Football: SPL champs Albirex establish pathway to Europe with Deinze and ACA Football Partners

Singapore forward Ilhan Fandi is set to move from Singapore Premier League team Albirex Niigata to Belgian side KMSK Deinze. PHOTO: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE – Japan’s heroic run to the World Cup round of 16 has been largely attributed to the Samurai Blue having 19 out of their 26 players plying their trade in Europe.

Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata hope to help Singapore football in a similar way after establishing a pathway to Europe through their new three-year partnership with Belgian second-tier side KMSK Deinze on Tuesday.

The collaboration includes exchange programmes for their coaches and young players and the sharing of scouting data, with Lions forward Ilhan Fandi becoming the first White Swan to join Deinze.

At the signing ceremony held at Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday, Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga noted: “I feel our partnership will promote exchanges between Singapore and Europe and provide a concrete career path for young players who play football in Singapore in the future... which will help improve the level of the national team.”

At the heart of this pathway to Europe is Singapore-based investment fund ACA Football Partners, which owns the Belgian second-tier side.

ACA Football Partners chief executive officer and Deinze owner Hiroyuki Ono revealed that he had been tracking Ilhan from the start of the season, before meeting Korenaga for the first time through a mutual friend in July.

With a laugh, Ono added: “He wanted to pitch to me one of his players, and I told him I wanted to know more about one of his players, and as it turned out, it was the same player – Ilhan.”

He later sent Ilhan’s CV and videos to the Deinze scouting team, which backed his decision to pursue the 20-year-old.

Ono shared: “The initial term of the contract is 1.5 years, and we are hoping he will settle down in the first six months. He is mentally ready but the Belgian league can be rather physical, so we don’t want to rush him and risk getting him injured. He will thus train with the first team, but start playing with our Under-21 team first.”

Such a methodological approach is in line with ACA Football Partners’ philosophy of using experience in football club management, coaching and data science to realise its mission of “releasing the value of sports and evolve”.

ACA Football Partners was initiated by Ono in 2021 as a “brother company” of ACA Investment, a fund managing firm which moved from Tokyo to Singapore in 2012 and has a capital accumulation of more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion). It is funded by contributions from the ACA group, Ono and other investors.

“A lot of people think football clubs either struggle and need help from big corporates, or is a plaything for rich people,” said Ono.

“I want to prove that football can also be a business. One of the ways is to show its potential from different angles.”

Ilhan Fandi with Deinze owner Hiroyuki Ono. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

And as it looks to acquire more clubs in Italy, Portugal and England, these angles include data management, business leverages and the broadcast of its players’ journeys on media platforms such as PlaysiaTV.

Ono shared that it had looked at over 30 clubs before it acquired Deinze in January. The 39-year-old said: “The regulation over foreign players in Belgium is quite flexible compared to other markets. Geographically, it is quite central in Europe, and many scouts go in and out of this area so it’s a good intercross for what I want to achieve.”

Other than Albirex, ACA Football Partners also has partnerships with Japan’s Urawa Reds and Vietnam’s PVF Football Academy, both of which are leading entities in Asian football.

With recent talk of privatising the SPL and local football clubs, Ono did not rule out the possibility with Albirex.

He said: “I think our friendship and relationship will be built up, and our partnership will definitely open doors and bring more opportunities to Singaporeans. It’s never too late to think about it after we see how our partnership goes.”

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