Sailors Women face Royal Arion on Jan 12 in Singapore women’s football showcase

In what will be a showcase of the women’s game in Singapore, the Lion City Sailors Women’s Team – the Invincibles Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) champions for two years running – will face off against second-tier Women’s National League (WNL) winners Royal Arion Women’s Football Club in the CF (Café Football) Charity Cup.

Hosted at Our Tampines Hub on 12 January 2024, the game will see two of the strongest women’s teams in the country coming together to raise funds for breast cancer patients and underprivileged children. 

The CF Charity Cup acts as the curtain-raiser to the inaugural Unity Through Football for SHINE Cup 2024, that features the LMTB Global FC football legends team – consisting of the likes of Abbas Saad, Mirko Grabovac and Indra Sahdan – taking on a SHINE All-Stars side, that has Aleksandar Duric, Lim Tong Hai and Shahril Jantan in their ranks. 

The women’s clash will kick off at 6pm on the evening with the legends’ battle following immediately after at 8.30pm.

Pledging to donate SGD$5,000 of ticket sales in Support of SHINE Children and Youth Services, organisers LMTB Global hope to raise awareness and support for underprivileged children and youths (aged from 5-21) in Singapore through this event. 

They will also donate the prize money of SGD$11,000 for the winners of the curtain-raiser charity match to the Singapore Breast Cancer Foundation to aid support and raising awareness for breast cancer.

The match pits two of the best representatives of Singapore women’s football against each other. While the Sailors Women retained their WPL title in November in convincing fashion, with 17 wins in 18 matches while scoring a league-high 73 goals and conceded just two all year, Royal Arion will pose an interesting challenge. 

Café Football took over their ownership and immediately invested in the squad, adding four Thai national players – namely Orapin Waenngoen, Sunisa Srangthaisong, Pikul Khueanpet and Waraporn Boonsing – who played at two editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup to the team roster. 

Royal Arion were dominant in the second-tier and claimed nine wins in as many matches to clinch their first-ever WNL title. 

Sailors Women skipper Ernie Sulastri Sontaril wants her team to relish the opportunity to test themselves against the experienced quartet. 

“I’ve played against them a few times in my international career with the Lionesses and they are quality players whose levels are a few notches higher. For the younger girls in this team, this is a great chance to test themselves against some of the region’s best players and see how they match up,” said the 35-year-old. 

“Also, this event is organised for a good cause to raise funds for breast cancer patients and underprivileged children. So I hope our fans will turn up in full force and get behind this initiative.”

Tickets for the match are already now on sale! Sailors fans are advised to purchase tickets in Section H directly via this link.


Singapore’s top ACL appearance maker yearning to create more history

His start in the Lion City Sailors’ 2-0 defeat to Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC was his 18th in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), a record for the highest number of appearances by a Singaporean player in Asia’s flagship club competition – surpassing Daniel Bennett (17) in the process. 

And throughout the 2023/24 ACL campaign, he has been one of the Sailors’ best performers, rolling back the years with a number of dominant displays in the middle of the park.  

However, in typical unassuming Hariss Harun fashion, the Sailors skipper downplayed his feats. 

“I never thought too much about this to be honest, but it’s definitely a proud moment for me. Since I was young, it has always been an ambition of mine to play at the highest levels for club and national team,” said the 33-year-old, who played all six group-stage matches for Malaysia powerhouse Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in 2019. 

“I’m grateful for these opportunities to pit myself against some top players in this region for a few years now and I’m just happy to contribute to my team. As captain, I try to rally the team and set a good example to the boys.” 

Also the Singaporean with the most ACL wins to his name with five – one more than teammate Adam Swandi, Hariss has featured in some memorable upsets over the years. 

In May 2019, he led JDT to a 1-0 win over then-defending champions Kashima Antlers. Last year, he led the Sailors to a 3-0 victory over K League 1 side Daegu FC. In 2023, he did it again with the Sailors in a stunning 2-0 triumph over two-time ACL champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.  

Naming that Jeonbuk victory as the standout game of this year’s campaign, Hariss lauded the team’s fighting spirit that helped them overcome the odds. 

“Two weeks before, we lost to them in a really tough match in their stadium. But the boys were mentally strong in the week leading up to the rematch – we were all so focused and giving our 100 percent in training to carry out our game plan, and we executed that perfectly. Everyone played their hearts out that night,” he said. 

