easier to watch. This is a competitive Singapore side.
Younger players such as Zulqarnaen Suzliman and Ikhsan Fandi (the second of the boss's sons in the squad) have made the step up to the seniors and look set for lengthy international careers. Others such as Gabriel Quak and Safuwan Baharudin seem rejuvenated.
There is still a long way to go, of course. Compared to Thailand -- the best team in the region -- Singapore were slow and, at times, struggled to cope with the slick passing game of the hosts roared on by 30,000 at the Rajamangala Stadium. And defensively there have been mistakes which, while to be expected especially from younger players. There is also a concerning lack of strength in depth.
These are issues which can be addressed in the longer-term. In the short, Singapore may not yet have returned to the top table of Southeast Asian football but there is a feeling that a corner has been turned and the team is, at least, now moving in the right direction.
"Every team needs support" Fandi said. "The last two years have been very bad for us, every ASEAN team has gone past us, but we are trying to rebuild this team and whoever comes in to take over this team, I hope that we have built something for the future."
That "whoever" should be Fandi.
Sometimes, the easy decision is the right one. The players seem happy, the fans are at least happier than before and there is a sense that there is something to build on. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) should give Fandi, the biggest name in the country's football scene, a contract that runs at least until the end of the 2020 edition and though qualification for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup.
At the moment, he is the best man for the job and the most likely to continue the journey back to the top of the regional table. At the very least, Fandi has put pride back into the Lions over the past six months. Now, he should be given a chance at tackling the much harder job of making the country a force again.