Few would have predicted before the start of the 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season that the joint-top scorer for the Lion City Sailors after their first five games would be a certain Abdul Rasaq Akeem.
Perhaps the only one who would have backed Rasaq to achieve such a feat was Rasaq himself.
With three goals for the Sailors so far, Rasaq – who has scored in three out of his four league appearances this season so far – is not short of confidence, despite his relative youth.
The 21-year-old was rewarded for his fine form with a call-up to the Singapore Under-22 squad for their recent Merlion Cup campaign, where he started in both games against Hong Kong and Cambodia.
(Photo courtesy of FAS)
While results did not go Singapore’s way – the team lost 1-0 and 2-1 to Hong Kong and Cambodia respectively – Rasaq came away from the experience with a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at the top level.
“As a team, we learnt that in international football, you have to be at the top of your game for the whole 90 minutes,” Rasaq reflected. “You can play well for most of the game, but the moment you switch off, you will get punished.
“We have to improve individually and collectively if we are to do better at the SEA Games next month. We must not underestimate the importance of preparation for the tournament, or we will be going into it at a disadvantage.”
Another Sailor who made a splash on the international stage this past week was defender Lionel Tan.
(Photo courtesy of FAS)
Making his long-awaited debut for the Lions, the 25-year-old scored the only goals for Singapore as they drew 1-1 with Hong Kong and beat Macau 1-0.
While the goals gave Lionel a confidence boost, the centre-back is not resting on his laurels, and insists he is only focused on how to further improve his game.
“The goals were nice, but that’s in the past now. I’m looking forward to putting in the hard work and training with the Sailors again,” said Lionel.
“I think it was a good experience playing for the National Team, and it inspires me to want to continue playing at a higher intensity. I also picked up some tips and made slight changes in my body positioning to defend better.
“Ultimately, I’m still developing as a player. I did make mistakes, but what’s important is that I learn from them and improve game by game.”
For now, both Lionel and Rasaq’s immediate priority will be to help the Sailors seize the initiative in the SPL title race.
With forward-in-chief Kodai Tanaka out for the rest of the season due to injury, Rasaq is the only recognised senior striker in the team.
But the heavy responsibility of leading the Sailors’ frontline does not faze Rasaq.
“It is a chance for me to step up and show what I can do for the Sailors,” Rasaq declared. “My approach will be to always give my 100 percent every time I’m on the pitch. But I will also stay level-headed and take it one game at a time.
“Of course, I wish Kodai a smooth recovery, and I hope to see him on the field soon. He was one of the players I was looking forward to learning from this season. Even from the short time he was with us, I could already see why he was at the level he was at because of how hard he works, and what a good person he is.”
Rasaq also credits his good run of form in front of goal to his teammates, as he said: “They have helped me settle down at the club, and made me feel welcome. All I’ve had to focus on was on my performances, be it in training or during a game. I have many senior players guiding me all the time, and they make it a lot easier for me.”
Having started the Sailors’ last game – a 3-0 win over Balestier Khalsa – Rasaq is hoping that he will once again be trusted by Head Coach Risto Vidaković to spearhead the attack when they take on current league leaders Tampines Rovers on Friday (31 March).
And if he does get the nod to start, Rasaq knows that he and the rest of the Sailors will be in for a hard battle against the Stags.
“This will be a tough game for us. They are the league leaders and have been playing very well,” Rasaq said. “They are a ball playing team with many good attackers who are able to find the net, and we will have to be on top of our game the whole 90 minutes.
“Crucially, we have to take our chances. We must also work hard as a team defensively and offensively. We have shown before that we are capable of doing this, and If we do it again, I’m sure we can get the result we want.”
Lionel echoed Rasaq’s sentiments, adding: “We all know Tampines have quality players, but we are all focused on ourselves and on our game. What the game will come down to is hard work, commitment, good organisation, and importantly, playing with the desire to get all three points.”