“It’s always special when we beat teams supposedly stronger than us or have a storied history in this competition – Jeonbuk is one of the strongest teams in South Korea. We put in so much effort in preparation for this game, and that win gave us the belief and confidence that we could possibly get out of the group.”

Coupled with an impressive 2-1 away win in Hong Kong against Kitchee earlier in the campaign, the Sailors represented Singapore football well in their second ACL voyage, albeit ultimately unable to better last year’s record points tally of seven. 

Nonetheless, Hariss is adamant that there are many lessons and experiences gleaned in a year that, all said and done, is an equally good campaign as the Sailors’ last one. 

“It’s generally still a positive campaign for us. A lot of the boys who haven’t played at this level previously came away with valuable lessons and learnt a lot from the games. The training sessions were tough because we knew we had to up our game against opponents from this region, but no one complained; everyone was willing to give their best and put themselves forward for the team,” he said. 

“What’s special about the ACL is the travels. When you go out away as a team and that feeling you get when you’re going out to battle together is something you can’t get here (in the Singapore Premier League). The boys really enjoyed this aspect and we’re looking forward to these in the future.” 

The Sailors Academy has been a beacon of pride, with a few players making the breakthrough to the first team this season – most notably 15-year-old Nathan Mao, a youngster Hariss has taken under his wing. 

“Given his age, he’s naturally very raw so of course the boys give him a bit of stick for that,” said Hariss, who made his Singapore national team debut at the age of 16 years and 217 days in 2007. 

“Being around him does make me recall the times when I was a young boy in the national team. That’s part and parcel of football, but the great thing is he takes everything in his stride. 

“He’s a boy who has a good head on his shoulders and a good temperature; he’s always eager to learn and that’s a good quality to have for the road ahead of him. He has many years of professional football ahead of him, so I’m excited to see him and the other boys in the Academy come through to be stalwarts of the club and the Singapore national team in the future.”

The fans’ support was another source of pride and energy for the team, with the Crew turning up in numbers even for the away matches in Hong Kong, Korea and Bangkok. 

“It’s really heartwarming to see the fans coming out to support us home and away, it’s something which we didn’t really expect. I know people are usually busy on weekdays, but they still made the trip down to support us and give us that boost. 

“That’s something which we sometimes don’t appreciate enough so we would just like to give our heartfelt gratitude to our fans.”

Hariss is acutely aware that at this level the devil is in the details as he recounted the two narrow losses to Thailand’s Bangkok United – 2-1 at home and 1-0 away – that ultimately killed the Sailors’ hopes of qualifying. 

“The lapses of concentration that cost us showed that you need to be on top of your game for every minute at this level. It’s a lesson to take away, in each campaign we play there’s always something to learn,” he said. 

“Now it’s on us to strive to better ourselves the next time we play in this competition.” 

Comparisons with neighbours JDT who qualified for the Round of 16 for the first time in 2022 will always be there, but Hariss insisted the Sailors focus on their own path and remain playing amongst Asia’s elite every season.

“To close the gap, we have to be consistent; we need to have a lot of belief and remember all the lessons that we learnt. We’ve shown in our last two ACL campaigns that we can mix it up with the big boys so I firmly believe we’re good enough to go further in the ACL,” he stressed. 

“Each and every one of us knows that we have to be on our toes and we know what’s the level we need to be at to compete at this level. So we’re definitely working towards something better in the future. 

“Be it ACL1 or 2, playing in this competition is the minimum for the club. To get there, we have to be the best team in the league every season so that we can keep coming back to this level to show our quality and create further history for the club and Singapore football.”


Sailors Women Class of 2023: A tale of indomitable spirit and tactical versatility

Injuries and players leaving for overseas stints threatened to derail the Lion City Sailors Women’s Team’s bid to defend the Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title they won in 2022, but Head Coach Yeong Sheau Shyan and her charges not only cemented their position at the pinnacle of women’s football in Singapore, they went a step further.

With 17 wins and a solitary draw, the Sailors finished 2023 as Invincibles for the second year running.

The women are already looking to challenge themselves even more, and their gaze is set beyond Singapore shores.

“The team and the players have voiced their ambitions loud and clear. They want a chance to compete in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Women’s Champions League,” Sheau Shyan said. “This is a big step and we need not just the club’s, but also the nation’s support.”

AFC had confirmed earlier this August of the entry principles and competition format of the inaugural AFC Women’s Champions League (WCL) which will see the region’s best women club sides take on each other from 2024 onwards.

