A first trophy for Singapore, a timely first international goal for one of their all-time greats R. Sasikumar and one of the lowest points in the tournament’s history all added to the drama of the 1998 ASEAN Football Championship.

Singapore hosted the inaugural edition of the event two years earlier and despite being led by their star striker Fandi Ahmad they failed to progress past the group stage.

They were dumped out of the competition in their final group match, losing 1-0 to eventual champions Thailand – who were led by their goal machine Kiatisuk "Zico" Senamuang.

Youth and experience

Expectations were therefore low when the event kicked-off in Vietnam in August of 1998, especially with Fandi having retired a year earlier.

Their coach Barry Whitebread, a former striker from the tough Northern leagues in England, decided the best angle of attack was to select a team blending experience with youth.  

He brought in goalkeeper Rezal Hassan, defenders Sasikumar and Aide Iskandar from the Under-23 squad. Up and coming striker Ahmad Latiff Kamaruddin also joined the party.

Complementing the fresh faces were old hands Nazri Nasir, their skipper, Rudy Khairon, Rafi Ali, and Kadir Yahya.

Singapore progress

Singapore were drawn in Group B alongside Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia, the runners-up in 1996.

The Lions recorded a comfortable a two-goal victory against Malaysia in their opening game, with goals in the first 45 minutes from Rafi Ali and new boy Ahmad Latiff – once touted as a successor to golden boy Fandi in these early days of his career.

Up against host’s Vietnam in their next match and facing fierce home support in Hanoi, they battled to a brave 0-0 draw to secure an important point.

And after two tough matches they then went up against Laos, one of the region’s footballing minnows, and eased to a 3-0 victory with goals from Zulkarnaen Zainal, Ahmad Latiff and Rudy Khairon.

That saw Singapore top the group ahead of Vietnam on goal difference and make a strong statement that they were one of the favourites to go all the way.

Controversy strikes

The tournament then took an unpleasant turn on the event when Indonesia played Thailand in their final Group A game in Ho Chi Minh City.

Both teams knew that winning the game and topping the group meant they faced a daunting semi-final match against Vietnam, as well as having to shift camp to Hanoi.

In a match that carved its place into the history books for all the wrong reasons, the game was tied at 2–2 score after 90 minutes.

But then during injury time, despite two Thai players attempting to stop him, Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi deliberately scored an own goal, handing Thailand a 3-2 victory.

FIFA fined both teams US$40,000 for “violating the spirit of the game”, while Mursyid was banned from domestic football for one year and international football for life.

Hosts through, holders out

Thailand, as if still struggling to come to terms with the events of their previous match, were hammered 3-0 by Vietnam in their semi-final while Indonesia were sent home by Singapore, who won 2-1 in the other semi-final.

All the goals came in the first half with Ali and skipper Nasir putting the Lion City 2-0 up before Miro Baldo drew one back for Indonesia.

Lions roar

The stage was then set for the final at Hanoi Stadium, were a fiercely patriotic crowd of over 25,000 fans awaited the Singapore team.

And against the odds the Singapore side rose to the occasion and dispatched Vietnam 1-0 thanks to Sasikumar’s first international goal for Singapore.

It came following a cross into the box by Kadir that ricochet off the shoulder of Sasikumar and went into the goal in the 65th minute.

The “Shoulder of God” goal, as it became known, allowed Singapore to claim their first international tournament and mark the start of a brilliant run of victories in the ASEAN Football Championship.