Way back for Shahril?

Posted on July 8, 2011


Nine years after conceding four against Malaysia at the National Stadium, might Shahril Jantan now have the chance to ease the memory of that yellow-and-black tinged nightmare?

He’s not currently in the Singapore squad which faces Malaysia over two legs of World Cup qualifiers on July 23 and July 28. But Hassan Sunny is out with a cruciate ligament tear and Lionel Lewis is “50-50” for the first leg after a groin injury. Shahril might just have been dealt a wild card into his personal last-chance saloon.

Shahril Jantan and Lionel Lewis on national team duty in 2003

Shahril Jantan and Lionel Lewis on national team duty in 2003

Next to Ahmad Latiff, Shahril’s is the name most often bandied about by fans when it comes to debating national team callups.

The SAFFC keeper’s claims for a spot in the Singapore squad have often been advanced by supporters and members of the football community, especially when he was collecting S.League title after S.League title with the Warriors. Match-saving displays in the Asian Champions League in 2009 and 2010 further fuelled those calls.

Shahril has been largely ignored by national coach Radojko Avramovic over these last five years though, barring a callup or two for friendlies and training tours.

You can understand the Serbian’s thinking. With Lionel and Hassan ensconced in a personal duel for the number one spot, both equipped with talent and international experience, it was hard to argue Shahril’s case to replace either of them. And there was really no point bringing him into the squad as third-choice; it might have left Shahril disgruntled and would have denied a young keeper a chance to gain experience training and travelling with the squad.

Shahril’s international career had only just started when it was dealt a near fatal blow by that Tiger Cup match against Malaysia on 19 December 2002. Then a rising star, he had just dislodged Rezal Hassan from first the SAFFC starting lineup, and then from the national team’s number one spot. By the end of 2002, Shahril had made the place his, just in time for the Tiger Cup. Then came that traumatic hammering, the derision of 40,000 red-clad fans and the ‘Shame, shame, shame, sham’ headlines.

The blame was not affixed squarely on the-then 22-year-old keeper’s shoulders; indeed, veterans Nazri Nasir, Rafi Ali, Zulkarnaen Zainal and Rudy Khairon took a bigger hit for their pedestrian play. And Shahril did stay in the national team, although he was pushed behind in the pecking order by first Lionel and then Hassan. Dropped from the Lions squad in late 2005, Shahril only made his way back briefly for a Singapore Selection friendly against Burnley and for a training tour in Serbia in the middle of 2010.

While the nightmare induced by Akmal Rizal, Indra Putra Mahayuddin and K Nanthakumar did not immediately kill Shahril’s Lions career, it provided a most unwelcome defining point. It stopped his progress and stalled his development for a couple of years. It’s something he needs to deliver payback for. Shahril said in 2010: “Up till today, people still remember me for that game. What’s even sadder is that I never had the chance to redeem myself, or prove that I am worthy of a place in the national team.”

And yet, if Shahril is to have a shot at Malaysia at the end of July, some serious diplomacy needs to be done. After the 2002 Tiger Cup, Shahril’s frustration at a lack of opportunities showed. The story goes that he declined to get off the bench when asked to warm up for the final minutes of a friendly match in 2004, leaving the management less than impressed with his attitude. He was dropped the following year, replaced by the teenager Jasper Chan.

After half a decade’s exile, last year Shahril looked to be back in the picture when Avramovic said he was “seriously considering” him for the AFF Suzuki Cup. But the coach cooled on that idea after the infamous tour of Serbia, after an unnamed national team player wrote a poison pen letter to FAS president Zainudin Nordin complaining about the tour. At the time, Shahril told the newspapers that the writer of the letter was “unprofessional and a coward”. Recently though, he admitted that some “frank feedback” after the tour had left him on the out with the management again.

Now the opportunity to redefine the major low-light in his career might just have arrived, courtesy of Hassan’s torn ligament and Lionel’s torn adductor muscle. With so much at stake, with both national and personal honour involved, Shahril could do worse than to make his stance known to the national team’s management. Reaffirm his commitment to representing his country if called upon. Make it clear that a line has been drawn and old bones laid to rest. Show that he craves the shot at redemption.

In the way is the national team management’s lack of faith in Shahril’s commitment to the cause and mental fortitude. Another barrier is the Young Lions keeper Izwan Mahbud, who has grown quickly into a solid, reliable shotstopper and has valuable international tournament experience after playing at last year’s Asian Games. The Izwan barrier could be Shahril’s second battle. But only if he resolves the management’s distrust first.

It could be the classic uplifting end to a scarred career, the movie-perfect coda to a sporting tragedy. But if Avramovic feels that he can not place his trust in the SAFFC keeper’s desire, then Shahril Jantan will know that his national team career is over, book-ended at the start and finish by Malaysia.