Entry to the WCL is open to all AFC Member Associations including the Football Association of Singapore, who will need to meet a set of criteria to be included in the competition. Competition regulations of the WCL will be approved by the AFC Women’s Football Committee in due course, but with a clear baseline already set: each Member association will only be allowed to put forward one team to compete.

The competition will feature 12 teams in a group stage followed by a knock-out stage.

In 2023, the Sailors proved that they are the best women’s team in the country, despite struggling for numbers during the second round of the WPL. Indeed, the Sailors demonstrated that they had more than quality in their ranks – they had steel.

There was tactical versatility on the pitch, but in the face of adversity, it was competitive grit that came to the fore.

After the first round of matches, attacking powerhouses Paula Druschke and Madison Telmer left Singapore for further studies, while defensive anchors Umairah Hamdan and Fatin Aqillah were sidelined by knee injuries. Youngsters Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran, Chloe Koh and Natasha Naszri were awarded Unleash The Roar! (UTR) scholarships for overseas stints in the United States and Spain.

The departures raised real concerns for skipper Ernie Sulastri Sontaril: could the women even defend their title?

“We had a long league break and with players injured and taking on the UTR scholarships, that really broke our team’s momentum and game plan,” Ernie said. “Also, with insufficient training days together due to the FIFA window, this made us worried about our team play, but Coach Sheau Shyan always had a plan for every game.”

Vice-captain Ho Hui Xin found it challenging for the team to stay consistent throughout what was a long season peppered with long breaks of play.

“We had many ‘pre-seasons’ this year because of the packed international calendar and it really took everyone — from coaches to players to management staff — to work together to work things around,” Hui Xin added. “The target at the start was always to retain the title and there’s a saying — it’s harder to keep a title than to win a title. I remember thinking this season would be more competitive than the last because of how other clubs were shaping up.”

Sheau Shyan echoed similar thoughts on the increased competitiveness of the league, with clubs like Albirex Niigata (S), Tanjong Pagar United and Hougang United bolstering their teams with foreign signings and national team players. “The gap between the top half of the table shrank so much, so that consistency became a much bigger factor, the key factor, in fact.”

She added that the low point for the team came during the second half of the season after the transfer window when she realised that the team would be struggling with numbers for all the remaining matches.

Yet, trusting the mettle and determination of her charges, she singled out the 1-0 win against Tanjong Pagar United — where Nur Syazwani Ruzi scored the lone goal from a penalty — as a massive morale booster in their championship bid.

“We beat TPUFC with an injured goalkeeper and two other injured players on the bench. I think that game gave us the confidence that we could overcome all odds,” Sheau Shyan said.

Her players shared similar sentiments.

“Coach had asked me to man-mark (2022 WPL Player of the Year) Manami Fukuzawa. Despite knowing what a tough match-up this would be, I was still unprepared for what I had to face,” said Madelin Lock.

“She is an extremely quick and smart player, despite me putting my best efforts into following her, she could still impact the game effectively. Luckily my teammates helped to cover me so we could still contain her. The game was neck-to-neck and a hard-fought battle as the opponents showed no sign of backing down,” added the 16-year-old.

For Hui Xin, that match marked a turning point for the team.

“I was on the bench and I saw how everyone stepped up in that game. Usually it sucks to be on the bench but I felt like I was on the pitch with them when I saw how hard the girls fought and stuck to the game plan. That 1-0 win was precious.”

Sheau Shyan lauded one big improvement that the team has made this year: versatility in their attacking plays. “We were very much just scoring through the middle last year,” she added. “But this year, we came from both flanks, through the middle, from short, penetrative passes to direct crosses and long ball switches.”

As captain, Ernie rallied the team to fight for each other. “I kept reminding the players before the game that we are here for one another and that it is okay to make mistakes. We will cover for one another until the final whistle,” Ernie said. “Thanks to our fitness trainer Chloe Alphonso too, who conducted team bonding games once a week to keep the team spirit high.

“One thing was very clear this year: every single player is important to the team.”

It is this spirit and quality that gives Ernie the confidence that the Sailors can compete and proudly fly the Singapore flag in the AFC Women’s Champions League.

For Hui Xin, she hopes that the Sailors can become the “Barcelona” of the WPL.

“My one goal for next year for this team is to play like how we train, as much as possible. Sometimes opponents are set up in a way that doesn’t really allow that but we must still be able to play our brand of football,” she said.

“I hope that our team can get to the Barcelona level of playing with a style that is immediately clear to everyone watching.”