The Lion City Sailors Women made it two wins on the trot in the 2023 Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) as they recorded another 3-0 victory, this time against Still Aerion Women at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Saturday (25 March) night.
The victory came with the same scoreline Yeong Sheau Shyan’s women managed in their WPL opener against Police SA last week (19 March), and in the same vein – the start of a bit of a trend that brought a smile to the Sailors’ Head Coach.
”We look like we have a clearer picture in mind of how we want to play now,” she said. “I’m happy with the way we start matches and that we are scoring first early on in the game, which is different from last year where we only start scoring in the second-half when our opponents begin to tire out.”
The Sailors raced to a two-goal lead in what was a dominant first-half display. The Invincibles of 2022 got their noses in front through Khairunnisa Khairol Anwar’s sublime effort on 18 minutes, this after being set free on the right wing by a brilliant Madison Telmer pass.
Right-back Nur Syazwani would double the lead just three minutes later, slamming home after the Aerion defence failed to clear their lines from a corner.
Substitute Fatin Aqillah then rounded off the scoring five minutes after the interval with a powerful close-range finish to ensure the Sailors extend their unbeaten run in the WPL to 14 games, a run that stretches all the way back to the start of the 2022 season.
While she was pleased with the early establishment of domination and the spread of goalscorers, Sheau Shyan acknowledged that there was still much room for improvement.
“There might be three different scorers, but we were also guilty of wasting many opportunities tonight,” she noted, of a first half performance that could have brought six goals. “We were waiting for the perfect chance to come to us and it’s something we need to work on.
“Despite being sloppy in terms of defending in the second-half, we managed to keep a clean sheet but we need to learn how to be patient after scoring.”
Midfielder Ho Hui Xin, who slotted into the Sailors’ engine room as a second-half substitute spotted similar issues out on the pitch.
She said: “We tend to play to the speed of our opponents and it slows things down a lot when that happens. We know we are capable of commanding the pace (of the game) and that would in turn give us more goals.”
But Hui Xin still left Choa Chu Kang with a smile on her face.
“It’s always a nice feeling to get the three points, and the goals we scored were pretty good as well,” said Hui Xin. “The fact that it came from three different players goes to show the amount of depth we have in the squad.”
The Sailors Women will return to WPL action after the international break and will face the Tampines Rovers Women on Sunday, 21 May.
They were undefeated in all of 2022, en route to the Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title and a rare coronation as Invincibles of the women’s game, and the Lion City Sailors Women are once again favourites to win the league in 2023.
An unbeaten run comes with its own pressure – with somewhat different expectations – that can stab at nerves when the heat is on. But Sailors midfielder Paula Druschke is not just taking this added pressure in her stride, she is relishing it.
The 20-year-old believes that this pressure will only serve to elevate their performances this season, especially with everyone in the team pulling together in the same direction.
“Teams that play us will definitely have added motivation, as they will want to end our unbeaten run. Personally, I used to love to play against the big names and championship winning teams, because then you have nothing to lose, and you can just give everything on the pitch,” Paula admitted.
“So yes, the Invincibles tag does put more pressure on us. But I think that’s a good thing. My confidence stems from seeing how well we work together as a team, and we support each other when we have a bad day. We have a diverse squad that works well together, so I don’t see why we should not believe that we can retain the title.”
Paula’s bullish outlook for the 2023 season was given credence by the efficient manner in which the Sailors dismantled new WPL outfit Police SA – a game they won 3-0 – in their opening league fixture last Sunday (19 March).
“I think we could definitely see some of the things we worked on during the offseason in our game, which was really good,” Paula recounted. “At the same time, I believe we adapted our playing pace too much to suit our opponents. I think we can play even faster and better when we stay true to our own playing style.”
Up next for the Sailors is a test against a more familiar foe in Still Aerion on Saturday evening (25 March) at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium. Last season, Aerion were beaten 4-0 both home and away by the Sailors, as they finished sixth in the seven-team league.
While Aerion also did not get their season off to a great start – losing 3-0 to Hougang United – Paula is not taking anything for granted when the Sailors play them this weekend.
