Asian Football

A High Stakes Encounter : The 2022 AIA Community Shield

In a few hours, Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S) will draw swords and battle for the 2022 AIA Community Shield. Many label Community (or Charity) Shield fixtures as over-glorified friendlies, with teams often fielding fringe players in their lineup. The traditional curtain-raiser for the season may not be taken seriously in many parts of the world. Yet, make no mistake. This particular fixture between the Sailors and the White Swans is anything but an exhibition match. If anything, the stakes are considerably high for this encounter and for multiple reasons as well.

Setting The Tone For The Title Race

Albirex Niigata (S) and Lion City Sailors were arguably the Singapore Premier League’s best teams last campaign. After all, both teams fought tooth and nail until the last day of the season, where the Sailors took on Balestier Khalsa while Albirex faced Tanjong Pagar United. Kim Do Hoon’s men were propped only above the White Swans by goal difference and both clubs knew that they needed to claim three points in emphatic fashion to stand any chance of winning the title. By the end of the night, Lion City Sailors came out on top, becoming the first local side to clinch the title in 7 years after a 4-1 victory over the Tigers. On the other hand, Tanjong Pagar denied Albirex three points and held the White Swans to a 4-4 draw. After a lengthy goal drought, Kiyoshiro Tsuboi scored four goals in that fixture but it wasn’t enough to overcome the resolute Jaguars.

The events that transpired on the last day of the 2021 campaign certainly influenced both teams this year. Lion City Sailors would have qualified for the AFC Champions League if they finished second that night after establishing a comfortable gap from the rest of the pack. Yet, the victory marked Kim Do Hoon’s first domestic league title. While he may have won the 2020 AFC Champions League, the K League title has always eluded him during his managerial tenure with Ulsan Hyundai. After tasting his first major success in Singapore, Kim is certainly looking to add to his trophy cabinet.

The Sailors’ business in the transfer market suggests that Kim is essentially gunning for every domestic title possible and looking to stay competitive in the AFC Champions League. The Sailors have brought in towering South Korean international forward Kim Shinwook, Primeira Liga veteran central defender Pedro Henrique, and Standard Liège winger Maxime Lestienne. Besides adding some serious muscle to their foreign player spots, the Sailors have also acquired Izwan Mahbud and M. Anumanthan to bolster their ranks. With a packed Sailors squad, Kim Do Hoon will not have issues with depth.

Albirex on the other hand has certainly been jolted by the trauma experienced on the final day of the season. After multiple slip-ups last season, the Albirex board knew they needed an overhaul to refresh the squad. Barring a few names, most players who stayed for the 2020 and 2021 campaigns have departed the club and a host of fresh faces have been brought in.

Two names have certainly stood out – Kazuaki Yoshinaga and Tadanari Lee.

The decision to reappoint Yoshinaga as head coach certainly rocked the local football fraternity. He may have not won the AFC Champions League like Kim Do Hoon, but he is a revered coach in Japan that has accomplished a lot in the SPL. When he first arrived in 2017, Yoshinaga clinched the SPL title but it was his 2018 season that catapulted him to his iconic status. Under his charge, Albirex managed to clinch every domestic silverware possible – the SPL title, the Singapore Cup, and the Community Shield – and remained unbeaten that year. Of course, this was was three years ago and a lot has transpired since then but Yoshinaga is known for getting the best out of his players and we will see how he sets his team up later this evening – a foreshadowing of the season to come.

I certainly believe that signing a marquee player like Tadanari Lee became imperative for Albirex because they wanted to make a statement to the rest of the pack. Albirex Niigata (S) has mainly been as a satellite club for the J League side or a launchpad for Japanese university footballers who could not get a club in Japan. Tadanari Lee’s acquisition to some extent breaks this norm. While he turns 37 this year, the former Southampton player brings a ton of experience to his name and looks to have plenty in his tank. It will be interesting to see how he fares against the Sailors defence.

The community shield allows us to witness an exciting clash of styles but also, the effects of the changes made over the pre-season and sets the tone for the title race to come.

Although, that’s not the only reason why this fixture is important.

Leading The Way In Sustaining Interest In Local Football

Interest in local football spiked following the national team’s exploits during the 2022 AFF Suzuki Cup. Some of that interest may have petered out. However, the fact that today’s AIA Community Shield fixture was sold out pretty quickly does suggest there is increased interest in the league.

However, the responsibility to sustain this interest falls on every stakeholder in Singapore football and putting on a high-quality fixture today would certainly change long-standing perspectives of the local game. The Sailors and Albirex fixture is certainly a high profile match, given the quality that both teams have. Many new spectators may tune in from home to catch the match. It really is up to the players on the field tonight to ensure they give their best, not just for their respective clubs but for the future of Singapore football.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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