RHB Singapore Cup: Sparks seek bronze recognition
Photography by Muhammad Yusuf
They may have missed out on making the last game of the RHB Singapore Cup, but first-season entrants Loyola Meralco Sparks from the Philippines will be at Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday evening anyway.
Graciously presenting themselves for the occasion where the medallists get their medals, they will be hoping to collect the ones in bronze for achieving third place in the playoff to be staged as a curtain-raiser to the main event, with Gombak United their opponents for a podium spot.
Standing between the Filipinos and the bronze are a Gombak team built almost from scratch at the start of the season by their new coach K. Balagumaran.
Getting the bronze here would be a reward for Balagumaran and his players, who have shown patience and depended less on older heads than many other teams.
The theme of building something new resonates firmly with both sides, and for football in the Philippines, this game, taking place before sunset, continues to chart the course of the game’s rise in a country better known for its basketball, snooker and boxing.
This may be Loyola’s first year in Singapore, but they see the competition as a chance to gain recognition for the game in their own country, and they have made it clear that they are not treating this game lightly at all.
Team manager Joseph Vincent Santos, captain James Younghusband and his younger brother Phil, as well as articulate defender Chad Gould reiterated their position when they spoke to sleague.com on the eve of the game.
“We are definitely a good attacking side, and we want to show our best abilities on Sunday,” said Santos.
“We’re much better prepared for this game than we were for the semifinals games against Tampines Rovers, as they were our first games since the end of last season.
“We’ve now played three games out of five in our own cup competition at home, and we won two of those, the last one 8-1 against one of the stronger sides.
“We have one game left, and if we win that, we are in the quarterfinals. The cup is almost equal to the League in terms of importance, even if it is played during the end of the rainy season.
“But the RHB Singapore Cup is even more important than that, as we want to demonstrate how far we have come now in football in the Philippines, and we are going there to win for sure.”
The two players suspended in the second leg of Loyola’s semifinals tie against Tampines, central defender Kim Woo Chul and impressive winger Jeong Byeong Yeol, are available again.
They will provide ample support for a local spine headed by their captain Younghusband, who was candid in noting that the fatigue factor may work against his side.
“We’ve played four games in eight days back at home, and there’s also been a game Phil and I were to play in Kuwait during the international break,” he said.
As it turned out, however, he proceeded to fall ill during the tour and was unable to play, but forward Phil managed a full game.
Tired as they may be, the players seem more than ready to take on Gombak.
“We’ve looked at some footage of Gombak games,” said central defender Gould, without giving much away on how his side will approach this game.
“We targeted (Aleksandar) Duric in the first Tampines game, and Kim, the player who came in to partner me to take care of him, got sent off, so we couldn’t use him in the second leg.
“All the same, I think we played better in the second leg ,even if the 5-0 scoreline on aggregate does not look so good on paper.
“We do want to show our many fans on Sunday what we can do, and there’s only one key player who will need to miss this match. That’s our rightback (Eric Giganto), who has work commitments and cannot travel.”
Gombak meanwhile go into this game on the back of a demoralising 1-6 league defeat at the hands of SAFFC, the team that had bested them in the semifinals.
Despite some indifferent form since that exit, the Bulls are looking to make amends by taking the bronze medals, and the players certainly took their training session on Saturday afternoon very seriously.
Chairman John Yap called the players together after the session at Jurong West and told them, in his own encouraging way, that he knew he would not see the kind of performance he had seen against SAFFC the previous week.
The team will have Walid Lounis back from injury, a welcome return for a team that badly missed the experienced no-nonsense defender in losses to Geylang United and SAFFC.
Unfortunately for Balagumaran, two players reported sick and could not train, namely Englishman Chris Anderson and local youngster Nurullah Hussein.
“If they feel better tomorrow I’ll definitely consider playing them, as they are important for us,” declared the Bulls coach.
“We’ve only won the League Cup once, back in 2008, and nothing else really, so we do want to take the bronze if we can,” added Yap.
Balagumaran had the last word as he echoed his chairman’s thoughts.
“The team’s done well, but they have nothing to show for it in the league, and a medal here would make up for that,” he observed.
“I’m sure we’ll give our opponents a good game.”