“It is important that we do not underestimate the team, even though they have lost their last match,” said Paula. “They worked very hard during the offseason and have made some changes in their squad as well.
“So, it is important that we play fast and creatively in the attacking half. Playing attacking football is what we want to do all the time.
“Of course, that can make us also vulnerable in the defence, so everyone in the team must work hard to protect our goal as well. Personally, I would hope to see an early goal or two so that we can play with more freedom for the rest of the game.”
In the spirit of International Women’s Day (IWD) that is celebrated annually across the globe on 8 March, we delve into the lives and experiences of our Sailors Women to better understand their struggles, challenges and inspirations as they make their mark in what is a male-dominated Singapore football industry.
In this, the third and final instalment of our IWD special, we turn the spotlight on Lion City Sailors Women’s team goalkeeper Beatrice Tan and Yingying Seah, Business Development Manager of the Lion City Sailors Football School.
She is standing under the Esplanade Bridge with Diego Lopes on one side, Umairah Hamdan on the other, and a wince drawing awkward lines on her face.
The photographer calls for a pose with street attitude, and suddenly the game is on: her elbow rises to rest on neighbour, head tilts groundwards and hand follows, sliding over thigh. When her eyes rise off the floor, the gawky discomfort seems to have melted away and it is a completely different Beatrice Tan who meets the camera lens.
This was a photoshoot to launch the Sailors 2023 jerseys, and the 30-year-old Beatrice is not a runway model. But it is no surprise that the Lion City Sailors Women’s Team goalkeeper can turn it on on demand.
She is also the National Women’s Team custodian, an elite athlete, and a role model for aspiring female footballers, including those she oversees in the Lion City Sailors Girls Football Academy.
“Yeah, I absolutely love it that I’m contributing to the future of the women’s game in Singapore, and not just as a player. And I can’t begin to say how heartwarming it is that the girls actually remember my name and greet me when we run into each other at the training sessions,” said Beatrice, who by day, serves as the Academy’s Special Projects person.
The former Singapore Sports Hub venue manager oversees a range of unique projects at Mattar Road including the Academy scholars’ academic progress and the development of the Academy’s all-girls programme – that she sees as her real calling.
“I definitely feel more affinity for the girls’ football role, largely because the boys’ game tends to grow organically, but there needs to be a push if we want to help the girls – and the girls’ game – grow.”
At the frontlines of that, Beatrice has a comrade in arms in what has become a bit of a personal mission for both women.
“I’m certain that there are many young Singaporean girls who love football, like I did when I was a child, and it’s fantastic to see more and more young girls play – and with parents who are supportive of their efforts too,” said Yingying Seah, the Lion City Sailors Football School’s Business Development Manager.
The Football School is the revenue generating arm of the Sailors Academy.
“The perception that football is only for boys is changing – perhaps slower here in Singapore than it is across the globe – and I’m delighted to be able to contribute to that in my own little way.”
Even before she finished that last sentence, Yingying’s eyes lit up, as a young trainee walked by and waved hello. She knows his name, of course, and chirped a greeting of her own as he trotted off towards the pitch at Mattar Road.
Her high pitched voice immediately dropped an octave as she finished her interrupted thought:“It’s also important that for football lovers like me who can’t play or coach that we have options in the sport too, and that we have someone to look up to,” said Yingying who only had one female colleague – current Sailors Women’s Head Coach, Yeong Sheau Shyan – when she joined the Sailors in 2020.
Yingying is a Psychology and Marketing Double Major graduate from the Singapore Management University, and she is adamant that skills beyond the football pitch are very much in demand at football clubs, and women need not fear embracing the sport.
“It was challenging at the start because it was a male-dominated environment, and I felt it was a bit harder to be taken seriously, and I had to adjust – like step up in conversations – and I think in the end, like in football, performance will speak for itself,” she said, revealing that trainee numbers more than doubled in her three years at the Football School, with the girls’ programme also seeing some 50 girls train and play every weekend.
