SINGAPORE - Not many foreign players would choose to stick with the last-place team for a second season, but Croatian forwards Kristijan Krajcek and Sime Zuzul persisted with Balestier Khalsa, and it looks like they have made the right decision.
The Tigers host Lion City Sailors at Bishan Stadium on Saturday (Nov 7) and with almost half the season gone, it is the third-placed underdogs who have a three-point advantage over their more glamorous opponents.
Bankrolled by billionaire Forrest Li and his tech firm Sea, the Sailors are the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) only privatised club. Yet they have won just two of their six games this term and lie sixth in the eight-team standings.
But Krajcek is not surprised. The 27-year-old, who has one goal and three assists so far, said: "Balestier wanted to keep me and Sime, and I felt it was a good opportunity to prove we are better than where we finished last season. I know I can do more and make more of an impact.
"I was confident with our captain and goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam back from injury, and one or two quality additions, we will be able to change the impression that we are a bad team. I think we have done that, but we can still get better."
After losing their opening match 1-0 to current leaders Tampines Rovers, Balestier are undefeated in their last five games. The last time they went on such a run was in 2015.
This form can be partly attributed to their foreign recruitment - all four imports have scored this campaign, a feat no other SPL club can boast.
Besides Krajcek and Zuzul (one goal), 2018 SPL topscorer Shuhei Hoshino has chipped in with two goals and two assists while Serbian defender Ensar Bruncevic has put his 1.96m frame to good use at both ends, contributing three goals and two clean sheets.
Marko Kraljevic, 54, has coached the club since 2014 and hailed his players' character in training and matches. He described the current crop as a better team that won the 2014 Singapore Cup.
He said: "We have good imports and locals like Hazzuwan Halim and Ahmad Syahir, and a good blend of experience and youth, with no prima donnas in our team.
"It won't matter how good the foreign players are individually, if they cannot gel with our local players. But we have good team spirit, and they have been hardworking and unselfish.
"For example, Kiki's (Kristijan) goal and assists are with his left foot, but he is actually a right-footer who is good with both feet. And he is the first to training and the last to leave.
"They stay back after training to work on their shooting and crossing, and our young players should learn from them."
The quartet live in the same apartment and have built a strong camaraderie, especially during the circuit breaker and seven-month SPL suspension due to pandemic.
Krajcek said: "It was a tough period for us as we are away from our families, but we were able to provide company and encouragement for each other. I'm the oldest and more serious one in the group, and Sime is the joker.
"Bruno (Bruncevic) and Jumbo (Hoshino) are more shy and their English is not so good yet, so we communicate with Google Translate, and gestures. But we have become good friends, and we have developed a good understanding on the pitch."
While their coach Kraljevic had set a top-three target before the restart, his players want more.
Zaiful said: "The Sailors have quality in depth, they have strong attackers, but we are confident of giving them a good fight."
"We believe we can beat any team in this league, and want to finish as high as possible. It is every player's dream to win the local league and qualify for the AFC Champions League, and it is achievable, but we have to focus on the upcoming game and stick to our game plan."