Asian Football

A Mainstay In The Years To Come: Why Albirex Niigata (S) has Carved a Permanent Space in the Singapore Football Landscape

A few weeks ago, we published an article by the Swan Army. The Albirex Niigata (S) fan group submitted an article discussing that their beloved club is not like any other foreign team featured in the S.League or Singapore Premier League. Instead, they argue that Albirex Niigata (S) has become a localized club. Many other fans and netizens have voiced their responses to the article and the term “localized club.” Naturally, critics shared how they disagreed with the term “localized club” and that Albirex would always be known as a foreign team because they primarily recruit and field Japanese players for their first team. After spending the last few weeks collating my thoughts, I felt it was finally time to voice my own. 

I guess there are two main aspects I think are indeed worth tackling—the term “localized club” and whether Albirex is truly a localized entity. 

What is A Localized Club?

What is localization? It’s a term that doesn’t get whipped around too much. If you were to take the Cambridge dictionary definition, it would be:

the process of organizing a business or industry so that its main activities happen in local areas rather than nationally or internationally

So, according to the dictionary definition, a localized club essentially restricts its activities to a particular area, assigned to a specific place

But, I’m not one to use dictionary definitions, and I don’t believe the definitions perfectly capture what the Swan Army try to get at. The Swan Army is talking about a foreign team that has successfully integrated itself with local society. 

And in that sense, Albirex Niigata (S) is indeed not only a “localized club” but a truly unique foreign team in the larger Southeast Asian context.

Albirex Niigata (S) was founded in 2004 and, for the past 17 years, has remained a permanent fixture in the Singaporean professional football landscape. Prevailing for 17 consecutive years is no easy feat. Just take a look of the host of clubs, both local and foreign ones, that are no longer in the domestic professional league. Many of these teams have failed to remain in the competition for as long. Albirex Niigata (S) doesn’t simply make up numbers in a league where clubs have struggled to stay afloat financially. Winning titles has also helped the club establish itself as a real force to be reckoned with in Singapore. 

Of course, participating in the S.League/SPL for more than a decade is not a convincing claim for a “localized entity.” Take, for instance, Brunei DPMM. The Bruneian outfit that competed in Singapore between 2009 and 2020. However, one would be hard-pressed to call DPMM a localized outfit. DPMM’s home games are based in Brunei and they do not sign any Singaporean players. 

So, what makes the White Swans different? And why have they carved a unique but permanent space in Singapore football?

I can think of many reasons, but I’ll name three broad ones that encompass the various points.

A Source for Quality Japanese Players for local Clubs & The National Team?

I find it amazing that Albirex can maintain their title-contender status despite regularly overhauling their squad every season. I find it even more interesting (and an often-overlooked point) that Albirex provides a platform for local clubs to fill their Asian Foreign Player quota slot. 

After two years with the White Swans, Yuki Ichikawa spent eight long years with Geylang International before leaving the Eagles after the conclusion of the 2021 campaign. 

Currently, Kaishu Yamazaki, Reo Nishiguchi, Shuhei Hoshino, Ryoya Taniguchi, and Takahiro Tezuka are just some players who remain in Singapore with different SPL teams. Should they stay for five years like Yuki, they would fulfil the five-year residency rule outlined by FIFA to be eligible to represent another national team.  

Come the 2022 season, Kaishu Yamazaki and Kyoga Nakamura, if he remains at Tampines Rovers, would be playing their fifth and fourth seasons in Singapore, respectively. Furthermore, with Song Ui-yong recently acquiring Singapore citizenship, both players probably would gain naturalization in the coming years, adding much-needed depth and quality to our currently limited national pool.

But, simply being a source for potential players for local clubs and a platform to unearth probable naturalization candidates does not make Albirex a localized entity.

Incorporating local Players & Building For The Future

As the Swan Army have rightfully pointed out, the club has been signing local players since 2018. While Albirex could have protested the age restrictions and rules to sign local players in 2018 like Brunei DPMM, they accepted the decision from the FAS. One would think that the team was considerably weakened by the limitations imposed on them, but the Japanese satellite team would finish the season unbeaten. (Yes, the U-23 rule was in place and seriously weakened the rest of the pack but, truthfully, weakened Albirex even more).

Albirex Niigata has since expanded the number of Singaporean players under their payroll, and the club has a proven track record of boosting the calibre of promising young Singaporean players. Daniel Goh, Gareth Low, Zamani Zamri, Daniel Martens, Iman Hakim, Ong Yu En, and Nicky Melvin Singh are just some hot prospects that have benefitted from playing with the White Swans.

Crucially, Albirex has also established a structured pathway for budding Singaporean youth players to become elite professionals. Back in August, I wrote an article on Habil Hakim’s appointment as the Albirex Singapore Football Academy Director and he mentioned how one thing he is in charge of is

“…a challenging programme where players refine their skills and raise their game to the next level to earn a professional contract with the club.”

Habil Hakim’s appointment also demonstrates that Albirex is interested in incorporating local coaches into their team. This season they had former S.League veteran Fadhil Salim as a Goalkeeper coach with the first team. Increasing the number of local players and coaches clearly increases the local flavour of the Japanese outfit.

Although, it is the next point that truly cements the localized nature of Albirex Niigata (S).

Community Engagement

Engaging the community is essential for any football club because football is very clearly a community-based sport. Albirex has done well to not just pander to the Japanese community in Singapore. Since the club is based in Jurong East Stadium, it makes perfect sense for the club to involve itself with the Yuhua community. 

Community engagement isn’t simply participating in one-off Community Involvement Programmes. Heartfelt and regular interaction is key.

Interacting with members of the Yuhua community during community initiatives helps create connections with players and heartlanders. Furthermore, sustained engagement is also important. Since 2012, Albirex Niigata (S) has been signing consecutive Memorandum of Understandings (MOU) with the Yuhua Community Sports Club (CSC). The MOU was designed to confirm that the White Swans would donate a dollar to Yuhua CSC for every spectator that attended their home games.

Until 2019, the club had donated a total of $132,183. This may appear to be a trivial point but how many professional clubs (both foreign and local of past and present) engage with members of their respective communities to the extent that Albirex do?

To conclude, the Swan Army are right in that Albirex are a localized club but I would take a step further and say their actions both on and off the pitch have demonstrated that they have a place in the Singapore Premier League for years to come. Naturally, many local fans would be unhappy should the White Swans remain either because Albirex’s inclusion robs a place meant for a local team or that it affects SPL’s AFC ranking. Yet, for the past 17 years, the club has truly evolved from a mere satellite team to an organization that is interested in rooting itself in its local community and helping Singapore football expand.

All Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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