Singapore book dream ties with Son Heung-min's South Korea in World Cup qualifiers

With Shawal Anuar's 81st-minute strike, Singapore beat Guam 1-0 on Tuesday to complete a 3-1 aggregate triumph and advance to the second round of joint-qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup. Football Association of Singapore

It may have been only the opening round of the joint-qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and 2027 AFC Asian Cup.

For Singapore, however, it was almost win or bust against Guam.

With ever-growing pressure on Lions coach Takayuki Nishigaya, elimination from the World Cup qualifying process at the very first hurdle would have been a nightmare.

It might even have spelt the end of Nishigaya's reign, with the Japanese -- prior to the double header against Guam -- boasting an record of just six wins from 17 games since taking over in the middle of last year.

On the other hand, successfully negotiating their way past the Guamanians and the Singaporean football fraternity would at least have something to look forward to over the next eight months.

In the end, the Lions just about got the job done.

Last Friday's first leg should have been a far-more convincing win yet Singapore only had a 2-1 victory to show for their efforts.

It meant that Tuesday's return encounter was always going to be a nervy affair for Nishigaya's charges -- under the midday sun that came with a 2:45 p.m. kickoff which they are hardly accustomed to -- even if the opposition they were up against are currently the second lowest-ranked nation in the Asian Football Confederation at 201st in the world.

Ultimately, via Shawal Anuar's 81st-minute strike, Singapore were able to claim a 1-0 win and complete a 3-1 aggregate triumph to advance.

Lest the Lions faithful start getting excited, it has to be recognised that qualification for the World Cup remains a distant dream.

Even reaching the Asian Cup will be a tall order albeit one that seems more achievable given neighbouring teams like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam all achieved the feat for the upcoming edition at the start of next year.

Instead, the immediate reward to getting past the first stage of the joint-qualifiers -- courtesy of the luck of the draw that had already drawn the winner of the Singapore-Guam tie in Group C -- will be some mouthwatering ties to look forward to in the second round, where the Lions will at least get the chance to test themselves against some of the continent's best.

There will be familiar foes Thailand, who have long set the standard in Southeast Asia and will once again be the litmus test for how the Singaporeans are faring compared to their closest counterparts.

There is plenty of history and rivalry between the two nations that will guarantee a couple of spicy encounters, given Thailand and Singapore are the two most-successful teams in AFF Championship with seven and four titles respectively -- and having contested the final against one another on two separate occasions.

Then, there is China -- no longer one of the continent's powerhouses but still among its leading lights, having been one of 12 teams to reach the final stage of World Cup qualifying last time out.

The Chinese should prove an even tougher test than the Thais, especially given the recent influx of naturalised talent within their ranks.

Then, there can be no denying the biggest draw in Group C: a certain Son Heung-min and his South Korea team.

The Lions will not have to wait long to lock horns with one of world football's biggest stars and one of the Asian football heavyweights, with their second-round opener a trip to South Korea on Nov. 16.

Still, it is perhaps the return encounter next June that will have Singaporean football fans licking their lips in anticipation.

Earlier this year, when Tottenham took on Singapore Premier League outfit Lion City Sailors, there was no mistaking who the star attraction was -- and this was even when Spurs still had Harry Kane leading the line before his move to Bayern Munich.

The majority of the 25,095 that turned up for that exhibition match at Singapore's National Stadium roared each time Son touched the ball.

When he was on the receiving end of a heavy challenge from one the Sailors, they were even jeered even though they were technically the home team.

For the Singaporean football fraternity, who still dream of one day gracing the World Cup but can acknowledge that it remains some distance away, getting up close and personal with some of the best players on the planet is the next best thing for now.

Both for the fans, as well as the players and coaches -- who can only gain from exposure to a higher level of football.

Even then, that is usually at the mercy of where Europe's biggest clubs decide to take their money-spinning tours on each summer.

There is no guarantee.

But thanks to the Lions' own efforts, that is exactly Singapore can look forward to in the months to come.