One match at a time: Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida's mantra as they begin 2022 World Cup qualifiers

Singapore national football team coach Tatsuma Yoshida with captain Hariss Harun. (PHOTO: PictoBank/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Amid the backdrop of Singapore football’s Goal 2034 ambition, national team coach Tatsuma Yoshida is urging “one match at a time” instead, as the Lions begin their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign against Yemen at the National Stadium on Thursday (5 September).

It will be the Japanese coach’s first competitive match in charge of the Lions since he took over in May. And with the Lions drawn into a tough Asian Zone qualifying group, he is reluctant to look further ahead than this key opening match.

“Yes I know of the Goal 2034 plan, but right now, the focus for me and my team is solely on the next game,” he said during a media conference at Oasia Hotel Novena on Wednesday.

“We have to prepare well to win. And maybe, if we can keep winning one match at a time, then we can be happy to talk about Goal 2034.”

Indeed, Goal 2034 – the long-term ambition mooted last month by Football Association of Singapore vice-president Edwin Tong to reach the 2034 World Cup Finals – seemed too distant a prospect for the current Lions squad, most of whom are unlikely to still be playing in 15 years’ time.

Set campaign on right foot

Thursday’s match – together with next Tuesday’s home game against Palestine – is a prime opportunity to set things off on the right foot for the long-drawn 2022 World Cup campaign, which will still require teams to go through two more qualifying rounds before they could actually set foot in Qatar for the Finals.

“The two home games give us an advantage, even more so if many fans turn up to support us,” Yoshida said.

“I want my players to show their potential, ability and energy. They have still to adapt fully to my playing philosophy and tactics. But for now, I have given them a couple of pointers on how they should play for Thursday’s match, and I think they are clear about what they have to do on the pitch.”

Singapore are drawn in Group D with Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Palestine and Yemen. At No. 162 in the FIFA world rankings, the Lions are the lowest-ranked country in the group.

Yet, they face a Yemeni side with no domestic football league in the last five years, due to the country’s ongoing civil war. Their players ply their trade in other Middle Eastern leagues such as in Qatar and Oman, and most of them have fewer than 10 caps for the country.

Tough, physical opponents in Yemen

Nevertheless, Yoshida is not taking the Lions’ opponents lightly, pointing out the Yemeni side’s physical superiority, and that they are coming off their first-ever qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, the continent’s premier international football competition.

Still, veteran Lions defender Safuwan Baharudin said the mood among the national players is one of excitement and eagerness to kick off their campaign – which also serves as a qualifying pathway for the 2023 Asian Cup.

“We have two important Cup qualifications to aim for,” he said. “Some of us in the squad have gone through three of such campaigns already, and we really want to make this one count. It won’t be easy, but we believe in coach Yoshida.”

Tickets for the Lions’ two World Cup qualifying matches – against Yemen at the National Stadium on Thursday and against Palestine at Jalan Besar Stadium next Tuesday – are on sale at the Football Association of Singapore website.

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