Football: Albirex Niigata's success a wake-up call for local S-League clubs

Local clubs admit they have much to learn from Japanese side who retain S-League title

Albirex Niigata coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga being sprayed with water by his players as the White Swans celebrate retaining the S-League title with a 5-1 win over Warriors FC.
Albirex Niigata coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga being sprayed with water by his players as the White Swans celebrate retaining the S-League title with a 5-1 win over Warriors FC.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

They won all four domestic football titles last year and are on course to repeat the feat this season.

Albirex Niigata swept aside Warriors FC 5-1 last night to win their second straight Great Eastern-Hyundai S-League title, adding to the Community Shield and the League Cup they won earlier in the season. The White Swans will complete another clean sweep if they defeat Philippine outfit Global Cebu in the RHB Singapore Cup final on Nov 25.

"If you aim for mediocrity, you will get mediocre results. We exist in Singapore football to win trophies," said Albirex vice-chairman Koh Mui Tee.

"Our spirit and approach will not change. We worked for 13 years to build a winning mentality and we know that success breeds more success, so we will keep at it."

Since winning the League Cup and Singapore Cup in 2015, the all-conquering Japanese side, who joined the S-League in 2004, have established themselves as the dominant force in Singapore football and local clubs admit they have much catching up to do.

"Albirex are a very professional club and the rest of us are far off their standard. We have to change our mentality," said Geylang International head coach Noor Ali.

"I spoke to their coach (Kazuaki Yoshinaga) and he told me that the team train in the morning on match days, and that's something that we (local clubs) definitely don't do in Singapore. Everyone complains that it's too hot and players prefer to sleep more before a match. But Albirex have conquered the S-League only in the last two years, it's not like they have been dominating in the last 13 years that they have been playing here. That means we've been doing something wrong during this time."

Warriors FC coach Razif Onn said local players have to improve their discipline and work ethic.

"It's not easy to close the gap on Albirex. I was in Japan in 1999 and I saw Under-12 boys playing with a lot of skills. We have good players, but what's the point if they are not willing to work hard? We have to revamp the whole thing.

"Albirex players work hard and put in a lot of extra training on their own - they deserve to win (the title). They have discipline, good training methods and they are fitter too. If we want to close the gap, we need younger and fitter players in clubs so that we can compete with them."

Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic believes it was a league policy shift that helped strengthen Albirex and another change could help local clubs close the gap.

"They are the best team at the moment but they started to dominate the league only when the league reduced the number of foreign players from five to three," he said of the rule change last year when the number of foreign players was reduced from five to three.

"The Japanese football standard is very high. I think we have to reduce the age of their players, maybe match that of the Garena Young Lions. I think even then, they will do well," added the Croat.

The Young Lions are effectively the Republic's Under-22 side that ply their trade in the league. The club are currently at the bottom of the nine-team standings. There are 12 players in Albirex's 24-man squad aged over 22 and Kraljevic asserts that makes a real difference.

"Older players are experienced professionals and (in our context) that means that Albirex have that many foreign players - there are a few S-League clubs with Japanese foreign players too," he said.

While Kraljevic and Noor think a stronger youth development system can help local players narrow the technical gap on their Japanese counterparts, Kraljevic believes Albirex can lend a helping hand too.

"I think they should take five or six local players into their squad. And if those players train and live like these Albirex players, they will surely improve," he said.

It is understood that a proposal is being put together for Albirex to take in local players next year, although the number has yet to be confirmed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2017, with the headline 'Albirex's success a wake-up call'. Subscribe