Tatsuma proud of brave Lions, as referee takes centre stage at AFF semis for all the wrong reasons
No, the ‘terrible performance’ was not by the Singapore National Team. On the contrary, Tatsuma Yoshida’s men put on a gritty, courageous display, as they battled against the odds to come within a Lions’ whisker of progressing to the final.
Instead, it was the dreadful refereeing performance that raised more than a few eyebrows and rude fingers among not only the partisan 9,982 fans at the National Stadium, but also among the hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions – of Singaporeans watching the match on television.
And at the end of 120 minutes, Omani referee Qasim Matar Ali Al-Hatmi had – to Singaporeans, at least – become a bigger, dastardlier villain than *Spoiler Alert* the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Having already been exceptionally lenient towards the Indonesians’ robust challenges throughout the match – they received their first caution of the evening in the 83rd minute, despite having committed 18 fouls by then – the referee compounded his inconsistency by showing Singapore centre-back Safuwan Baharudin a second yellow card on the stroke of half-time for two ‘offences’ that were softer than your regular Lao Ban beancurd.
Safuwan’s first booking came after he made what appeared to be a legitimate tackle, while his second yellow card was shown for no discernible reason, perhaps apart from the crime of him ‘not being Indonesian’.
At that point in time, the Indonesians were 1-0 up, courtesy of a 11th minute goal through Ezra Walian.
Despite the setback, however, the Lions struck back through Song Ui-young barely a minute after Safuwan’s dismissal.
But tragedy was to strike Singapore again in the 66th minute, as the referee decided to send Irfan Fandi off for having the temerity to tap the shoulder of the Indonesian striker as he bore down on goal.
That injustice only served to fire up the Lions, and they went on to take an improbable lead through Shahdan Sulaiman’s trademark pinpoint free-kick in the 74th minute.
Just when it seemed like Singapore would pull off an incredible victory, the match officials struck again – this time, allowing Indonesia’s 87th minute goal by Pratama Arhan to stand, despite him standing in an offside position when he poked the ball home.
Incredibly, the referee finally relented and allowed a decision to go Singapore’s way, as he awarded them a penalty in stoppage time. Unfortunately, Faris Ramli’s spot-kick was well-saved – although replays showed that the Indonesian goalkeeper appeared to have moved forward from his goalline – and with the scores tied at 2-2, the game went into extra-time.
With Singapore visibly fatigued after playing the majority of the game with a numerical disadvantage, Indonesia pounced in extra-time and scored through a fortuitous Shawal Anuar own goal, although once again, there was more than a hint of offside in the build-up.
Egy Maulana Vikri then sealed the victory for Indonesia midway through extra-time, although the referee still had time to show yet another red card to a Singapore player – correctly, for once – with the irrepressible Hassan Sunny dismissed for a professional foul.
Nonetheless, while the Lions’ journey in the AFF Suzuki Cup has come to an end, Lions head coach Tatsuma declared himself ‘proud’ of his charges for the way they battled right to the very end.
“This was their best performance since I became Singapore coach. I feel happy working with them and I am very proud of them. This never-give-up mentality is the most important thing… we showed that we can improve, become stronger and move Singapore football to greater heights,” said Tatsuma.
“Even though we lost a few players, we did not give up and I was moved by their fighting spirit. Before the match, I told them ‘you do not miss this opportunity to be finalists’ and they answered that with their performance.”
While Tatsuma would have been forgiven if he had decided to describe the refereeing performance by puking, the Japanese instead chose the politically correct response when reflecting on the controversial decisions in the game.
“The referee’s decision is final. If he says it is a foul, it is a foul. If he says it is a red, it is a red. We have to accept it – that is football. Even if it is difficult to accept, we have to accept it,” he mused.
The OPPO Man of the Match,
Qasim Matar Ali Al-Hatmi Shahdan Sulaiman, also chose to focus on the spirit shown by his team, rather than on the refereeing performance.
“We cannot control the referee’s decision but we, the players, can continue the fight with whatever we have,” the Lion City Sailors’ midfielder said. “We kept motivating each other on the pitch… Despite the numerical disadvantage, we gave all our hearts and soul out there.
“It is so heartening to see the fans cheering for us even though the result did not go our way. It shows that they appreciate our efforts. We have a good mix of young and experienced players in this squad… Hopefully we can build on from there for the next competition.”
Tatsuma ended his press conference with a message of hope and encouragement for Singapore football.
He said: “I want to say to all Singaporeans ‘we must trust ourselves’. I am always telling my boys that we (our standard of football) are not so big of a difference as compared to Japan. So, everyone must keep the belief (for Singapore football). If we do not believe, we will never catch up (to the rest).”