Asian Football Interviews

Feeling At Home In Singapore : A Chat with Talismanic Tadanari Lee

This article is part of a two-part series collab action between Junpiter Futbol and us. If you haven’t read the first portion where I dive into Tadanari’s incredible career before gracing the Singapore Premier League this season, do click here to access it. In this article, we look at Tadanari’s reasons for playing in the SPL and his sentiments on Singapore and its football.

When Albirex Niigata (S) announced that they had secured the services of Tadanari Lee earlier this year, it sent shockwaves through the local football fraternity. Fellow Asian heavyweight, Kim Shinwook, had signed for then-reigning Champions Lion City Sailors and Lee’s acquisition had amplified interest in local football. 

I mean, why wouldn’t it have?

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

The Japanese International scored a magical volley to help Japan clinch the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 but more importantly, plied his trade for English Premier League outfit Southampton. He may be turning 37 soon but Lee’s performances have demonstrated the high-quality player he is. It’s safe to say that he is not yet done and has plenty to offer.

But one has to wonder why he chose to play in Singapore when he could have ventured into other leagues.

“To be honest, I had various other offers from clubs in Japan, Australia and even Malaysia but it was Singapore that made the most sense” shares the veteran forward. “I think the SPL can be a top league in the coming years. I really think that I can help contribute to its evolution by offering some of my last few years in the professional game here. Furthermore, the strong economy of Singapore convinced me that it would be a great place to live in. Yes, I am a footballer but also a businessman. I have started two companies in Japan – one medical and one supplement company – and I hope to see if I can expand that here as well.”

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

What has undoubtedly helped Lee feel at home is the sense of dual identities that many Singaporeans wield – having a racial identity (whether be it Indian, Malay, or Chinese) while also having a national identity being Singaporean. Lee has Korean ancestry and while he eventually turned out for the Japanese national team, he actually trained with the Korean U-19 and U-20 teams before switching allegiances. In that sense, Lee does share a similar conviction to many Singaporeans when it comes to introducing himself as both Korean and Japanese.

“I am ethnically Korean and I was actually a Korean national but when I was 21 years old, I changed my nationality from Korean to Japanese,” reveals Lee. “I identify as both Korean and Japanese. Normally when others change their nationality to Japanese, they tend to adopt a Japanese surname but for me, I kept my surname ‘Lee’ because I wanted to retain my Korean heritage. My first name is ‘Tadanari’ which is Japanese and when you put both names together it shows both sides of me.”

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

As a player, Lee has done it all. He’s clinched both international, domestic and continental honours and has established himself as a big-game player. 

“I feel like I have a responsibility to contribute to Japan, Korea and people from other countries till the day I die because of the opportunities that I have been blessed with,” Lee explains. “Of course, you can do this in many ways but right now, I am a football player. The best way I can contribute is through good performances, goals and assists. I also try to help others in my team by building their confidence. I try to do my best.”

Lee showcased his desire to contribute when he made headlines earlier this year when he pledged to donate his goal bonus to SportsCares for the duration of the SPL season. 

With 48 teams slated to compete in the 2026 World Cup, FIFA has consequently allocated more spaces to the AFC and Lee firmly believes that Southeast Asian teams including Singapore can qualify for what is the most prestigious footballing competition in the globe. However, these states need some help to materialize this dream and Lee wants to his part in our little red dot.

One this is for certain. The talismanic forward has indeed enjoyed his time in Singapore thus far.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

On the pitch, the experienced striker has bagged 10 goals and 10 assists across 27 games this season, helping the White Swans to the SPL title in the process. Trailing behind Lion City Sailors for the bulk of the campaign, Albirex dug deep to rise to the occasion when it mattered the most. For his part, Lee scored a vital 79th-minute goal to salvage a 1-1 draw with Hougang United. That result placed the White Swans in pole position to win the title and did so in the next game, title-decider against the Sailors, in which Albirex cruised to a 4-2 victory and reclaimed their crown. The title victory means he has one more medal to add to an already-stacked trophy cabinet and has won many hearts of the Albirex fanbase, the Swan Army.

“As a legend of Japanese football, Tadanari has given us a lot of experience and character that recent Albirex squads lacked,” shares Swan Army President Amir Hamizan. “Even though he is someone who has done it all, he interacts a lot with us fans when he gets the chance. After recovering from his mid-season injury (collarbone fracture), Lee came back with real hunger that really demonstrated to us that he was determined to clinch the title.”

Off the pitch, Lee loves life in Singapore.

“Singaporeans are very kind and polite and it’s a clean and green city,” states Lee. “It’s a food haven as well and I really love the food here. I usually have chicken rice and I particularly like eating Indian food too. My time in Singapore so far has been an extremely enjoyable one.”

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

It would be interesting to see where Lee’s next chapter would take him. Would he remain at Albirex? Will he embark on a new adventure?

Only time will tell but one thing is for sure, Tadanari has created a massive impact here in Singapore and people will fondly remember this season.

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