By Ian Griffiths
Two years on from Thailand's widely anticipated success at Southeast Asia's first ever Tiger Cup, Singapore caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised when, against all odds, Barry Whitbread's talented side sensationally downed host nation Vietnam to become regional champions in 1998.
Although giant defender R. Sasikumar's dramatic winner may have crowned what was yet another action-packed get-together, Mursyid Effendi's deliberate own goal during Indonesia's crunch game against Thailand ensured that the island republic's glorious triumph in Hanoi, will forever be overshadowed by one of ASEAN football's darkest moments.
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It was a remarkable incident during a competition that, blissfully unaware of the underhand shenanigans that were set to unfold, started nearly six months earlier with a pre-tournament qualifying phase that would reduce the number of finalists from ten, as it had been in 1996, to eight.
Having eased through those qualifiers along with Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines, Singapore continued their latest Tiger Cup assault in fine fashion, as goals from Rafi Ali - occupying a more advanced position compared to his usual midfield role - and the outstanding Ahmad Latiff Kamaruddin helped them secure a vital 2-0 win over near neighbours Malaysia in Group B's opening fixture.
In the wake of a dramatic and contentious 0-0 draw with Vietnam, Singapore went on to top the group and grab a ticket through to the semi-finals thanks to a comprehensive 4-1 drubbing of Laos, whilst the Vietnamese, roared on by a wonderfully vociferous and colourful home support, bagged second spot to guarantee themselves a place in the last four.
Not surprisingly, Thailand and Indonesia dominated Group A. With Myanmar and the Philippines apparently conceding goals for fun, the two ASEAN powerhouses had already secured their respective passages through to the semi-finals before the now infamous Ho Chi Minh City clash, a game that would decide which of the heavyweights finished as group winners and, as a result, face red-hot favourites Vietnam in the next round.
Throughout a dire first half, it soon became apparent that neither Thailand - missing the talismanic services of a weary Kiatisuk Senamuang - nor Indonesia had the slightest interest in winning the three points that would automatically hand them a far trickier semi-final tie. Few, if any, could have predicted what was about to happen.
When Thailand's Therdsak Chaiman fired home to make the score 2-2 in the 86th minute, the Tiger Cup's reigning champions looked as if they had done enough to claim the group's runners-up berth and therefore avoid the Vietnam threat. Effendi clearly had other ideas.
With ninety minutes on the clock, the Indonesian defender took it upon himself to score one of football's most improbable own goals, a moment of supreme madness in a game that had undoubtedly besmirched the good name of ASEAN football. Effendi would eventually receive a richly deserved lifetime ban for his part in the nonsense.
Indonesia's grand plan for Tiger Cup domination was, however, to backfire spectacularly against Singapore. Despite dominating the early possession, Indonesia failed to find a way through their opponent's resolute defence. In a flash, Singapore raced into an early 2-0 lead courtesy of a smart Ali header and a consummate finish from captain Nazri Nasir. Mirabaldo Bento's subsequent strike for the Indonesians mattered little as the rank outsiders from Singapore, to the amazement of many, marched into the final.
Vietnam, buoyed by strikes from Truong Viet Hoang, Nguyen Hong Son and Van Si Hung, thumped Thailand 3-0 in the other semi-final to set up a title decider which, not surprisingly, their vast legions of fanatical supporters thought they were odds on to win. It was not to be.
In a game of few chances, it was Singapore who struck the vital blow when Kadir Yahaya whipped in a cross that the Vietnamese defence failed to deal with, allowing Sasikumar to score in the 71st minute.
Try as they may, Vietnam simply could not break down a resolute Singaporean defence which, along with the rest of the team, could hardly contain their excitement when the full-time whistle went.
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