Football: Albirex hit with age restrictions too but Koh's calm

Albirex Niigata have won the quadruple for two years in a row but the FAS changes mean they have to let go of their older players while taking in two U-23 local players.
Albirex Niigata have won the quadruple for two years in a row but the FAS changes mean they have to let go of their older players while taking in two U-23 local players.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

One of the youngest sides in the S-League is set to get even younger.

Champions Albirex Niigata have also not been spared the age restrictions imposed by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) from next year.

While the age guidelines revealed by the FAS on Tuesday mean local clubs must have six U-23 players and nine U-30 players for a squad of 19, plus two open category and two foreign players (one of whom must be U-21), the White Swans look set to have their wings clipped too.

In a 19-man squad, Albirex, whose 2017 squad averaged just 22.96 years, will have to make do with eight U-21 players, eight U-23 players and one player of any age.

However, there is a silver lining: They will be allowed to sign two Singaporean U-23 players, so these two players will have the opportunity to be assimilated into the professional culture Albirex have engineered.

The Japanese have been lauded for their professional approach to football, with their players exuding discipline and supreme fitness.

Many in the fraternity have urged local clubs to follow their example, and look forward to two locals getting the chance to gain the "Albirex experience".

After all, it is this no-nonsense set-up - which sees them train twice a day unlike most local clubs - that has fuelled the club's charge to the quadruple of S-League, Singapore Cup, League Cup and Community Shield over the last two years.

But the new rules mean Albirex will lose key players like S-League top scorer Tsubasa Sano, captain Shuto Inaba and the mercurial Kento Nagasaki, who do not meet the new age requirements.

They will have to build a squad from scratch, with only two players retained: Hiroyoshi Kamata (U-21 quota) and 38-year-old goalkeeper Yohsuke Nozawa (open category quota).

The FAS is making broad and deep changes to competition rules for the 2018 S-League season in a bid to rejuvenate the ailing competition, which has suffered from problems such as poor attendance and declining interest for several years.

Among the changes unveiled so far are the age restrictions as well as mandatory fitness tests for players.

But Albirex vice-chairman Koh Mui Tee is taking the changes on the chin.

"We don't feel that we are being blocked from winning again. We have to work within the rules - everyone knows that FAS wants change and we are fully supportive of these changes," he said.

"In fact, we are very excited to bring local boys into our set-up, and our head coach (Kazuaki Yoshinaga) has told me that he is looking forward to it and he wants to do his best to contribute to local football.

"Our chairman has gone on the record with our desire to localise the team and it's good that we can start with two players."

Albirex have 15 Singaporeans on their books, but this will be the first time a local footballer will make it onto the Albirex playing roster in the club's 13-year association with Singapore football - and the search has already started.

"We are looking for local players with national team potential and who are of good character because we are also looking at eventually sending them to play in Japan.

"We have a few players in mind but we'd like to keep it confidential for now," said Koh, who acknowledged the challenges that lie ahead.

Among the obvious hurdles are language and culture.

But Koh said: "If a local player wants to go overseas and play, they will have to adapt to language and culture anyway.

"In this situation, they get the foreign experience but in familiar surroundings.

"We'll look into how we can integrate them into the set-up."

Shamir Osman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2017, with the headline 'Albirex hit with age restrictions too but Koh's calm'. Print Edition | Subscribe