Female trainee numbers are a source of pride for both Beatrice and Yingying, but it has not exactly been an easy journey working to grow figures.
“It was clear that to see regular participation, we need to understand what issues the girls were facing – and engage their parents in the conversation as well,” said Beatrice. “Some girls feel bad that they can’t keep up with the boys they train with, others are just more comfortable in the social environment that comes with playing in an all-girls team.
“I see our role as helping to remove barriers and make it easier for girls to enjoy and embrace football,” added the 2022 Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) Golden Glove winner.
While she only played for six months as a teenager and stopped because she was a self-confessed “terrible player”, Yingying shares the same drive to encourage female participation in the game, with the Football School perhaps best equipped to jump start moves towards all-girls football environments that encourage more to stay in the sport.
“Our Football School is still a business, and if it’s all men making decisions, there is a danger of losing alternative perspectives that can make impactful change. Talking to children is one example where having a softer touch helps, even talking to parents, to understand the needs of families,” said the 29-year-old Yingying.
“Then it’s just about being assertive enough to drive those changes internally, and follow through with making sure we implement what we set out to do.”
It is perhaps this need to manage different needs between a male-dominated office and family-focused training environment that has honed the ability of both women to code-switch at will, but Yingying would not have it any other way.
“My colleagues would never leave me out of anything, even the guy-talk,” she said eyebrows furrowing before her eyes lit up once more, and the same chirpy voice returned, as her thoughts floated to the Academy’s trainees like Nur Ain Salleh and the other Sailors’ women the likes of First Team manager Huong Tran and Operations Manager Carolyn Chia.
“But it has been rewarding and enriching: I love kids, I love football and I love what I’m doing. I hope I never leave football, and maybe even encourage more to join us – the women and girls like Ain, Huong, Beatrice, Carolyn, and me – in the sport.”
The Lion City Sailors Women – Invincibles of 2022 – picked up where they left off last year in their opening fixture of the 2023 Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL), securing a comfortable 3-0 win over Police SA at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Sunday evening (19 March).
Indeed, it took all of three minutes for the Sailors to get their season off the ground, with midfielder Madison Telmer breaking through the heart of the Police defence to break the deadlock with a crisp right foot shot.
Against Police SA’s deep, defensive block, however, the Sailors struggled to make any meaningful headway in the final third, and were often left frustrated in their quest to double their advantage.
It fell to last season’s WPL top scorer Izzati Rosni to find the answers for the Sailors, as the 23-year-old struck twice late in the game to secure all three points for the defending champions.
Sailors Women head coach Yeong Sheau Shyan admitted that, despite the early lead, her side had found it tough going at the start due to the “conservative” Police SA approach.
“I think we started out very well, we did exactly what we wanted to do,” Sheau Shyan said. “But we were not used to the ground, so it was a bit difficult for us to control the game. The pitch was also a bit slippery because of the rain earlier, so it was a bit hard for us to play in the middle, although we eventually got used to it.
“Police SA played conservatively and were more concerned with getting the ball out with long balls. Every time we get to the final third, if we didn’t score, the ball would be kicked all the way back. So, there was a lot of running up and down the pitch, and it required a huge physical effort from both teams.”
However, Izzati believes that the turning point came when the Sailors decided to focus on playing their usual game, rather than worrying about the threat that Police SA posed.
“At times, we followed the opponent’s pace of the game, when we should be setting the pace instead,” Izzati explained. “I think we came back stronger in the second half. We were quick on the counter, and instead of just dribbling and kicking the ball long, we focused on passing and quick movement to keep possession.”
Echoing Izzati’s sentiments, Madison added: “Our opponents are very experienced, so as the match progressed, they could understand how we were trying to play, and knew what to do to make it difficult for us.
“We had to work to mix things up, and it took us a while to get into the game. But towards the end, we got more comfortable with passing the ball around and getting it up front, and we finally got our second and third goals.”
