Asian Football

A New Era: The Danger Of Lion City Sailors’ Long Term Dominance

After seven long years, we finally have a Singaporean club lifting the Singapore Premier League.

Seven long years of sheer frustration watching foreign sides lifting the league title, of withstanding ridicule from our Southeast Asian neighbours, of bitter disappointment with our domestic football predicament.  

Lion City Sailors have emerged as champions. If the lead up to the end of the season is anything to go by, their victory has undoubtedly raised the local interest in Singaporean football.

Critics may argue that it took millions of dollars of investment, literally since Diego Lopes’s transfer fee cost USD 3 million, from the Sailors to claim this title – where the prize money is a fraction of the transfer fee paid to Rio Ave for Diego. Additionally, people may suggest that without Forrest Li’s financial backing, Lion City Sailors would have struggled like any other SPL team because they would not attract the best.

These are definitely valid points but are unnecessary hypotheticals that detract from a very serious reality that the Singapore football fraternity might be very well facing in the years to come – the prospect of a one-team league. One-club dominance over a league is not a new phenomenon. In Malaysia, JDT dominated the Malaysian Super League and won their 7th straight MSL title. Bayern Munich has successively won the Bundesliga since the 2012/13 season. Similarly, Juventus clinched the Serie A title 9 times in a row between 2011/12 and 2019/2020.

Sailors exhibit many characteristics that these teams possess, and evaluating their actions in the past provide a glimpse of a future where Lion City Sailors may reign supreme.

Winning the 2021 SPL title and becoming the first Singaporean side to so since 2014 must feel nice, but it marks just the beginning. Regional dominance and remaining competitive at the continental level are immediate natural goals for a club with lofty aspirations and deep pockets to fulfill them.

Most clubs rarely utilize the loan system (aside from loaning their players to Young Lions for National Service obligations) but Sailors are not afraid to loan out their players to the rest of the division. In doing so, Sailors get the best of both worlds. For one, they loan out youth or fringe players to gain valuable experience. Players like Ho Wai Loon, Anaqi Ismit, Riki Kimura, Iqram Rifqi, and Faizal Roslan have all gone to other SPL teams not named Young Lions. These players have played key roles in varying capacities but have proven to be valuable members of the respective teams they were loaned out to.

More crucially, these players cannot play against Lion City Sailors and thus, other teams that have Sailors loanees are prohibited from fielding them against their parent club. Weakening the other clubs is a strategy that every major club in one-team leagues pulls. For example, Bayern Munich regularly raids the rest of the Bundesliga and poaches the best from other clubs in a bid to weaken them. Who can forget Lukas Podolski in 2006, Lewandowski in 2014, and Leon Goretzka in 2018? Loaning out players to domestic rivals has a similar effect.

A world-class team can only go so far without a world-class manager, and whilst Sailors have some of the best players on paper, they fell short in the title race last season. This season, they managed to see off the job. What changed? Well, besides new foreign signings and Singaporean football icons signing for the club, most crucially, they got a head coach who is a proven winner. In 2020, Kim Do Hoon won the AFC Champions League, which effectively made him the most relevant manager on the market following the end of his Ulsan Hyundai tenure. In many ways, Kim was the missing piece in the Lion City Sailors puzzle. He came in and made radical changes. Dropping Diego to the bench and using him as an impact sub worked. Fielding players who previously saw limited playing time, like Tajeli Salamat, Adam Swandi, Aqhari Abdullah, Hafiz Nor, and Song Ui-yong, and rotating the squad helped keep players fresh for the congested fixture list towards the end of the season. 

Moreover, he has clearly raised the bar by imparting his words of wisdom to the Sailors locker room. With his words ringing in their head, these players stepped out onto the field knowing that they had to get the job done and managed to pull through despite the injury setbacks experienced early on. Should Sailors tie Kim down to a long-term deal, they would be equipping the Korean icon with the most important resource for any coach to create a long-lasting legacy: time.

It would be interesting to see what Sailors will do in the transfer market. There have been rumblings about the Asian Foreign player quota spot, given that Song is now a naturalized Singaporean. Many names from the K-League have been linked to the position, but it will be interesting to see who ultimately ends up there. However, Sailors do need to reinforce their squad should they remain competitive in the AFC Champions League. Quality in depth is not the same as merely having a squad full of depth.

Nevertheless, the Sailors have several players who can slot in multiple positions across the pitch. These human Swiss army knives provide Sailors with an edge over the rest of the pack. Just take a look at Song Ui-Yong, and you realize he’s played as a central defensive midfielder, a central midfielder, a central attacking midfielder and a striker in this campaign. Even on the final day of the season, when Sailors were missing Amirul Adli and Jorge Fellipe was only fit enough to feature on the bench, Sailors had the versatile Tajeli Salamat slotting into the centre-back position and the dependable Aqhari Abdullah on the right. When Harris Harun had to be substituted off mid-way through the first half, Shahdan Sulaiman dropped back to fill the central defensive void as Adam Swandi was brought on to play as a defensive midfielder.

The Lion City Sailors’ $10 million training facility is expected to be completed in April 2022. Should this happen, the Sailors will truly leave the other teams behind. Providing state of the art equipment and facilities would only make their players faster, stronger, better. Their youth academy would enable them to develop from within and consequently loan these academy graduates to the rest of the league. Even should privatization occur in the near future, Lion City Sailors have a head start and are making full use of it to establish their dominance in years to come. An era has begun.

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