Magic Max’s hungry for more

By his own admission, Maxime Lestienne thought he would have it a little easier when he arrived in Singapore. 

After all, he was coming from the big time bright lights of European football and played in competitions like the UEFA Champions League, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga and was called up to the Belgium squad for the Euro 2020 qualifiers under Roberto Martinez. 

 The 31-year-old signed for the Lion City Sailors on a two-year contract in February 2022, after departing Standard Liege under a bit of a cloud. 

He lost his place in the Belgian side’s first team, a little bit of confidence, even his love for football.

Two years on from his first interview that saw Maxime speak in lackadaisical mumbling manner, there is palpable excitement in his voice. 

“Honestly, I thought it would be more relaxed and chill for me here, but no – there’s actually a lot of quality not just in the league (Singapore Premier League), but also in our team,” said Maxime.

It’s very competitive and I can speak about players like Shawal (Anuar) – he scored 16 goals this season at the age of 32 and his level of performances have been unbelievable,” said Maxime. 

“Our captain Hariss Harun is also a top player and there’re many good young players in the team. We have an excellent academy here with the facilities in our Training Centre and people to ensure that these players come through the system. I’m very proud to be here. 

“Little by little, I found my love for football again and I’m really enjoying myself here at the Sailors.” 

Maxime is loving life so much that he did not hesitate when the offer of a two-year contract extension was put on the table.

His three kids – 8-year-old daughter Alizee, and two younger sons, Rafael (6) and Gabriel (5) – are all training in the Lion City Sailors Football School – and he believes off-pitch happiness matters as much as on-pitch success. 

And this is why he will stay in the Lion City until the end of 2025.

“Before I came to Singapore, I tried to Google all the things we could do here and I thought my family would be happy here. We have a lot of things to do here, it’s very safe here and there’s a sense of security for us. My family’s very important to me, I want to give a good life for my kids. If they’re happy here and I’m happy with my job, I cannot ask for more,” said Maxime. 

“It was not a hard decision for me at all because the club has put in a lot of effort for me. Everyone knows how much I love the club and the people here.  I have a lot of motivation to stay.” 

The love and adulation Maxime and the team have received from Sailors fans also played a big part in his decision.

“We have the best fans in Singapore, no doubt about it – they’re amazing. What I like is even when we play badly or have not so good results, they always support us and are always behind us,” he said, his face lighting up as he recalled the late Pedro Henrique winner he helped create in the 2-1 win over Tampines Rovers in 2022.

“Another good memory is the victory against Albirex Niigata (S) this year. We were down 2-0, but our fans kept pushing us and continued to sing for us – that’s how we managed to come back to win 3-2,” he added.  

“I’m very thankful for them and I hope they can continue supporting us like this.”

A settled Maxime has not looked back since he joined the Sailors. In his first season, he was top of the SPL’s assists chart with 23 to go with his 12 goals and he also played a starring role in the Sailors’ maiden voyage in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL). 

This year he deservedly picked up the SPL Player of the Year gong after his 25 goals and 21 assists saw him top both the SPL’s goal-scoring and assist charts. And he led the team to their first-ever Singapore Cup triumph as well. 

But Maxime is still stung by the fact that the SPL trophy still eludes the Sailors. That is a record he is hell-bent on correcting next season.

“We’re happy and proud of ourselves for winning the Cup, but our next objective is to win the league. The year before I came (2021), the team were champions and I’ve a good feeling we can win it next season,” he said. 

“It’s good to win the best player and top scorer awards, but that’s not my main goal, I don’t care so much about statistics. I believe in a collective target – I want to help the team to be champions and make further steps in the ACL.”

And Maxime means business. 

“Maybe for some players (who have played in Europe), they go to places like China or elsewhere and they don’t do a good job because they think they’re on holiday. 

“I didn’t come here for a holiday, I came here to win trophies – I’m happy I won my first now and I’m sure it won’t be the last I will get with this club,” insisted Maxime. 

“We have the best owner who made everything happen for the club – the best facilities, best staff, best players; we just have to do everything to make sure we create success here. I believe if we continue to work hard, we can go very high. 

“For myself, I will give my everything for this club for the next two years because I know the fans here deserve more joy and trophies from us.”


Winds of change whistle through Mattar as Sailors eye 2024 trophy charge

The 2023 season was one to remember for the Lion City Sailors as the club picked up its first-ever Singapore Cup trophy, on top of an encouraging second voyage into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC)  Champions League (ACL) that saw Hariss Harun and his men score victories over two-time ACL winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at Jalan Besar and away against Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC. 