The Sailors, whose unbeaten run in the WPL has now extended to 13 games, stretching all the way back to the start of the 2022 season, will next take on Still Aerion Women’s FC at Choa Chu Kang on Saturday, 25 March.
The Lion City Sailors will head into the upcoming international break in good cheer, following a 3-0 win over Balestier Khalsa at the Bishan Stadium on Saturday (18 March) evening.
The three points earned – their fourth victory in five games – means that the Sailors have now made their best-ever start to a Singapore Premier League (SPL) season. Their previous best points tally after five games was 10, with three wins, a draw and a loss in the 2022 season.
More importantly, however, the result propelled Risto Vidaković’s side to the top of the nine-team SPL standings. They could remain league leaders heading into the international break should Albirex Niigata (S) and Tampines Rovers play out a draw in their game on Sunday (19 March), although a victory for either team would see the Sailors bumped down to second.
Nonetheless, the ruthless manner in which the Sailors dispatched the Tigers was a reminder to the rest of the league of not only the quality they have in their ranks, but of the team’s determination to regain the SPL title.
“The players gave everything today, their 100%, and I think that’s the most important aspect of the match. I can’t fault them for their effort,” said Risto. “ We suffered a bit in the first half, but in the second half we controlled the game a bit more and got the win. The players who were not called up for international duty can now take the time during the upcoming break to rest and recover, and get themselves ready for our next game.”
While the Sailors put in an accomplished performance against Peter de Roo’s men, their opening goal in the 19th minute perhaps owed more to luck than it did to skill, as Maxime Lestienne’s scuffed shot off Christopher van Huizen’s cross bounced off the turf and looped over a wrongfooted Hairul Syirhan in the Balestier goal.
There was, however, nothing fortuitous about the Sailors’ second goal in the 48th minute. Maxime played a beautiful one-two with Diego Lopes down the left, before sending an inch-perfect low cross for Abdul Rasaq – making his first start of the season – to tap home into an unguarded net.
Maxime put the icing on the cake for the home side in stoppage time, confidently dispatching a penalty which substitute Shawal Anuar had earned after being fouled by Balestier’s Emmeric Ong in the box – capping off a virtuoso performance with two goals and an assist.
With the Sailors scoring three goals and keeping a clean sheet in back-to-back games – they had beaten Geylang International by the same scoreline in their previous game – goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad believes momentum is on their side.
Man-of-the-Match Zharfan, who played a crucial role in the win over Balestier with a number of key saves, said: “I’m happy with my performance, but more importantly, I’m happy with the team’s performance.
“From the start, we tried to play out from the back and it worked out for us. Winning was the only thing that was on our minds ahead of the international break.
“We are going to face Tampines next, so having these three points gives us momentum, and we’re all looking forward to that big game.”
The Sailors’ highly-anticipated clash with fellow title challengers Tampines will take place on Friday, 31 March at Our Tampines Hub.
The Lion City Sailors Women’s Team will kick-start their Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title defence against Police SA at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Sunday (19 March) night, in a match that could prove a tricky assignment even for a team that was unbeaten in all of 2022.
More than half of the Police SA squad comprises former national footballers, and the team that won the second-tier Women’s National League (WNL) last year will certainly be no pushovers.
The likes of Joey Cheng, Lee Lai Kuan, Cheryl Chan and Sitianiwati Rosielin have represented the Lionesses on the international stage numerous times in the past and could well pose a few problems for the Sailors.
The fact was not lost on Sailors Women captain Ernie Sulastri Sontaril who called for her women to rise to the challenge.
“It’s interesting that there are three new teams this season – in Police SA, Tampines (Rovers) and Geylang (International). These teams will provide the league with some unpredictability and excitement.
“We see this as a healthy challenge and we’re fully embracing it. It won’t be so easy to stay unbeaten this season so we have to fight hard as a unit on the field. We cannot underestimate anyone because that’s when we will drop points – and we can’t have that,” warned the 34-year-old.
