Golds and Goals moments: Dignity restored, but Lions far from Asean's best

The Singapore national football team in action against Thailand in the AFF Suzuki Cup on 25 November, 2018 (PHOTO: AFF Suzuki Cup)

So many sports happenings, so little time – but we’re here to help. Yahoo News Singapore picks the top sporting moments of this past week, and tries to make sense of what happened.

1. Lions regain pride, but not stature yet

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Singapore’s national football team are no longer a laughing stock.

Compared to recent years, when they had loudly proclaimed their ambition to be among the top 10 footballing nations in Asia and then stumbled so badly even in Southeast Asia, this current side is at least humble, united and willing to work their socks off.

Even though their Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup campaign came to an end on Sunday (25 November) when they lost 3-0 to Thailand in Bangkok, the Lions have at least shrugged off the gloom of successive failed coaching appointments in Bernd Stange and V. Sundram Moorthy.

The duo had tried to instil tactics and philosophies ill-suited for the players, resulting in prolonged winless runs during their tenures.

When Sundram resigned earlier this year, Fandi Ahmad was entrusted to revive the Lions fortunes. While he has undeniable inspirational qualities, he was also astute enough to know that the priority for the Lions is to regain their identity. They needed to go back to basics, and play the football they are familiar with.

They managed to do that at the AFF Suzuki Cup, and at least gained a couple of victories. More importantly, the players seemed comfortable and eager to perform under Fandi.

Singapore interim national football coach Fandi Ahmad during their AFF Suzuki Cup match against Thailand on 25 November, 2018. (PHOTO: AFF Suzuki Cup)

But this leads to the other observation that can be gleaned from their Suzuki Cup campaign: the Lions are already lagging far behind the best sides in Southeast Asia.

The reality in the world of international football is that if you stay still or even regress, others will gleefully overtake you. In the mere six years since Singapore last won the Suzuki Cup in 2012, they have been comprehensively overtaken by the likes of Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and maybe even Myanmar and Malaysia.

Thailand were once struggling to win the tournament, going winless from 2002 to 2014, an embarrassment considering their frequent proclamation as the best side in the region. Yet, they regrouped after that 2012 final defeat by Singapore, and sent their best youth players overseas to Japan or Europe, and they came back to thoroughly dominate the Cup in 2014 and 2016.

Thailand have developed their youth talents into an exceptional international squad to compete in the AFF Suzuki Cup. (PHOTO: AFF Suzuki Cup/Thananuwat Srirasant/Lagardere Sport)

The Philippines have also grown in ambition, getting European players of Filipino descent to play for them, and then hiring renowned coaches such as former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson to helm their side. Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia all have vibrant youth squads that feed talents consistently to their national senior sides.

All these are areas in which the Lions are still lacking. While they have new talents coming up the ranks, such as the Fandi brothers and 18-year-old Jacob Mahler, their talent depth is nowhere as rich as Thailand or Vietnam. The Football Association of Singapore is trying to address that by pushing for more youngsters to play in the Singapore Premier League, but it may take years before such initiative bears fruit.

So the AFF Suzuki Cup campaign can be seen as a small step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go before the Lions can claim to be the top team of the region again. Fandi may have restored some dignity after a terrible six-year stretch, but Singapore should not indulge in too much self-congratulation. The rebuilding work has only just begun.

2. Spurs shifting into top form for title charge

Slowly but surely, Tottenham Hotspur are rising up the English Premier League table to contend for the title again.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane (left) celebrates his goal with Dele Alli during their 3-1 win over Chelsea in the English Premier League on 24 November, 2018. (PHOTO: Shaun Brooks/Action Plus via Getty Images)

They inflicted Chelsea’s first league defeat of the season, handsomely winning 3-1 at home on Saturday to overtake the Blues in third place. Spurs now have 30 points, five behind leaders Manchester City and three behind second-placed Liverpool.

Credit must go to manager Mauricio Pochettino, who has worked wonders with a team that was threatening to stagnate after not adding any newcomers during the transfer season. Key striker Harry Kane showed signs of fatigue early in the season, and their massive new stadium was hit by numerous delays.

Coupled with two straight defeats in September to Watford and Liverpool, and Spurs looked out of the running for even the top four spots.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. (PHOTO: Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs)

Yet Pochettino rallied his side to seven wins in their next eight league matches, including that impressive Chelsea win, coaxing great performances from Kane, Dele Alli, Mousa Dembele and Son Heung-min. He even introduced youngsters such as 20-year-old Juan Foyth, who repaid his faith with the winning goal against Crystal Palace earlier this month.

Can they catch up with the pace-setting top two clubs? It should be fun to watch them try.

3. F1 season ends with tribute to Alonso

The long Formula One season finally came to an end on Sunday with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton had already clinched the drivers’ title, while his Mercedes GP team had wrapped up the constructors’ championship.

Mercedes GP’s Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as well as the overall drivers’ title. (PHOTO: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

With little to compete for, the race eventually turned into a celebratory tribute to two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who is retiring from the sport after 17 seasons.

The 37-year-old Spaniard may not have made many friends in the paddock with his surly demeanour, but he was certainly highly respected for his exceptional driving skills and never-say-die attitude.

And Hamilton, who feuded with Alonso during their time at McLaren, graciously paid tribute to his one-time rival. Together with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the formed an effective “guard of honour” either side of Alonso as they completed their in-laps at the end of the race, and the trio did a crowd-pleasing “triple doughnut”:

A fitting end to Alonso’s F1 career, and a memorable end to this season too.

4. The talent is so obvious

Have you ever played a game where one player is head and shoulders over everyone, both skills-wise and physique-wise? It would probably look something like this:

For the record, the youth is from Montreal, Canada. His name is Olivier Rioux, he is six-foot-10 (2.08m) tall and, incredibly, he is only 12 years old. By comparison, Shaquille O’Neal was only 5 foot 10 (1.78m) when he was 12, although he would grow by a foot by the time he turned 16.

In the video, he is playing in an international Under-12 tournament in France, and he is literally head and shoulders over all his peers.

The video got the attention of many NBA stars, including Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, who tweeted, “So many questions.” The Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid, who is 7 foot 2 (2.18m), liked the way Olivier carried himself in the game, tweeting, “He has the nerves, the audacity to trash-talk too.”

Don’t be surprised to see this kid in the NBA 10 years down the road.