Cautious optimism can grow into more should Singapore deny China once more

Singapore recorded one of their best results in recent times in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup on Thursday -- coming from two goals down at halftime to draw 2-2 with traditional heavyweights China. Lim Weixiang/Getty Images

As far as beginnings of new eras go, Singapore could not have envisioned a better one than on Thursday as the reign of Tsutomu Ogura officially got underway.

Against one of the continent's historical powerhouses in China -- ranked 68 places higher in the FIFA world rankings -- Singapore initially looked on course for another deflating defeat only to come from two goals down at halftime to force a creditable 2-2 draw.

After losses to South Korea and Thailand, it was the first point the Lions picked up in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

It was a positive result and a heartening display as Singapore attempted a more progressive brand of football compared to recent times.

Yet, Singaporean football has also endured its fair share of false dawns.

That could be the reason why that, for every fan that is still dizzy from the high of getting a result against a nation that has featured in the last 13 editions of the AFC Asian Cup -- dating back to 1976, there is also one who is simply refusing to get carried away by a solitary tie.

Perhaps the most sensible approach to all of this is to be cautiously optimistic.

Take nothing away from the performance and result from Thursday.

After trailing to a Wu Lei double, which could even have been a 3-0 deficit had Hassan Sunny not denied the China star a third first-half goal from the penalty spot, the Lions showed resilience to force the draw through efforts by substitutes Faris Ramli and Jacob Mahler.

Singapore could even have pulled off an almighty upset had VAR been in use, after Safuwan Baharudin appeared to be blatantly dragged down inside the box only for the referee to wave away the hosts' appeals for a spot-kick.

Even when China were the dominant team in the opening 45, Singapore did show endeavour whenever they were in possession -- looking to push forward with intent and, at times, working the ball around neatly in a bid to find an opening -- even if the final ball was occasionally lacking.

Yet, the most telling -- and positive -- change could just be in a shift in mentality.

Speaking in the immediate aftermath of the game, Ogura opted against being satisfied by holding their more-illustrious opponents to a draw.

Almost expressing curiosity, the Japanese remarked on how he had been congratulated for the result shortly after the final whistle despite having not claimed the victory.

Coaches always have differing approaches - both in the way they approach the game, as well as in the way they manage expectations.

Some like Bernd Stange went on a charm offensive from day one but was soon viewed by the public as disingenuous.

Others like three-time AFF Championship winner Radojko Avramovic did not suffer fools gladly and was even abrasive at times, but his record ultimately spoke for itself.

Most recently, Takayuki Nishigaya -- the man who Ogura replaced after his exit in January -- almost looked a defeated man each and every time he fronted the media.

Even from his unveiling back in February, Ogura did not attempt to go over the top in a bid to get everyone on his side right away, but he certainly won some approval from his understated sincerity.

From the way he did not shy away from how big a challenge he was undertaking, to his insistence on speaking in English -- even if he is far from fluent in the language and despite the services of an interpreter being offered to him, he came across as someone simply being himself -- knowing what he has to do and how he wants to do it.

The Lions faithful saw the first glimpses of the "how" on Thursday.

The "what" is a straightforward answer but arguably a far more complicated process -- to lift Singaporean football out of the doldrums and returning to the summit of Southeast Asian football at the very least, if not beginning to gain a foothold on the continental stage.

There will be an AFF Championship at the end of the year that will be a real litmus test considering how Singapore have fallen behind the likes of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in recent times.

For now, the immediate item on the agenda remains the Asian qualifiers.

The Lions will need to pull off something special if they are to remain in the hunt to qualify for the next World Cup, yet it does not mean they cannot realistically dream of reaching the 2027 Asian Cup.

While it is advisable that Singaporean football remains cautiously optimistic for the moment, another positive result against China on Tuesday - this time on away soil - could see some real momentum gathering.