The team has put much effort into preventing that, and instead have charged ahead with an increased training load and higher-intensity workouts since winning the WPL as Invincibles last October.
Later that month, they competed in the SingaCup’s Women Football Championship testing their abilities against regional outfits like Philippines’s Kaya FC and Thailand’s Phranakorn FC. And following a short break, the Sailors Women reassembled as early as in December 2022 to gear up for the new season and played a few warm-up games against local sides.
The Sailors skipper is well aware of high expectations on the team after what was an outstanding 2022, but has backed her teammates to rise to the challenge.
“We want to win the league again and we must win – there are no two ways about it. While success is important, the team’s target is also to continue to develop our playing style – to build up from the back, keep possession and break through defensive lines with progressive passes,” she said.
“Also, we have many young players this year and we need to help them grow because they’re the future of Singapore women’s football. It’s clear that we have many things we want to achieve as a team and seeing all the motivated faces in training, I am confident we can do great things again this year.”
Five of the six Sailors’ Under-16 players who were promoted to the 2023 WPL roster will not be available as they are away on international duty with the national U16 team in Japan, but there will still be a sprinkling of youth talent out on the Choa Chu Kang pitch on Sunday.
Canadian midfielder Madison Telmer is raring to go after an impressive debut season with the Sailors. The 18-year-old was the team’s third highest-scorer with six goals and is already a leader on the pitch with her forceful displays despite her youth.
“It was an incredible year with the club. I like the fact that we have a good range of ages and experiences amongst us, which makes the team chemistry a great one. There are new challenges this season and the added pressure of being defending champions, but that’s something we’re really looking forward to.
“Hopefully I can play as well as I did last season, if not better,” said Madison, who will feature in a maximum of seven WPL games this season before leaving for Canada to further her studies in July.
Having witnessed awesome support from the Sailors fans at the Yishun Stadium last season, Madison is hoping to see more of the same at Choa Chu Kang this time.
“It was so great to see our fans coming out in full force to support us. They’re always in good voice, win, lose or draw. They give us this energy from the stands and give us the motivation to push harder in the game when we’re not doing so well.
“I really hope The Crew continue to come down, and we vow to give our best displays on the pitch to reward them,” she said.
Three goals and a clean sheet in a 3-0 win over Geylang International two days ago (on 15 March) put the Lion City Sailors back on the right track for their assault on the 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) title, and they will look to continue in the same vein when they host Balestier Khalsa at Bishan Stadium on Saturday (18 March) evening.
With SPL frontrunners Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata (S) playing each other this matchweek, the Sailors have a chance to push themselves to the top of the nine-team SPL standings going into the two-week international break with a win in this one.
Fellow Bishan Stadium resident Balestier will be no pushovers under Dutch coach Peter de Roo, but creative midfielder Hami Syahin is confident that the Sailors can sail to their fourth win in 2023.
Confidence in the Sailors dressing room is quietly growing, especially with players returning from injury. Against Geylang, Adam Swandi put in a slick performance on his first start of the year, while Zulqarnaen Suzliman and Haiqal Pashia also made their first appearances of the season.
“It’s great to see these players coming back and we’ll certainly need all of them, given that it’s a long season ahead. There are positive signs and progress in what Coach Risto (Vidaković) wants us to display on the pitch,” said Hami.
“Of course we need to improve more aspects of our all-round game, but everyone’s feeling positive and we’re out to beat Balestier to go into the international break on a high,” he added.
A week ago, the 24-year-old Hami suffered disappointment, being subbed off just 17 minutes into the game for Arshad Shamim. This came following a tactical reshuffle after M Anumanthan was shown a straight red card.
That is perhaps the only blip for Hami who has emerged from a forgettable 2022 to become a fulcrum of the new-look Sailors Class of 2023.
Having started all four matches in the Sailors engine room alongside captain Hariss Harun, the Singapore international has already played more minutes than the whole of last season that saw him start in only two league games.
Hami’s assured displays and command of the ball in midfield have already caught the eye of fans and opposition players alike, and he is determined to build on his good start.
