SINGAPORE - It was perhaps fitting that the opening game of the new-look Deloitte Women's Premier League (WPL) was won by someone who heralds what is to come for women's football in Singapore.
Farah Nurzahirah, an 18-year-old ITE College Central student, was so nervous before her game on Saturday (May 28) that her hands were trembling as she prepared to take to the pitch. But the Tanjong Pagar United striker kept her nerve as she netted what proved to be the winning goal in her side's 2-1 win over Albirex Niigata at the Yishun Stadium.
The game kicked off the new season of the Deloitte WPL, which was returning after a two-year absence due to the pandemic. But more than just a return, it also marked a reset of the women's game in Singapore.
There was a buzz around Saturday's kick-off, with gloss added to this season's competition. Audit firm Deloitte's three-year support of the WPL, worth over $300,000, means the seven-team league has a title sponsor for the first time since it began in 2000. Prize money for champions has also been increased five-fold to $25,000.
Deloitte is also streaming games on its YouTube page. This new attention on the women's game was conspicuous by the set-up of video recording devices in the stands, and a handful of photographers on pitchside.
But there has also been change at the ground level too, with three Singapore Premier League men's clubs - Hougang United, Balestier Khalsa and Albirex - joining Lion City Sailors and Tanjong Pagar in incorporating a senior women's team within their set-up. The other two clubs are Tiong Bahru and Still Aerion.
And in a move towards raising standards, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) also announced that the clubs would receive grants towards the hiring of coaches and payment of allowance and travel expenses for players and staff.
The stadium saw the full-throated support of over 250 spectators and Farah said: "That was quite a big motivation for me.
"It's been two years since I played football, so I'm very proud of myself and the team."
James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia, said: "We're really proud to be the first sponsor of the WPL and today has shown exactly why we are so excited to support our women footballers.
"Thank you to all the fans at the stadium and watching the livestream at home for giving their support... The opening match was a fitting start to what promises to be an exciting season ahead."
After an even opening to the game, Tanjong Pagar opened the scoring in the 33rd minute through Japanese striker Manami Fukuzawa. The Jaguars added a second in the 54th after Farah pounced on a defensive error to coolly finish from inside the box.
Nadhra Aqilah then pulled a goal back for Albirex in the 67th minute and while the White Swans pushed hard for an equaliser, it remained elusive.
FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari was among those in the stands, and he said: "It is gratifying to see the WPL finally kick off once again after the tough two years that we had with the pandemic. With the support of Deloitte as our inaugural title sponsor, we see this much-anticipated kick-off as a timely boost to further elevate the women's game here, on and off the pitch.
"The atmosphere today in the stands, and the competitiveness of the opening match on the pitch are exactly what we anticipated and I am sure we will see more such exciting matches in the coming weeks."
Saturday's kick-off comes on the back of an already noteworthy 2022 for women's football in Singapore.
Two weeks ago, the national women's football team, ranked 135th in the world, bowed out of their first SEA Games since 2003 after a creditable showing. The Lionesses fought hard despite losses to 45th-ranked Myanmar (1-0) and five-time SEA Games champions Thailand (3-0), who qualified for the last two editions of the Women's World Cup, and also beat 83rd-ranked Laos 1-0.
Last week, top female player Putri Syaliza Sazali made history for the local game when she became the first Singaporean woman player to sign for a Thai side when she joined Thai Women's League 1 side Chonburi.
Putri, 19, was also the first local female footballer to receive an overseas athletic scholarship, when she enrolled in Cumberland University in Tennessee in January 2021, although she ran into matriculation issues there.
She later earned a two-year scholarship at Eastern Florida State College, where she is completing an associate in arts degree. Last November, her team won the National Junior College Athletic Association Division I championship, a first for the school.
Balestier Khalsa and Tiong Bahru played out a goalless draw in Saturday's second game. On Sunday, Hougang United will play Still Aerion.
The Tanjong Pagar versus Albirex Niigata game can be seen here.