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This feature is part of Yahoo News Singapore's series of previews ahead of the SEA Games, which will be held from 12 to 23 May in Hanoi.
SINGAPORE — The SEA Games men's football gold medal has been such an elusive target for Singapore that few in the 20-man squad heading up to Hanoi this month are entertaining high hopes of winning it at long last.
And for good reason: the Young Lions have struggled in recent Games editions. The last time they managed to advanced out of the opening group stage was nine years ago in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw. The last time they had even reached the final? Way back in 1989.
So as national Under-23 head coach Nazri Nasir prepares to lead his charges out to their SEA Games campaign, it is no wonder that the former Lions captain - well-regarded for his no-nonsense demeanour - is adopting a "one game at a time" mentality.
"Pressure is always there for me and for my players, and we know we need to get results. But the last time we've won a medal was a bronze in 2013," the 51-year-old told Yahoo News Singapore in an interview last month.
"Definitely we want to be in the semi-finals again, but we can't look too far ahead. Our focus has to be on our opening match; it's important to start the competition well. So we'll take a game at a time, and hopefully we will be able to work our way into good form at the Games."
Defender Ryhan Stewart, who will be playing in his second SEA Games, is also circumspect about his team's medal hopes.
The 22-year-old right-back was in the 2019 squad led by Fandi Ahmad that had been preparing for an entire year in a bid to end the wait for gold. However, they crashed out in the opening stage after failing to score in four of their five group matches, and Fandi had to apologise for their poor performances in the Philippines.
This time around, Stewart believes a step-by-step approach is what the team should take in Hanoi.
"I think the gold medal can always be a motivation for us, because we of course want to be the first Singapore squad to win it," he told Yahoo News Singapore.
"But we have to take it slow, get a good opening match and then build from there. There are no two ways about it - we have to work our socks off to get to where we want."
Massive injury hits to key players
Singapore's hopes, however, have taken massive hits in recent weeks.
First, key forward Ilhan Fandi and wide player Farhan Zulkifli suffered ankle and quadriceps injuries respectively during the Young Lions' Singapore Premier League campaign, ruling them out of the SEA Games.
Then, in the Young Lions' last SPL match before the SEA Games squad's centralised training for the Games last month, captain Jacob Mahler suffered a devastating anterior cruciate ligament tear, a serious injury that takes months to heal and immediately ruled the luckless defender out of the Games.
Finally, just before Nazri finalised the 20-man squad on 30 April, came the news that Ilhan's elder brothers Irfan and Ikhsan - both linchpins in the Singapore senior national team - have been denied permission to take part by their Thai club BG Pathum United, as the Games is not an official tournament under the FIFA calendar. The duo would have been part of the three overaged players allowed in the U-23 Games squad.
Nazri acknowledged that these are significant setbacks, but insisted that his team will not dwell on those personnel losses, and hopes that other players in the squad could step up and seize their opportunities to shine.
"We cannot control these unfortunate injuries, and maybe these things happen for a reason," he said.
"It's a good chance for players to step up; players like (defenders) Jordan Emaviwe and Ryaan Sanizal who have been steadily improving. I'm confident that, when given an opportunity, these players will give their best."
Minnows are improving, no game will be easy
Singapore will open their SEA Games football campaign on Saturday (7 May), when they will take on Laos at the Thien Thurong Stadium in the city of Nam Dinh, about 90 kilometres southeast of Hanoi.
They will also be facing Thailand (9 May), Cambodia (11 May) and Malaysia (14 May) in their opening Group B. The top two sides in the group will advance into the semi-finals.
With Thailand one of the favourites to win gold - having done so in three of the past four SEA Games - it would seem that the Young Lions' final group match against Malaysia would be key to their hopes of making it to the final four.
However, Nazri refuses to underestimate Laos and Cambodia, the supposed unfancied teams in the group.
"We cannot say that Laos or Cambodia is very weak, like we did in the old days. These national sides have improved a lot and we will not have any easy games in the group," he insisted.
"But all the 20 players in the squad have shown maturity to deliver both on and off the pitch, and I believe they will do Singapore proud with their performances and their conduct.
"I trust all of them and I believe the selected players will give their all and not let me down in Vietnam."