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[AFC Cup] - A Journey of Triumphs and Challenges for Singaporean Clubs

Without much fanfare, at least in Singapore, Central Coast Mariners became the first Australian club to win the AFC Cup after defeating Al-Ahed of Lebanon.

The crowning of the Gosford-based A-League side as the winners of the continent's second-tier club competition marked the end of the tournament since its inception twenty years ago in 2004.

As far as the Lion City is concerned, this competition enabled teams from the island republic to compete against teams from the region.

It was quite common during the tournament to see teams like SAFFC, Home United, Tampines Rovers, etc., traveling to places like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, Hong Kong, Indonesia, etc., to face their regional opponents.

Aleksandar Duric (left) gesturing with a Kitchee player in 2014
Duric (left) has seen the highs and lows of Singapore's AFC Cup journey

Unfortunately, many, in my humble opinion, seem to fail to appreciate what the AFC Cup has done for local clubs given the lack of fan interest and the scant coverage from the local media.

Besides gaining much-needed exposure and opportunities to play at a higher level, local players also traveled around the region to experience life as a professional footballer.

Another unfortunate development was the revamp of the tournament into the zonal format in 2017, which only saw our clubs facing opponents within the ASEAN region and missing the opportunity to compete against teams from South Asia and Hong Kong.

WITNESSED THE TRANSFORMATION

This tournament also allowed me to see one of the biggest transformations from a minnow to a powerhouse in the form of Hong Kong's Kitchee SC in a space of just 6 years with Aleksandar Duric probably being one of those witnessing the change (bedsides yours truly).

However, the BlueWaves found themselves involved in one of the biggest upsets in the recent history of the tournament when they were defeated by Balestier Khalsa in March 2016 at the Jalan Besar Stadium (JBS).

match ticker of AFC Cup match between Warriors and Maziya in 2015
Enough said after Warriors' lost to Maziya in 2015

As the main venue for AFC Cup games in Singapore, JBS also witnessed a match that arguably marked the decline of Singaporean clubs in the tournament. Warriors FC (formerly known as SAFFC) suffered a 2-0 defeat to Maldivian side Maziya S&RC (ticket above), finishing at the bottom of Group E after losing all six matches, conceding 15 goals, and scoring only once during the 2015 campaign (hard to image barely 5 years earlier this most decorated side of local football were playing the group stages of elite AFC Champions League).

THE HIGHS OF 2004

Amidst the struggles in recent years, the tournament's early days saw some memorable moments for the Singaporean clubs, thanks to the exploits of Home United and Geylang United (now known as Geylang International) in 2004.

Led by Englishman Steve Darby and featuring a stellar cast including Thai stalwarts Sutee Suksomkit and Surachai Jaturapattarapong, along with players like Peres De Oliveira, Indra Sahdan Daud, and Singapore skipper Aide Iskandar, the Protectors were one of the semi-finalists in the inaugural edition.

Geylang, on the other hand, emerged from Group E as runners-up to qualify for the knockout stages but saw their journey end at the hands of the Syrian club Al-Wahda in the final four stage.

Aidil Sharin guided Home United to the AFC Asean zonal title win in 2018
Aidil Sharin guided Home United to the AFC Asean zonal title win in 2018

With their crowning as the Asean zonal champions under the new tournament format in 2018 on the eve of the national day, that moment of glory for Home United shall be considered the republic's last high point in the competition.

Following their 3-2 defeat to Phnom Penh Crown of Cambodia in the Asean zonal qualifying play-offs back in August 2023, in front of 763 spectators at JBS, Tampines Rovers failed to secure a spot in the group stages, possibly for the first time since their participation in the competition began.

The AFC Cup was discontinued at the end of the 2023–24 season with the introduction of the AFC Champions League 2 and AFC Challenge League as Asia's new second and third-tier competitions, respectively.

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