His start in the Lion City Sailors’ 2-0 defeat to Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC was his 18th in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), a record for the highest number of appearances by a Singaporean player in Asia’s flagship club competition – surpassing Daniel Bennett (17) in the process.
And throughout the 2023/24 ACL campaign, he has been one of the Sailors’ best performers, rolling back the years with a number of dominant displays in the middle of the park.
However, in typical unassuming Hariss Harun fashion, the Sailors skipper downplayed his feats.
“I never thought too much about this to be honest, but it’s definitely a proud moment for me. Since I was young, it has always been an ambition of mine to play at the highest levels for club and national team,” said the 33-year-old, who played all six group-stage matches for Malaysia powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in 2019.
“I’m grateful for these opportunities to pit myself against some top players in this region for a few years now and I’m just happy to contribute to my team. As captain, I try to rally the team and set a good example to the boys.”
Also the Singaporean with the most ACL wins to his name with five – one more than teammate Adam Swandi, Hariss has featured in some memorable upsets over the years.
In May 2019, he led JDT to a 1-0 win over then-defending champions Kashima Antlers. Last year, he led the Sailors to a 3-0 victory over K League 1 side Daegu FC. In 2023, he did it again with the Sailors in a stunning 2-0 triumph over two-time ACL champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
Naming that Jeonbuk victory as the standout game of this year’s campaign, Hariss lauded the team’s fighting spirit that helped them overcome the odds.
“Two weeks before, we lost to them in a really tough match in their stadium. But the boys were mentally strong in the week leading up to the rematch – we were all so focused and giving our 100 percent in training to carry out our game plan, and we executed that perfectly. Everyone played their hearts out that night,” he said.
“It’s always special when we beat teams supposedly stronger than us or have a storied history in this competition – Jeonbuk is one of the strongest teams in South Korea. We put in so much effort in preparation for this game, and that win gave us the belief and confidence that we could possibly get out of the group.”
Coupled with an impressive 2-1 away win in Hong Kong against Kitchee earlier in the campaign, the Sailors represented Singapore football well in their second ACL voyage, albeit ultimately unable to better last year’s record points tally of seven.
Nonetheless, Hariss is adamant that there are many lessons and experiences gleaned in a year that, all said and done, is an equally good campaign as the Sailors’ last one.
“It’s generally still a positive campaign for us. A lot of the boys who haven’t played at this level previously came away with valuable lessons and learnt a lot from the games. The training sessions were tough because we knew we had to up our game against opponents from this region, but no one complained; everyone was willing to give their best and put themselves forward for the team,” he said.
“What’s special about the ACL is the travels. When you go out away as a team and that feeling you get when you’re going out to battle together is something you can’t get here (in the Singapore Premier League). The boys really enjoyed this aspect and we’re looking forward to these in the future.”
The Sailors Academy has been a beacon of pride, with a few players making the breakthrough to the first team this season – most notably 15-year-old Nathan Mao, a youngster Hariss has taken under his wing.
“Given his age, he’s naturally very raw so of course the boys give him a bit of stick for that,” said Hariss, who made his Singapore national team debut at the age of 16 years and 217 days in 2007.
“Being around him does make me recall the times when I was a young boy in the national team. That’s part and parcel of football, but the great thing is he takes everything in his stride.
“He’s a boy who has a good head on his shoulders and a good temperature; he’s always eager to learn and that’s a good quality to have for the road ahead of him. He has many years of professional football ahead of him, so I’m excited to see him and the other boys in the Academy come through to be stalwarts of the club and the Singapore national team in the future.”
The fans’ support was another source of pride and energy for the team, with the Crew turning up in numbers even for the away matches in Hong Kong, Korea and Bangkok.
“It’s really heartwarming to see the fans coming out to support us home and away, it’s something which we didn’t really expect. I know people are usually busy on weekdays, but they still made the trip down to support us and give us that boost.
“That’s something which we sometimes don’t appreciate enough so we would just like to give our heartfelt gratitude to our fans.”
Hariss is acutely aware that at this level the devil is in the details as he recounted the two narrow losses to Thailand’s Bangkok United – 2-1 at home and 1-0 away – that ultimately killed the Sailors’ hopes of qualifying.
“The lapses of concentration that cost us showed that you need to be on top of your game for every minute at this level. It’s a lesson to take away, in each campaign we play there’s always something to learn,” he said.
“Now it’s on us to strive to better ourselves the next time we play in this competition.”
Comparisons with neighbours JDT who qualified for the Round of 16 for the first time in 2022 will always be there, but Hariss insisted the Sailors focus on their own path and remain playing amongst Asia’s elite every season.
“To close the gap, we have to be consistent; we need to have a lot of belief and remember all the lessons that we learnt. We’ve shown in our last two ACL campaigns that we can mix it up with the big boys so I firmly believe we’re good enough to go further in the ACL,” he stressed.
“Each and every one of us knows that we have to be on our toes and we know what’s the level we need to be at to compete at this level. So we’re definitely working towards something better in the future.
“Be it ACL1 or 2, playing in this competition is the minimum for the club. To get there, we have to be the best team in the league every season so that we can keep coming back to this level to show our quality and create further history for the club and Singapore football.”