Singapore Premier League 2019 kick-off: The champions

New brooms eye clean sweep

Revamped Albirex plan to silence doubters and win all silverware in S'pore football again

Keiji Shigetomi knows the magnitude of his task in his first senior appointment as head coach of reigning Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions Albirex Niigata.

After three seasons of sweeping all competitive silverware, anything less than complete dominance this term might be considered a failure.

But the White Swans coach is unfazed.

"Of course, I'm excited for the upcoming season," Shigetomi told The Straits Times. "I'm a little bit nervous too, because last year we were champions for everything.

"But I'm enjoying myself and I'm having fun. I feel fantastic."

He is not one to shy away from challenges. He had no qualms speaking to ST without a translator - which was not often practised by his predecessors - even if he admits his command of English is "not so great".

  • FIXTURES

  • TODAY, 5.30PM

    Geylang International v Albirex Niigata (Our Tampines Hub)

    Young Lions v Balestier Khalsa (Jalan Besar Stadium)

    TOMORROW, 5.30PM

    Home United v Brunei DPMM (Bishan Stadium)

    Hougang United v Tampines Rovers (Jalan Besar Stadium)

    Geylang v Albirex live streaming: www.fas.org.sg/live1

Just one match into the new season, he is already feeling the heat.

Shigetomi's introduction to Singapore football ended in defeat as Albirex failed in their bid to lift a fourth successive Community Shield - a non-competitive trophy - after losing on penalties to Home United last Saturday.

The loss has raised questions whether the new-look squad, with only four players retained from last season, can match up to their predecessors.

One of them is attacking midfielder Hiroyoshi Kamata, who said: "We could not win the Community Shield, but we are still aiming for success in the SPL and Singapore Cup.

"It has been said that we are weaker this year than last year, but I think this target can certainly be realised."

Skipper Kyoga Nakamura, a new arrival who represented Japan at the 2013 Under-17 World Cup, added: "Now that we have played our first official game, we understand our places in the team better. We are working seriously to correct and modify what we have to."

Shigetomi, who arrived in Singapore in 2014 to lead Albirex's soccer school and stepped up to assistant coach for the SPL team last season, is keen to continue with the slick football of predecessor Kazuaki Yoshinaga's team.

The new man in the hot seat, however, realises that this is not a straightforward task.

Other than having to integrate a new-look side, Shigetomi also has to contend with new SPL rules which require Albirex to sign at least four Singaporean players, with at least two playing the entire first half.

The club missed out on several targets in the close season, but still managed to sign six local players.

"Six local players joined, but three are students, so they can join our (usual) morning training sessions only one or two times every week. So it is a bit of headache for me," said Shigetomi, with a wry smile.

The difference in culture will also take time to bridge.

The coach cited how his local players would arrive less than 30 minutes before training sessions.

In contrast, the Japanese players would report for training more than 90 minutes earlier to do proper stretching.

"But I have seen improvement and these days it is OK," said the 39-year-old.

The former head coach of the Sanfreece Hiroshima Soccer School in Japan is optimistic his side will gel and grow as the season progresses and can challenge on all fronts.

"Yes, it is so difficult to do," he said. "We need to have more quality in our passing and our defending.

"But I think over time, the players will understand each other more and we will get better.

"So our target is still to win all (the competitive) trophies."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2019, with the headline 'New brooms eye clean sweep'. Print Edition | Subscribe