But the ambitious Sailors have already set in motion to ensure a more successful 2024.  

The club aims to dominate local football by reclaiming the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title last won in 2021 and further establish itself amongst the continent’s elite in the AFC Champions League 2 (ACL 2) competition. 

AIA Player of the Year Maxime Lestienne will play a key role in this. 

The Belgium attacker has penned a two-year contract extension that will see him stay in Singapore till 2025, leading a Sailors side bidding to create history in the years ahead. 

Hafiz Nor, Zulqarnaen Suzliman, Hami Syahin and Adib Azahari have also pledged their futures and will be Sailors until 2025 alongside Magic Max.

The vastly-experienced Hafiz has been with the club since its 2020 inception and is the Sailors’ highest-appearance maker with 91, while Zulqarnaen and Hami enjoyed the 2023 season and are beginning to hit the peak of their careers. 

The move to refresh the squad as the Sailors look to the future – and also in anticipation of revised foreign player quotas for the 2024 SPL and beyond – will see six players depart the club. 

Diego Lopes, Manuel Herrera López (Súper) and Kodai Tanaka leave the newly-crowned Singapore Cup champions, along with Rusyaidi Salime and Rudy Khairullah following the expiry of their contracts at the end of the year. 

The club has also agreed to mutually part ways with Pedro Henrique, with the 30-year-old defender embarking on a new adventure back home in Brazil.

The Sailors are currently in the midst of shortlisting potential signings both locally and from overseas to build on the existing squad. 

The Sailors’ gaze remain firmly on becoming one of Asia’s top clubs and are recalibrating to ensure a more successful season in the upcoming one. 


Sailors end season with 2-0 home loss to Kitchee

It was not to be for the Lion City Sailors in their final match of the 2023 season as they fell to a 2-0 defeat to Kitchee SC in their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) Group F clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (13 December).

Fresh off clinching the Singapore Cup four days earlier, Aleksandar Ranković’s team could not find a way past their Hong Kong opponents and were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid to set a new record for the maximum number of points a Singaporean team has attained in the ACL group stage.

The Sailors finished in third place with six points, one short of the record they set in their maiden ACL voyage in 2022, while Kitchee finished bottom with four.

Both teams were already out of contention for qualification for the Round of 16, but it was Kitchee who came out of the blocks with more intent and created numerous chances early on.

“We should never be finding reasons why we lost a game, that will take credit away from the opponents. We were nervous at the start and that affected us,” he said.

“We controlled the match at the start of the second half but when that second goal went in, we knew it would be tough.”

After two shots on target from Fernando and Tan Chun Lok in the opening minutes, Kitchee opened the scoring in the 11th minute with Sailors full-back Christopher van Huizen unfortunately putting through his own net while trying to clear a cross.

The Sailors took time to grow into the game, eventually finding their feet in an otherwise uneventful first half.

They started the stronger of both sides after the break, with Shawal Anuar drawing a save from Wang Zhenpeng in the 52th minute after being found by Kodai Tanaka, who made his first start since his successful recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in March.

The 39-year-old Wang made another crucial stop seven minutes later, tipping over Shawal’s header that was destined for the top corner.

However it was Kitchee who doubled their lead in the 74th minute, with Fernando gliding into the box to slot the ball into the bottom corner.

There was also time for Sailors old boy Kim Shin-wook to come on for Kitchee, with the striker returning to the pitch he scored several goals on and subsequently getting a standing ovation from the home fans.

The 35-year-old scored 24 goals in 35 appearances for the Sailors in 2022, before leaving to join Kitchee earlier this year.

After a grueling season, Ranko expressed the need for a reset as the team heads into the off-season.

“We’ve played so many games especially in the last month, we’ll go on vacation first then see the group of players I have and prepare for next season,” he said.


Sailors eyeing ACL legacy

The Lion City Sailors may be out of the running to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) 2023/24 knockout stages, but Wednesday’s clash against Kitchee SC at the Jalan Besar Stadium still holds much meaning.

Aleksandar Ranković’s team have their eyes set on writing their names into the Singapore football history books – by setting a new record for the maximum number of points a Singaporean team has attained in the ACL group stage.

The Sailors are third in Group F with six points, and a win in what is their last competitive game of the season will ensure they break their own record of seven from last year’s campaign.