“It’s never a good feeling to be subbed off early of course, but someone has to sacrifice for the team. In the match against Albirex, it was me, and I fully understood our coach’s decision,” he recalled.
“I’m just very happy and blessed that I’m able to play regularly and perform well this year. It’s tough trying to bounce back after a bad year, but I just focused on playing to my strengths and trying to adapt to the team’s playing style – and fortunately that has worked out for me so far.
“It also helps to be playing alongside Hariss – he’s always there guiding us and I take every opportunity to play with him as a lesson to improve myself,” added Hami, who also drew confidence from new signing Manuel Herrera López.
The experienced Spanish defender made an instant impact and was colossal at the heart of defence alongside Lionel Tan, with the duo looking like they could strike up a sturdy partnership that is in for the long-term.
The man nicknamed Súper is keen to play down the plaudits and believes the best is yet to come from him.
“I don’t think I did so well, I’ll probably only give myself a 5 or 6 out of 10. It’s my first game in a long time, I need to find the rhythm and more endurance to play more games. But first game, first clean sheet – I couldn’t ask for more,” he said.
“I’m feeling a good connection between me and Lionel and I think he’s going to be a very good partner for me. I’ve followed this league for a long time – there’re scores like 4-3 or 5-2, too many goals conceded,” said the former Real Betis B player.
“My target here is to get as many clean sheets for the team, simple as that. Hopefully the next one comes against Balestier.”
Lion City Sailors defender Lionel Tan has been rewarded for a series of fine performances for the club as he is one of four Sailors to be named in Takayuki Nishigaya’s 22-strong Singapore National Team’s squad for their upcoming international ‘A’ friendly matches away against Hong Kong and Macau later this month.
The other three Sailors in the squad are Hafiz Nor, M Anumanthan and Hami Syahin.
Sailors and Singapore captain Hariss Harun sits out after being granted permission to miss the call-up to prepare for an examination.
The 25-year-old uncapped Lionel has played every minute of the Sailors’ 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) campaign so far, helping the team to win three out of their opening four matches.
This is Lionel’s first-ever Lions call-up, although he initially came into the national fold in March 2021 when he was part of a squad that was assembled for a series of training sessions under ex-National Team Head Coach, Tatsuma Yoshida.
Lionel will jostle for a spot in the Lions defence alongside the likes of Irfan Fandi and Amirul Adli as Nishigaya’s men face Hong Kong on 23 March, before facing Macau three days later.
In line to make a much-awaited debut for the Singapore national team – and fulfilling his childhood dream of pulling on the Lions’ shirt – Lionel is champing at the bit to impress and grow into a stalwart for the country in the near future.
“I’m glad to be given this opportunity and I guess most people know I’ve been waiting for this for a very long time. I’m just thankful that Coach Nishigaya has faith in me and it’s up to me to justify my worth to the setup,” said the 1.84m tall Lionel, who previously represented the national team at various age-group levels.
“I’ll be a very new player there, so my job is to learn as much as possible from the seniors and make sure I’m up to the level to play international matches.”
Lionel’s key focus remains helping the Sailors launch an assault for the 2023 SPL title and he acknowledged that the club has given him an ideal platform to grow.
“I knew by coming here, my performances will be scrutinised so I have to be on top of my game all the time – and that’s a challenge I chose to accept. I’ve been enjoying these few months here, working in a very professional setup and improving my overall game.
“Making it to the national team doesn’t mean I’ve made it. I just want to keep my feet on the ground and push harder to help the club achieve success this season,” he said.
Meanwhile a separate trio of Sailors have also got to represent the country – this as part of the 28-strong Singapore Under-22 squad for the upcoming Merlion Cup campaign.
Bill Mamadou, Danish Qayyum and Abdul Rasaq Akeem will lace up for Philippe Aw’s developmental side, who will open their campaign against Hong Kong on 24 March before playing either Cambodia or Malaysia two days later.
