SINGAPORE: When Home United, one of Singapore’s leading football clubs, were taken over in February 2020 by local tech firm Sea and renamed Lion City Sailors (LCS), headlines such as “Sailors making waves” wrote themselves.
Almost a year later, the headlines are bigger than ever. The Singapore Premier League (SPL) club are hoping to change football in the country and become a force in Southeast Asia. All local football fans, whatever the club they support, should wish them success.
Singapore football has fallen behind regional rivals. The national team, which has been AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Champions four times in the past, has failed to get out of the group stages in the biennial tournament on the past three occasions as Thailand and Vietnam have moved forward.
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The Thai and Malaysian leagues are regarded as the best and richest in Southeast Asia.
In 2018, the struggling S-League was rebranded and the SPL was born. “We knew that a revitalisation of our domestic league was necessary for Singapore football to move forward,” said Lim Kia Tong, the president of the Football Association of Singapore.
THE LIONS ROAR
The Lion City Sailors are doing their part to revitalise the local scene for they have given Singapore its first-ever multimillion-dollar football signing.
On Jan 21, Sailors did not just break Singapore’s transfer record, but smashed it. Until last week, the most that an SPL club had paid for a player was the S$50,000 that Tampines Rovers received from Hougang United for the services of Fazrul Nawaz in 2018. Now the record is S$2.9 million.
That eye-watering amount, in local terms at least, is what Sailors paid to Portuguese club Rio Ave to bring Diego Lopes to Bishan Stadium for the 2021 season. That’s not all.
Experienced Brazilian defender Jorge Fellipe has joined the club from Saudi Arabian club Al-Tai. But it is the arrival of Lopes - the Brazilian midfielder who came up through the youth system of legendary Portuguese club Benfica - that has made the headlines.
Big pre-season transfers are exciting and generate interest. The very least that this deal has done is get fans’ juices flowing ahead of the new campaign which is expected to kick-off in February.
There should, however, be bigger and more meaningful consequences than that as Lopes, a talented playmaker who will be under the spotlight in the coming months, pointed out.
“I felt like the time was right for a new challenge in my career, and this opportunity afforded to me by the Sailors was one I could not turn down,” Lopes said.
“I look forward to being part of a team that consistently challenges for honours not only in Singapore, but also in Asian competitions. I am delighted to join the Lion City Sailors’ ambitious project to become one of the top teams in Asia.”
Lopes is correct as this deal is not just about success in Singapore. Lion City have ambitions to become a regional force in Southeast Asia and perhaps wider afield. Such ambitions cost money and that is coming from the new owners.
Sea founder and CEO Forrest Li, who is now the club’s chairman will be under no illusions as to the size of the task ahead. Fortunately, there is a perfect example for the club to follow very close to home.
Just across the Causeway, Johor is a club that, less than a decade ago, was nowhere near where it is now - the biggest in Malaysia, a leading light in Southeast Asia and an emerging continental force.
In 2012, the Johor FA finished ninth in another disappointing season in the Malaysian Super League. Then the crown prince of the state Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim took control of the club, changing its name to Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) and investing money.
First he invested in the playing side. In 2013, JDT finished third and before being crowned champions in 2014 and winning every Malaysian league title since.
To win the Singapore Premier League title is the first target for Lion City Sailors who finished third in 2020. As well as Lopes and Fellipe, coach Aurelio Vidmar, who led Adelaide United to the final of the 2008 AFC Champions League and has coached Australia’s Olympic team, has plenty of talent at his disposal.
The respective Most Valuable Player (MVP) and top scorer of the 2020 season, Gabriel Quak and Stipe Plazibat, are expected to star once again for the Sailors and there are well-known local player such as goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.
PRIVATISATION IS KEY
Yet winning the league is just one part of the journey. If Sailors are to follow JDT and become a Southeast Asian powerhouse then it will also have to invest off the field too.
That seems to be happening. Just as JDT have led the way in Malaysian football’s privatisation drive, Sailors are now the first fully privatised club in Singapore.
Clubs have traditionally been registered as societies which limit transparency, as they do not need to make accounts public, as well as an incentive to professionalise as they are reliant on public money.
Sailors, with the ultimate aim of being self-sufficient, can provide a template for others, even those with smaller pockets, to follow in terms of operations, marketing, community relations, youth development and many other fields.
Though hopefully the biggest domino effect of the privatisation of Lion City Sailors is that it will encourage more SPL clubs to become fully privatised. That will be a game-changer in raising the standards of other clubs in the league.
A cool S$1 million has been earmarked for Sailors’ youth programme. The club is the only one in the country to have a youth academy awarded a star by the Asian Football Confederation. In the future, the dream is of producing and developing young stars to go along with big money signings.
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If these moves are successful then other local businesses could also see Singapore football as a vibrant industry to invest in.
All fans would welcome that and all fans, even those who see Diego Lopes score against their team next season, should welcome the arrival of big money signings in Singapore. It has taken long enough. And now, the floodgates are open.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).