Although Kitchee are also not in contention to make the next round, sitting bottom of Group F with one point, the match is still set to be a tightly contested affair.

“We deserved a better result against Bangkok, but we’re totally prepared and motivated for this match. We want to finish strong, especially after the Singapore Cup final, and we want maximum points from tomorrow’s match,” said Ranko, adamant that his charges are not still swooning over the weekend’s Cup Final victory, and instead are determined to bounce back from the loss against Group F leaders Bangkok United on 29 November.

“With the format change in the ACL (the Sailors will be in the ACL2 next season), this will be our last chance in this competition and we want to leave our own legacy.”

Defender Lionel Tan added that national pride also serves as encouragement for the team.

“We’re out there to get every possible point and do our best not just for the club, but for the whole of Singapore. We’re very motivated to do our best and thank the fans for their overwhelming support during the Cup final,” the 26-year-old said.

Although the Sailors picked up a 2-1 win in October at the Hong Kong Stadium, they are not taking anything for granted, and instead are wary of the threats Kitchee pose.

The away side are enjoying a strong start to their domestic season, sitting second in the Hong Kong Premier League after eight matches and qualifying for the Hong Kong Senior Shield final.

Interim coach Kim Dong-jin was adamant that they have only one goal on their minds on Wednesday – win.

“We didn’t win the last five games (in this competition), so I want a win tomorrow although we lost against them previously. The Sailors are in good form having won the Cup with a good atmosphere and have strong foreign attacking players, so we need to be good defensively,” said the former South Korean international.

They will be missing key players though, with Brazilian goalkeeper Paulo César, compatriots Mikael and Juninho, as well as Turkmenistan winger Ruslan Mingazov ruled out through suspensions and injuries, while new acquisition Sherzod Temirov is not in the matchday squad.

However, Kitchee have an in-form man in Austrian Jakob Jantscher, who has scored in his last four ACL appearances, including against the Sailors.

They are also boosted by Sailors old boy Kim Shin-wook’s return from injury, with coach Kim hinting at a possible start for the 35-year-old striker.

“I brought him here because we need him and he has experience playing in this country and on this pitch. I know he scored 21 league goals here (in 2022), so I’m sure he can score tomorrow,” he said.

The Sailors are well familiar with Shin-wook’s quality – he racked up a total of 24 goals in 35 appearances in a Lion City Sailors shirt in 2022, including a stunning acrobatic volley on his Sailors debut in a 2-1 win over Albirex Niigata (S) in last year’s AIA Community Shield, inspiring the Sailors to its first Community Shield win in its history.

“We have to be aware of what he can do, he’s strong and big, he has a lot of experience and is a quality player. Many of our players have played with him and they are aware of that,” Ranko said.

“Our motivation tomorrow is still to make sure we set the record number of ACL points, and represent Singapore football well.”


Singapore Cup champions!

The huge smile on the face of Lion City Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković when the final whistle blew at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (9 December) night said it all.

This was, after all, the perfect way for his team to end what had been a long and gruelling season – with a win, a trophy, and a new entry in the Sailors’ history book as the 2023 Singapore Cup winners.

Up against defending champions Hougang United in the final, Ranko’s men produced a professional and clinical display to secure a 3-1 win to clinch their first-ever Singapore Cup.

And for Ranko, this was the perfect way for the Sailors to bring their domestic season to a close.

“I’m proud of these boys and what they did this year. I know it’s not been easy for them, especially with the change of coach in the middle of the season, and having to play in three competitions,” Ranko said.

“But credit to them, they’ve worked hard and I’m very proud of what they’ve achieved today. This Singapore Cup is the cherry on top of our season, and it’s a great way to finish the year.”

Reflecting on the cup win, Sailors captain Hariss Harun said: “It’s fantastic for us, for the club, and I think we deserve to lift this cup. Throughout the tournament, we’ve showed great consistency…we were always determined to get the right results, and that’s what matters most.”

There was more than one record that was broken on the night, as Nathan Mao became the youngest-ever player, at 15 years and 258 days old, to feature in a Singapore Cup final.

Despite his youth, and the magnitude of the occasion, Ranko chose to keep faith in him as the Serb named an unchanged side from the one that beat Tampines 3-0 in the second-leg of the Cup semis on Wednesday (6 Dec).

And it seemed to pay off, as the Sailors started the brighter against an Hougang side that were content to sit deep and keep things tight at the back.

