Football: New Singapore Premier League kicks off with Albirex Niigata win

Albirex Niigata FC's Kenya Takahashi clearing the ball away from Tampines Rovers FC's Ryutaro Megumi. President Halimah Yacob, flanked by FAS vice-president Edwin Tong (left) and FAS president Lim Kia Tong, officially launched the Singapore Premier L
President Halimah Yacob, flanked by FAS vice-president Edwin Tong (left) and FAS president Lim Kia Tong, officially launched the Singapore Premier League yesterday at the National Stadium before the start of the Community Shield match between Albirex Niigata FC and Tampines Rovers FC.PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Albirex Niigata FC's Kenya Takahashi clearing the ball away from Tampines Rovers FC's Ryutaro Megumi. President Halimah Yacob, flanked by FAS vice-president Edwin Tong (left) and FAS president Lim Kia Tong, officially launched the Singapore Premier L
Albirex Niigata FC's Kenya Takahashi clearing the ball away from Tampines Rovers FC's Ryutaro Megumi. PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Fresh beginning for S'pore football as competition is declared open

On April 14, 1996, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong launched the S-League at the old National Stadium, signalling the start of the country's only professional sports competition.

After 22 seasons and enduring turbulence in its twilight, a major revamp had seen the product reinvented yesterday as the Singapore Premier League (SPL). As vapour and jets of fire blasted out from nozzles placed around the stage and the pitch, the new competition was declared open by President Halimah Yacob at the modern 55,000-seat Sports Hub. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu was also in attendance.

Last season's quadruple winners Albirex Niigata, who won the S-League, Singapore Cup, League Cup and Community Shield, picked up where they left off from 2017 as they beat Tampines Rovers 2-1 last night to capture the Shield and collected three league points as well.

In its final years, the S-League suffered from poor attendances and declining standards on the pitch, which led to local clubs struggling in continental tournaments and the national team chalking up disappointing results.

But the sight of 18,942 fans at the National Stadium yesterday suggested to Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Lim Kia Tong that a new beginning for the country's No. 1 sport was possible.

He said: "Today is the beginning of a long-term project to build the SPL together for the future of Singapore football, and the success of it depends on the continued support from various stakeholders, most importantly our fans. We are delighted to see so many join us on this special occasion."

In the months prior to the SPL launch, the FAS had rolled out a series of initiatives to return the league to its former glory, when its clubs regularly enjoyed good results against top Asian teams and the turnstiles clicked as fans came to watch Asean's best players across the island.

The FAS believes it can energise the SPL by mandating each of the six local clubs to have at least six Under-23 players in their squads and with three starting each game. Players must also pass the gruelling Yo-Yo test, a multi-stage shuttle run, before they can be registered.

The rejuvenation plan has earned the endorsement of the football's top brass, who sent video messages that were played on the stadium's big screens. Fifa president Gianni Infantino congratulated the FAS on "some important changes which will foster football in Singapore, which will strengthen the national team with investment in youth development and capability building which are cost-efficient which will bring vibrant football to the whole community in Singapore".

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalfia, president of the Asian Football Confederation, praised the FAS' "vision and focus on the national league as a cornerstone for football development" and added: "Top-level competitions are essential for building a successful future for Asian football. I look forward to seeing the Singapore Premier League prosper."

On the pitch, it was the Japanese club that again showed it remains a force to be reckoned with. The White Swans, which also won all four domestic trophies in 2016, took the lead through a 58th-minute controversial penalty scored by midfielder Taku Morinaga. Despite conceding the equaliser in the 77th minute from a powerful header by Stags captain Fahrudin Mustafic, Albirex possessed that extra quality as forward Shuhei Hoshino scored the winner a minute before full-time.

Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga said: "We want to target all trophies possible this year, that has always been our aim. But we've told the players it's not just enough to win all trophies, they have to improve in every match and aim higher than just winning trophies.

"Tomorrow, we will start training and forget about today's match."

Tampines coach Jurgen Raab paid tribute to his opponents and said: "If you see, the boys in the Albirex team - they have quality and I think they are favourites for champions one more time."

One of the new SPL initiatives is to play half its games during weekends with early evening kick-offs to make the occasion family-friendly.

Mr Rashid Mohamed, a 50-year-old auxiliary police officer stationed at Changi Airport, brought his family of four to the National Stadium yesterday. He said: "It's the weekend and I have free time to watch Tampines, a club that I have supported for the last seven years.

"The Tampines players didn't start very well and they are still adapting to each other's style of play but there are moments of great atmosphere in the match. It felt a bit like the old Kallang Roar. It is good to see so many fans making their way to the stadium to watch Singapore football again."

• Additional reporting by Shamir Osman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 01, 2018, with the headline 'New S'pore Premier League kicks off'. Print Edition | Subscribe