The 26th season of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) will start on March 13 without former winners Brunei DPMM, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced yesterday.
The two-time champions (2015 and 2019) withdrew "due to Covid-19 travel restrictions", which also led to their omission last year.
The FAS said both parties tried but ultimately could not find "mutually satisfactory arrangements", with the governing body adding that it "appreciates that DPMM have done everything possible to resume its place in the SPL but have to abide by Brunei's national policies set out to contain the virus".
The FAS noted DPMM remain "an integral part of the SPL and we look forward to welcoming them back next season".
The full fixtures - running until October - were released with the eight remaining teams set to face one another thrice. The opening day will see defending champions Albirex Niigata face Hougang United while the other game pits Lion City Sailors against Tampines Rovers.
Albirex general manager Koh Mui Tee said: "The pandemic has affected our pre-season preparation as we experienced some delays with entry permits for our Japanese players. But we try our best to catch up with double sessions each day as we aim to retain our title.
"It is a shame DPMM cannot join us because they bring quality, variety and good competition to the league, but we can focus only on the competition ahead of us."
The big-spending Sailors, who paid $2.9 million to sign creative midfielder Diego Lopes from Portugal's Rio Ave, will be looking for a strong start against last year's runners-up. Sailors general manager Badri Ghent said: "We are training and preparing well. Our Brazilian signings Diego and Jorge Fellipe are settling well on and off the pitch, and are very motivated to show what they can do."
The Sailors and Balestier Khalsa will play at Jalan Besar and Toa Payoh Stadiums respectively as their shared ground Bishan Stadium is being re-turfed.
This year's Community Shield, traditionally the curtain-raiser to the domestic season, between Albirex and Tampines, has been moved to June 19.
Another notable change will see the Singapore Cup, which starts in September, be exempt from the Under-23 quota. This is to allow the national Under-22s adequate centralised preparation to play in this year's AFC Under-23 qualifiers and the SEA Games.
When last term's SPL restarted in October, games were played behind closed doors. Only one game, the clash between Tampines and Geylang on the final day of the season on Dec 5, had 200 fans in attendance. This served as a pilot test, the FAS had said then.
The 2021 season will be played without spectators in the stadiums though the FAS said it will review this in consultation with the relevant authorities as the season progresses. Safe management measures will remain in place, and mandatory fortnightly polymerase chain reaction tests for all players and match officials will begin on Sunday.
Other competition changes include the number of substitutions reverting from five to three and local senior clubs can now register and play a maximum of four imports with no age restrictions, though at least one has to be Asian or Australian.