Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Finals chance finally come to Isa

Singapore – If not for Khairul Amri’s dramatic intervention, Isa Halim might have got a chance to play in the 2007 Asean Football Championship final. 

The midfielder was preparing to come on as a substitute in the second leg of the final with the tie deadlocked at 2-2 when Amri strode through the Thailand midfield and unleashed a thunderbolt that flew into the top corner of the net with nine minutes left for the winner which sparked off wild celebrations on the Singapore bench.

“When Amri scored, I was actually warming up and ready to get called on as (coach) Raddy (Avramovic) had already spoken to me and said that he would sub me in,” says Isa, who was warming up in the area behind the goal at the time of Amri’s strike.

“So I was all ready to come on but when Amri scored, we were all swept up in the joy of the moment and we started to celebrate.

“I’m not quite sure what happened but I didn’t get to go on at the end. We were under tremendous pressure after that goal so maybe Raddy forgot about me!

“As a player, of course you want to be involved in every match and not sitting on the bench. But what mattered more was that the team won and I think that I played my part for the team during that tournament,” adds Isa, who had started in both legs of the semi-final against Malaysia.

Five years on from that memorable night, the 26-year-old is finally getting his chance to play in the AFF Suzuki Cup final. Having shaken off a hamstring problem, he makes his 50th international appearance for the Lions in the first leg of the final against the Thais at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday.

“It’s a great honour to have played 50 times for my country,” he says. “Every single time I have put on the national jersey, it’s always an honour for me to know that I have been chosen out of four million people to represent my country. That feeling will never change.”

Isa is especially appreciative of the opportunity to play in the final as he was by no means a regular starter at the onset of the tournament. Despite playing for Singapore in three previous editions of the AFF Suzuki Cup, he had to settle for a spot on the bench and did not get any playing time until he came on as a second-half substitute in the Lions’ third match against Laos.

But with Hariss Harun sidelined by a shin fracture and Shi Jiayi leaving the squad to deal with a family matter, he was pressed into action in the semi-finals against the Philippines and formed an effective partnership in midfield with Fahruddin Mustafic that stifled the Azkals over two legs.

“For me as a player, I had to wait for my chance but when it came, I had to prove my worth,” he says. “I think that I did well to prove myself in the last two games and now I am ready to start in the final.

“I am looking forward to it and the only thing for me to do is to keep working harder so that even if the other players come back, I hope that the coach would have taken notice of my contribution to the team.”

Fahruddin went off at half-time in the second leg against the Philippines with a groin injury but Isa soldiered on despite his hamstring problem, earning praise from Avramovic, who said that the midfielder played with “two hearts”.

“It’s great to hear that coming from him,” says Isa, smiling. “I’m not an automatic starter for the team but throughout my national career during the past nine years, Raddy has often chosen me for the squad.

“He knows what I am capable of and he believes in me. Those comments from him show that he still has faith in me and I want to do well on the pitch to repay his faith in me.”

As one of several Lions XII players in the Singapore squad, Isa feels that the opportunity to play regularly with his national teammates in the Malaysian Super League this year may have worked to their benefit of the national team in the AFF Suzuki Cup.

“I think that it has worked because of the playing time that we have had together. You can see with some of the players that their understanding is there in every match,” he says.

“Personally, I gained a lot from that experience as I felt that it helped me to mature in terms of my playing style and as a person as we had to travel a lot during the season.

“We could also see in those games the strong spirit or ‘semangat’ of our Singapore fans because we were playing week in and week out in front of a full stadium and those fans really helped to push us all the way.”

Having shut down the Filipino midfield in the last four, Isa expects an even more daunting challenge against the Thais in the final although he insists that the Lions hold no fears of the tournament’s only remaining unbeaten side.

“Thailand have always been a power in South-eat Asia but then again we are not a team from the kampong (village),” he says.

“Our strength is our teamwork but I think that some of our individual players like Shahril Ishak and Khairul Amri can change the game with a single flick of their boots.

“We know that Thailand have very good players especially Datsakorn Thonglao. We have to worry about his running off the ball and his passing strength.

“But for me, I don’t care who we are playing. I will just try to do my best and whatever happens will happen.”

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