It took 17 minutes for the Sailors to fashion their first goalscoring opportunity as Maxime Lestienne beat his defender in the box and fired a fierce shot with his weaker right foot that forced Hougang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam into a smart save.

But the Sailors did not have to wait long for the breakthrough. Four minutes later, they were awarded a penalty after Hougang defender Naoki Kuriyama was adjudged to have handled the ball in the box.

Despite a lengthy VAR review which took approximately five minutes, Richairo Živković kept his concentration and confidently dispatched the spot-kick into the bottom corner.

The goal seemed to spur Hougang, and they began pushing forward in search of the equaliser.

While the Sailors no longer enjoyed as much of the possession, they looked threatening whenever they went forward, and in the 41st minute, they got the all-important second goal, albeit in slightly fortuitous circumstances.

Receiving the ball on the right in the box, Maxime – the newly-crowned AIA Player of the Year – cut inside onto his favoured left foot before firing a shot that took a huge deflection off Kuriyama and ended in the back of the net.

Lionel Tan almost made it three for the Sailors against his former side right before half-time when he jumped highest to meet Chris van Huizen’s cross, but his looping header went just over the bar.

With a comfortable two-goal lead, control was the name of the game for the Sailors after the break, and they executed that perfectly, keeping Hougang comfortably at bay for the majority of the second-half.

Barring a few half-chances, Marko Kraljević’s side did not trouble Izwan Mahbud in the Sailors goal.

All hopes of an Hougang comeback were put to rest in the 80th minute when Maxime threaded a superb through ball for substitute Shawal Anuar, who rounded Zaiful before finishing with aplomb.

That was the 32-year-old’s sixth goal in the Singapore Cup this campaign and incredibly all six were scored off the bench, as he finished as the tournament’s joint-top scorer along with Richi.

Hougang did manage to get on the scoresheet in the 91st minute through a Kazuma Takayama header, but it proved to be no more than a consolation as the Sailors held on to secure the victory.

“If you look at the whole match, I think we deserved the win,” Ranko mused. “We started a little bit nervous, which is normal because it’s a huge game. We also used a lot of energy in the semis, and that might have been a factor, but I think throughout the whole game we didn’t give Hougang many chances.

“This win is for everybody at the club, the staff, our owners, and our fans. Everyone has contributed, and they deserve this trophy.”

More importantly, Ranko believes that winning the Singapore Cup will be the launchpad for the Sailors to achieve greater things next season.

He said: “Winning the Singapore Premier League (SPL) is our main goal next season. Apart from winning this cup, we finished second in the SPL, and I think we represented Singapore well in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL).

“So, this is a good foundation that we can build on for next season, and we have a good group of players. Everybody will want to prove themselves against us next year, and that’s a challenge we have to deal with.”


Max hell-bent on ending trophy drought

Trudging off the Bishan Stadium pitch on Wednesday (6 December) night, Maxime Lestienne cut a disappointed figure as he was substituted by Adam Swandi with less than 10 minutes to go in the Lion City Sailors’ 3-0 second-leg victory over Tampines Rovers in the 2023 Singapore Cup semi-finals. 

The result meant the Sailors romped into the final with a convincing 6-3 aggregate victory, but the Belgian – the reigning Singapore Premier League (SPL) Player of the Year (POTY) who raised the bar with league-high tallies of goals and assists – was unhappy with the level of his individual performance.  

“The team played a very good game on Wednesday; everyone played with a lot of determination and focus. Defensively we were top, offensively we created a lot of opportunities and could have scored more. But for myself, I think I should have contributed more,” he said. 

“I missed five to six chances to score and I’m disappointed with myself. But I believe I’m a big player and maybe the goals will come in the final.” 

A hungry and determined Maxime is eager to make his mark in the club’s first-ever Singapore Cup final appearance when they take on holders Hougang United at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (6 December) night. 

The former PSV Eindhoven attacker has done much since joining the Sailors in February 2022, lighting up the league with goals and assists, landing a number of Player of the Month trophies in addition to the 2023 POTY award. 

What has eluded him thus far is team silverware. 

“We haven’t been able to win something important for the last couple of years and that’s something that is often on my mind. Our supporters have been behind us through the ups and downs, so we want to win the Cup to give them something,” he declared. 

“Hougang is not an easy opponent, but I’m sure if we play like we did against Tampines and give everything on the pitch, we’ll win this game. Every single one of us must show up and show how much this means to us.”

Captain Hariss Harun sang from the same hymn book as he urged his troops to follow up on the accomplished display against the Stags to create history for the club. 

