By Gabriel Tan
In heart-breaking fashion, the LIONSXII were leading against ATM 2-1 on aggregate and looked to be heading for the final when, in the seventh minute of injury-time, Marlon Alex James netted to bring the game into extra-time and subsequently penalties, where the Singaporean outfit were ultimately defeated 5-4 in the shootout.
Moments before James' equaliser, Sufian Anuar was standing on the touchline with his fellow substitutes, ready to erupt in joy at the sound of the final whistle. Those celebrations never came and instead, shortly after Yasir Hanapi sent his spot-kick smacked against the post, his team-mate could be seen in tears and inconsolable on the bench.
Yet when all the dust finally settles, there will be plenty of positives to take from the LIONSXII's inaugural campaign in Malaysia, where they finished second in the Super League, reached the last four of the Malaysia Cup and made it to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
In the last nine months, V. Sundramoorthy's men have treated the Jalan Besar Stadium faithful with some memorable games and through this, heroes of the next generation have been born, with the likes of Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin and Izwan Mahbud primed for glittering careers over the next decade or so.
Yet, no player arguably captured the hearts of the Singaporean public more than Sufian, who started the year expected to play a bit-part role but ended with the fans chanting his name when he came on as a late substitute in the Malaysia Cup semi-final first leg against ATM.
What makes the 25-year-old's story all the more remarkable is the obstacles he had to overcome in his life, which started at the age of six when he was sent to live at the Jamiyah Children's Home, a place he now visits on a regular basis.
"I was basically sent to live at the home when I was six, all the way till I was 17," Sufian told ESPNSTAR.com in an exclusive interview.
"Back then, I knew my parents were having some difficulties although I wasn't aware what they were at the time.
"Sometimes, they came to visit me but it only made it tougher."
During those years at the home, the one thing that never failed to lift Sufian's spirits was football and he reveals that, even from a young age, being a professional and plying his trade in Singapore's Great Eastern-YEO's S.League was all he ever dreamed about.
That dream was eventually realised when he was signed by Home United, becoming part of the Protectors side that won the RHB Singapore Cup last season, before eventually joining the LIONSXII at the start of this year.
Sufian still vividly remembers the day he set his heart on becoming a professional footballer.
"While at the home, they brought us for a leadership camp in Bintan," he recounted.
"We had to write down what we wanted to be when we grew up and I put down 'S.League star'. I was asked why I wasn't aiming higher, but at the time I just wanted to keep my expectations down.
"I don't think I'm an S.League star, but I am an S.League player. And now that I've achieved that, I can start to aim higher."
The spirited manner in which he has approached life is evident in the way he plays his football, running for every ball and chasing down any opponent. His never-say-die attitude - along with the fact that he has scored six goals in 17 games - just one of the attributes which has so endeared him to the LIONSXII fans.
The striker even earned praise from Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who called him a "successful, productive citizen", but the ever-humble Sufian believes it is possible for everyone to achieve their dreams.
"If I had one piece of advice to give, it is to work hard in achieving your dreams," he added.
"It doesn't matter if you're a kid with a difficult childhood or a normal one - hard work is the key to meeting your goals and achieving something.
"If you really work at it, anything is possible."
While the way Sufian gives 100% on the field means he rarely walks off the pitch with any regrets, he does admit there is one thing he would have done differently earlier on in his life.
"I would also tell aspiring footballers to study hard," he advised. "Especially in Singapore, doing reasonably well in school is still important.
"It's a slight regret of mine that I didn't do better academically, but you can't have everything in life.
"Still, I would advise that even if you wanted to play football for a living, doing well academically is also important to provide that safety net."
Nonetheless, there is no doubting that the man has achieved something in his life but rather than take things for granted, he is thankful to be playing football for a living.
"All this while, the one thing I've played for is my passion for the game," Sufian explained. "That's the one thing that keeps me going.
"Playing football has given me the opportunity to support my family and is a source of stability in my life."
With his club commitments now over for the year, Sufian is set to take a well-deserved break, unless he is of course called up to play for Singapore at next month's AFF Suzuki Cup, something he is ready to do but isn't expecting given the lack of chances he's been given at international level.
Given the entire LIONSXII squad were only given one-year contracts at the start of the season, Sufian isn't sure where he'll be playing in 2013, although chances are it will be with the Super League outfit.
But regardless of where he is, it's likely that the determined 25-year-old will be a success, as he has been all his life given his determined character.
For now though, Sufian not only remains a LIONSXII player, but an inspirational hero to his many fans.
Five questions with Sufian Anuar
Best moment playing for the LIONSXII this season?
When I first played for the LIONSXII, the reception from the fans wasn't the warmest. But in the game against Negri [Sembilan], I gave it my best and I didn't care about anything else - I just wanted to help us win. Even though I didn't score that day, I was given a standing ovation when I was substituted and it really felt good being appreciated by the fans.
Toughest opponent you've faced this season?
The Selangor centre-back Ramez [Dayoub]. Being physically imposing is a big part of my game, but he was equally physical and he definitely beat me in the air. He was just real steady and made me work hard to get into the game.
Best match the team played this season?
Personally, I think it was the home game against Negri. It was the first time we really moved around as a team. Everyone did their part and played to the best of their individual abilities, we showed we were starting to connect and gel. It was the first time it felt like all the training was beginning to pay off.
Best mate in the team?
It's really hard for me to pick one because I get along with everybody. But if I really had to choose, I would say Isa [Halim]. He's my room-mate when we travel for away games and we're always joking around together.
Michael Essien. He's a player I admire because of his physical nature. He always gives 100% when he takes to the field and that's something I base my game on as well.