Nur Adam Abdullah misses out as he is recuperating from a shoulder injury sustained in the 3-1 win against Brunei DPMM earlier this month.
Rasaq, who started the season in fine form with two goals, is raring to go and hoping to boost his chances of being selected to represent the nation at the Southeast Asian and Asian Games later this year.
“Even though I’ve not gotten a lot of minutes, I’m been trying my best to show my abilities and I’m happy to get into a bit of a scoring groove so far,” said the 21-year-old.
“It has helped by being at the Sailors, where the intensity of training and matches are higher. I’m certainly feeling sharper and I feel I can bring that to the Singapore U22s. Hopefully I can score some goals and help win the Cup in front of our home fans.”
There is an adage in football that goes: It is hard to win a title, but even harder to retain it.
It is arguably even tougher to win back-to-back league titles after finishing the previous season as Invincibles, given that every other team in the league will undoubtedly be hoping to be the one to end the unbeaten run.
That, however, is the exact scenario facing the Lion City Sailors Women’s team this year, as they gear up for the defence of their Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title.
Not only will the Sailors have a huge target on their backs this campaign, but they will also have to contend with three new teams in the league in Police SA, Tampines Rovers, and Geylang International.
It is why Sailors Women head coach Yeong Sheau Shyan does not expect her charges to cruise to another WPL title.
“Retaining the title is way harder than winning it, so this year there is more pressure on us to do well,” admitted the 45-year-old. “Also, there are three new teams this season, and a lot of the players who may have stopped playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic are back.
“There are several good players in the WPL again, and they are all spread out among the clubs. Every team is now more balanced, so I expect this year’s competition to be way more challenging.”
Nonetheless, while another old cliché in football suggests that defence, rather than attack, wins you titles, Sheau Shyan insists that the Sailors remain committed to playing on the front foot this season.
“We want to play a very attacking style, which means we need to be organised against counter-attacks,” Sheau Shyan said. “But we want to build up nicely, keep possession, and be effective getting up the pitch.
“We’re still looking at improving in the attacking third, and we’ve been working a lot on improving our finishing, which wasn’t one of our strong points last year.”
More importantly, however, Sheau Shyan is determined to establish a playing identity at the club that will transcend any personnel changes during the season.
“What we really want is to build a team that can perform consistently in the long run,” she elaborated. “We haven’t had a very big change in playing roster just yet, but because we’re preparing for some players to leave mid-season for overseas studies, we’re already preparing for the next batch of players to transition smoothly.”
Moves towards long-term continuity have already started, with six Under-16 players promoted into the Sailors Women’s 2023 roster, a move that also comes with the exciting element of adding the fearlessness of youthful element to a title-winning side.
The trio of Madelin Sophie Lock, Seri Ayu Natasha and Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran impressed for the Sailors at last year’s SingaCup’s Women Football Championship against regional opponents the likes of Indonesia’s Persib Bandung and Philippines side Kaya FC, while Josephine Ang, Chloe Koh and Tia Foong are budding attackers who are also part of the National Under-16s girls’ squad.
“We’re looking at young players coming up, and establishing a playing style that can carry through the different generations of players from the academy all the way through to the WPL team.”
The Sailors barely had two months of rest at the end of last season before going back to the grind in December to prepare for the coming campaign.
It is a far cry from the truncated pre-season that the Sailors had last year, and Sheau Shyan believes the additional time spent on the training ground has since borne fruit.
“Last year, we didn’t really have any physical preparation before the season because we were just coming in from the COVID-19 period. Before that, the players were training with the National Team, so we only began our pre-season training two weeks before the league started,” the 2022 WPL Coach of the Year recounted.
“But this season, we got the girls started with their physical preparation very early. So, I feel like we’re better prepared for the demands of the league.
“We don’t know what to expect from the other teams, but I feel our fitness levels are good, and we’ve made progress on many fronts. I believe we can match any team we face.”
The Sailors will kick-off their WPL title defence against Police SA this Sunday (19 March) night at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium.