By Sherlyn Seah
Over the past decade, Inter-Hall Games spectators have gotten used to seeing the same two Halls of Residence duke it out in the soccer finals.
Not this year.
Different coloured jerseys were donned and a new flag was raised, as Hall 6 edged out Hall 9 1-0 in the IHG soccer finals to lift the trophy for the first time since 2009. Hall 9’s second-place finish on 22 Feb is the best in their history.
Halls 3 and 16, who have shared the cup for the past decade, did not advance past the semi-finals.
In the semi-finals, defending champions Hall 16 took on Hall 6 and faltered in a thrilling penalty shoot-out 4-3 after a draw at the end of 90 minutes. Hall 3 performed disappointingly too, with a 3-2 loss to Hall 9.
A dry spell ends
The Sixers have established a reputation as a dominant sports hall, but a gold medal in soccer has always proven elusive.
Although they were considered a top-tier soccer team, they never tasted gold — at least not in the past nine years.
This year, the soccer players finally made their contribution to the hall’s medal haul, alongside victories in track and field, basketball, road relay, softball and water polo.
Captain G Irufan said this was a result of hard work and dedication.
“Initially, many didn’t even know the basics and couldn’t kick a ball properly. But they trained hard and learned to love the game — now we are champions,” said the second-year School of Humanities student.
Of the 23 players in the squad, only seven had prior experience in competitive soccer.
During the summer break, the team would play friendlies. And when the school term begins, they would train twice a week.
The semi-final against defending champions Hall 16 was their toughest match, said Irufan.
He added that it was difficult to come up with a strategy for the final game against their opponents, Hall 9.
“Hall 9 were the underdogs, like us, so we couldn’t predict their game plan. It was hard to cope with their fast players. But we managed to score a goal and defended till the end,” he said.
Tale of the underdogs
While Hall 9 fell short of the title, their second-place finish was a major breakthrough for the team.
Captain Ahmad Afiq, 22, said: “Just reaching the semi-finals was creating history for us. It has never been done before, at least in the past decade.”
In the semi-final game, Hall 3 took an initial 1-0 lead, forcing the Niners to change their tactics and tighten their defence after half-time.
They countered with a brilliant display of football and bagged two goals with precise and decisive attacks.
With Hall 3 striking back and pushing numbers forward, the Niners soaked in the pressure with a memorable rearguard display before delivering the final blow in Mourinho-esque fashion.
Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho is well-known for building up his team’s defence against prominent teams, then quickly countering.
“We were mostly absorbing attacks, and took the opportunity to hit them on the counter when we regained possession,” said Afiq.
Their strategy paid off handsomely. Midfielder Muhammad Haziq bin Mahmud first provided a defence-splitting pass to playmaker Kenneth Yeo. Striker Julian Tanega, an exchange student from the United Kingdom, then had the opportunity to pull one back.
The Niners later took advantage of Hall 3’s high defensive line, scoring a second goal with a lob over the opposing keeper, and a third from a speedy counter-attack.
Afiq attributed their victory to their hunger for it.
“Even before the season, we aimed to win friendlies. This winning mentality was built beforehand, and during IHG we saw losses as unacceptable,” said the second-year School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering student.
Belittle, too late
Complacency was Hall 16’s downfall, said team captain Derrick Lim.
“We felt that with strong players this season, we didn’t have to do much. We thought we could win based on pure talent, and we thought that was enough. But hard work trumps talent, and Hall 6 had that,” said the 23-year-old.
In the first half of the semi-finals, the Knights had the lead, after striker Pradeep Ravi’s shot from the right wing found the top corner of the net.
But Hall 6’s counter-attack in the second half led to a foul by the opponent just outside the box and the eventual free kick that equalised the score.
“Whenever they lost the ball, they’d rush back to form the same defensive shape. That was their tactic and it worked,” said Lim.
Hall 3, like the Knights, had also underestimated their opponent.
“They prepared for us more than we prepared for them,” said captain Ryan Nair, 23.
With their long-time rivals firmly in their crosshairs, Hall 3 had not expected to play Hall 9, and had instead focused their preparations on countering Hall 16.
Nair explained: “We only analysed Hall 16’s tactics, to be honest. We could have watched the Niners many times, but we focused on Hall 16’s way of playing and how to counter that.
“But we will learn from our mistakes. We’ll come back stronger next year.”