“This is huge for us as we need to win something this year,” admitted the 33-year-old. “This season, we set out to win everything ahead of us – the league (SPL) was a little bit disappointing for us, we pushed as far as we could but weren’t able to win it. For our ACL (Asian Football Confederation Champions League) campaign, it wasn’t too bad but we were ultimately unable to qualify for the Round of 16. 

“This is our last chance to cap the year off with something tangible, so we need to bring our A-game, just like how we controlled the tempo against Tampines. If we can do that in the final, then I’m sure we’ll get the job done.” 


‘Perfect’ Sailors book place in SG Cup final

The Lion City Sailors are now just one game away from closing out the 2023 season with silverware, after they secured their spot in the Singapore Cup final with a 6-3 aggregate semi-final win over Tampines Rovers.

Both teams had played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the first-leg of the semis at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday (3 Dec) evening, which meant it was all to play for when they met again in the second-leg at Bishan Stadium on Wednesday (6 Dec) night.

But while the first-leg was evenly-matched, the second-leg ended up being a straightforward 3-0 victory for a dominant Sailors side who barely gave Gavin Lee’s side a sniff throughout the 90 minutes.

Indeed, Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković hailed his side’s display against Tampines as “perfect”, as he said: “I’m delighted with the performance today. We played a perfect match, from the beginning to the end, and everyone did well.

“We dominated Tampines all over the pitch, and the only thing that I can maybe be critical of is that we should have scored more goals.”

The Sailors set the tone for the rest of the game as early as the second minute, when M. Anumanthan won the ball in midfield with a strong tackle, before laying it off to Diego Lopes. The Brazilian carried the ball forward before setting Richairo Živković free down the right, and the 27-year-old made no mistake with his finish to give the Sailors the lead.

The bright start seemed to destabilise the visitors, and they were fortunate not to go further behind soon after, as both Richi and Nathan Mao missed two good goalscoring opportunities in the first 10 minutes of the game.

In the 14th minute, Richi broke free of the Tampines defence once more after being set up by Anu, but he could only send his effort straight at goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari from a tight angle.

Syazwan was called into action again five minutes later, as he dove low to save Maxime Lestienne’s effort from range that seemed destined for the bottom corner.

As much as the Tampines defence seemed to be at sixes-and-sevens, the Sailors themselves were playing some beautiful football – this was best encapsulated by a superb one-touch passing move between Richi, Maxime, and Diego in the 39th minute that led to the Brazilian firing a shot that deflected just wide of the goal.

Despite their dominance, however, the Sailors were unable to add to their one-goal lead by half-time.

But any fears that Tampines would come out of the break recharged were put to bed within 10 minutes of the second half, as the Sailors continued to find space in behind the Stags, and could have easily added to their tally but for some errant finishing from Maxime and good goalkeeping by Syazwan.

But the Sailors’ all-important second goal finally came in the 59th minute, when Richi cut past his marker on the left before curling the ball into the bottom corner.

That was the 27-year-old’s 14th goal in 17 appearances in all competitions since joining the Sailors in July during the mid-season transfer window.

Seven minutes later, the Sailors all but wrapped up the win with a third goal, as Diego latched onto Maxime’s through pass before lashing the ball past a rooted Syazwan.

Tampines’ dismal night was made worse in the 89th minute when Shah Shahiran received his marching orders for a second bookable offence, after he hauled back Sailors substitute Shawal Anuar from racing through on goal.

At the end of game, the Sailors had racked up 25 shots to Tampines’ five – a statistic that starkly highlighted their dominance on the night.

“After the first-leg of the semi-final, everyone was unhappy because we knew we didn’t play our game,” reflected Man-of-the-Match Richi. “It was very difficult against Tampines (in the first leg), so we spoke with each other, changed some things, and I think today everyone played well.

“We started today with four defenders, compared to the five in the first-leg. Hariss (Harun) played very well in midfield, and we were good in between the lines. We created a lot of chances and capitalised on their mistakes.”

The Sailors will now take on defending champions Hougang United – who beat Brunei DPMM 3-0 on aggregate in the other semis – in the final at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (9 Dec) night.

Looking ahead to that match, Ranko said: “I think playing in a cup final is a great way to finish the season. We haven’t had much time to think about our opponents in the final yet, as we were focused on beating Tampines.

“But now, we’re going to work hard to prepare for Hougang, who, as defending champions, will certainly give us a stern test.”