S’pore, Ranked 156th, Held a 2-2 Draw With China, Ranked 88th, in World Cup Qualifier Match

Excitement feels like an electric rush of current in the air-conditioned dome of Singapore’s National Sports Stadium.

It’s 21 March 2024, and Singapore and China’s football teams are competing against each other for the gilded ticket to the world’s stage.

This is the World Cup Qualifiers, a fixture which is part of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup 2026 and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup Saudi Arabia 2027 qualifier. For Singapore’s football players, this match means everything.

In the red-white adorned seats of the National Stadium (that hosted Taylor Swift’s concerts just a little less than two weeks ago), dedicated, die-hard football fans watch with bated breath and words of encouragement, disdain, and even prayer as they spectate the games.

They stand and sit, they gawk and cheer, and they connect. 

It is a powerful sight: a tightly-knit camaraderie strung together by a shared love for the sport.

At ground level though, a bespectacled man watches on with solemn dignity. 

His name is Tsutoma Ogura. And at 57, he’s found himself coach to Singapore’s National Football team, the Lions.

Image: Football Association of Singapore

This first competitive game will be a testament to his skills as a coach, and it will reflect the efficacy of the long hours of training spent in Kallang Stadium; the game is nearly as intense for him as it is for the Lions on the figurative battlefield.

Even though Ogura is not a player on the field, the whole of Singapore is still looking at him, especially after he’s promised to “give everything” for the World Cup Qualifiers.

He made his debut as the Lion’s coach nearly two months ago now, on 1 February 2024, announced by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). 

This decision came after a chain of dismal results and the dismissal of the Lion’s former football coach, Takayuki Nishigaya. Now, the Lions have a record of losses, 1-3 against Thailand and a grim 0-5 against Korea in their group C matches.

It may seem bleak, but lions have always been symbolically known for their valour and courage. 

Even though the last few qualifier matches have seen limited success, on the grassy field, the Lions still fight with an undefeated fervour and love for the sport.

This time though, it’s a stalemate.

At 2-2, both teams have reached an impasse. This deadlock came when substitutes Faris Ramli and Jacob Mahler led a surprise rescue after China dominated the field with a 2-0 first half lead.

While it is not a win or a loss, things are looking optimistic.

For sunny Singapore, ranked a humble 156th in the world, has proven to China, 88th, that they have the grit and determination to hold their own despite the disparity in class. It is an attempt at scaling the hierarchy, and it is a damn good one. 

As stated by FAS, the last time Singapore won against China in a competitive match was in 1983 during the Merlion Cup, resulting in a staggering 1-0 in the semi-finals. It’s been many years since, but this 21 March 2024 match is a step in the right direction.

Despite the seeming success though, the 57-year-old Japanese coach does not look happy. 

“Please don’t say congratulations,” Tsutomu Ogura said after the match.

In the football world of equalisers, roughly-timed shots and hard-won battles, Ogura’s expectations are as lofty as the tall ceiling walls of the Stadium’s dome. 

He cites that there is more work to be done, and that he is unsatisfied with the results. No one is surprised; Ogura is a hard coach to please, but the Lions will step up to the challenge, as they always have.

Singapore will face China again on 26 March 2024 in the return fixture. There, they will find out whether they are worthy of the world’s stage and the world’s eyes.

Ogura is right, there is more work to be done. But for now, the Lions will rest, and when the time comes for it, they will rise again.