SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Defending champions Singapore will make their long awaited bow at their glitzy new National Stadium on Sunday as they kick-off their bid for a record extending fifth Suzuki Cup title against tournament favourites Thailand.
The 55,000 seat venue – the centrepiece of Singapore’s $1 billion Sports Hub – opened in June but the soccer team had been forced to keep playing on the artificial turf at the 5,000 seat Jalan Besar Stadium.
“To play for Singapore in front of huge crowds while defending our AFF crown is a dream come true,” Singapore winger Faris Ramli was quoted as saying by the Straits Times.
“As a footballer it’s frustrating to play a good game, turn around and realise no one witnessed it. I’m looking forward to playing in front of a bigger crowd.”
That dream was under threat, though, as the toll of hosting concerts, soccer and rugby matches left the National Stadium pitch in a mess and led to the Asean Football Federation (AFF) threatening to take the event away.
On paper, losing an event featuring some of the world’s lowest ranked sides would appear to matter little, but fierce local rivalries and football’s popularity make the event king in the region and Singapore spent millions to fix the grass.
Almost 200,000 people attended the 2010 final over two legs when Malaysia edged Indonesia to win a first title, and both are back in the mix in what appears an open 10th edition.
Thailand won three of the first four titles but have struggled since despite boasting arguably the strongest player pool of the region.
Under the guidance of coach Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang, who scored 70 goals in over 100 appearances for his country, Thailand are confident their young side can prove victorious despite the absence of their best player, Teerasil Dangda, who has stayed with Spanish top flight side Almeria.
A 2-0 success over New Zealand on Tuesday concluded their preparations for the game against Singapore on Sunday in the new stadium, before they face Malaysia and Myanmar in other Group B matches at Jalan Besar.
Co-hosts and 2008 winners Vietnam have been handed a favourable draw alongside Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines in Group A, where matches will be played at Hanoi’s Hang Day Stadium and National Stadium.
The winners and runners-up from the two groups will advance to a home and away two legged semi-final, with the victors moving through to the final, which will also be played over two legs.