Match Of The Week

Football: In-form Albirex in demand

Midfielders Atsushi Kawata (front), 23, and Kento Nagasaki , 25, joined Albirex Niigata at the start of 2015 and 2013 respectively. Most players who come to Singapore accept that they cannot cut it in the J-League but are determined to make a living
Midfielders Atsushi Kawata (front), 23, and Kento Nagasaki , 25, joined Albirex Niigata at the start of 2015 and 2013 respectively. Most players who come to Singapore accept that they cannot cut it in the J-League but are determined to make a living in South-east Asia.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Many use S-League as stepping stone to bigger things but not all achieve dreams

S-LEAGUE

Home United v Albirex Niigata
Jalan Besar Stadium, 7.30pm

Albirex Niigata general manager Koh Mui Tee's mobile phone has been ringing more than usual lately - not that he is complaining.

With the White Swans winning the Singapore Cup and the League Cup last season, and currently third in the S-League table, local football rivals and regional clubs have been circling, contacting Koh about possible signings.

"Of course we want to be competitive, but we won't stand in a player's way if he can make a better living elsewhere. That has always been our philosophy," said Koh, who joined the club in 2010.

 

Midfielder Fumiya Kogure, the league's Player of the Year last season, joined Hougang for this campaign, while three other players from last year's squad have found new clubs in Laos and Cambodia.

For this season, the club signed 16 new players from all over Japan. Most are fresh out of university, all yearning to be professional footballers but, as they found out, making the cut in Japan is a tall order.

Naofumi Tanaka, 22, who joined the club this year, said: "In Japan there are too many quality players competing for limited spots, so it's not easy to play professionally. I tried to look for a J-League club but couldn't find a team."

In fact, since Albirex joined the S-League in 2004, only one player has been recalled to play for the parent side - Midfielder Kazuya Miyodo, who made it back to the J-League in 2010.

For the players, swopping Japan for Jurong East Stadium, where the club is based here, puts them in the shop window, giving them a second shot at their dream.

According to Koh, about 40-50 players have carved out careers with other clubs in South-east Asia. Some have even gone on to clubs in Europe and Japan.

A prime example is former striker Bruno Castanheira, who also played for Home United and Geylang here.

The Brazilian who also holds Japanese citizenship is now on the books of second-tier J-2 club Gifu. Last week, he scored his first goal for them in a 3-1 win over Tokushima Vortis.

But not all succeed. Many returning to Japan to play in the semi-professional or amateur leagues, or give up football completely.

Midfielder Kento Nagasaki, into his fourth season here, has been unable to find a new team despite being a key cog in the White Swans' attack. However the 25-year-old, whose wife and six-month-old son are in Japan, is not giving up on his professional dream.

"I want to play professionally for as long as I can. My wife is sad about the current situation but she understands this is my dream," he said.

"I will try to move them here if I can find a new team."

With Albirex looking in fine form this year, Koh expects more offers to come if things stay the same. "It's partly our business model," he said.

According to the 2015 S-League official handbook, if a player joins another S-League club, Albirex are entitled to "three-month compensation of the player's last drawn salary or a three-month compensation of the player's salary with his new club, whichever is higher".

Here, the players are housed in Parc Oasis, a condominium near Jurong East Stadium.

They take English lessons and most have no problems adapting. "Singaporeans are very kind to us," said Tanaka.

Forward Atsushi Kawata, into his second season with the club, added: "Last year was my first time living in a foreign country and it was strange. But now I've adapted. In fact I felt like a foreigner when I was in Japan."

Today, a side made up mostly of journeymen fighting for a career in foreign lands will face a team ironically called Home United.

Not that this will stir up any emotions. "No, I don't miss home at all," said a laughing Kawata.

Turning serious, he said: "But we are getting better with each game and we want to beat Home to return to the top of the table."

HOME UNITED V ALBIREX NIIGATA
StarHub Ch112/205 & 76.25MHz, 7.30pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'IN-FORM ALBIREX IN DEMAND'. Print Edition | Subscribe