The Lion City Sailors set tongues wagging last season when they became Singapore’s first-ever privatised football club.
Expectations were high for the Sailors. With renowned coach Aurelio Vidmar at the helm, along with the signings of top stars such as Gabriel Quak, Hassan Sunny, and Shahdan Sulaiman, many believed the team could go on and win the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title in their maiden season.
And while the Sailors were ultimately unable to achieve that goal – they finished third in the league – they still set the SPL alight with their exciting brand of possession-based attacking football.
This year, however, the Sailors will be looking to take the next step.
The high-profile signings of Diego Lopes, Jorge Fellipe and Faris Ramli, along with the additions of some of Singapore’s best young players such as Amirul Adli, Nur Adam Abdullah and Justin Hui, have only served to heighten expectations for Aurelio’s men, who have once again set their sights on bringing home the SPL title.
Ahead of their season-opener against Tampines Rovers this weekend, we outline eight reasons why the Sailors will be THE team to watch this year.
1. Lopes to bring the Samba magic
Where else to start apart from this milestone signing? The arrival of Diego Lopes was the talk of the town during the off-season for good reason. At 26 years of age, Lopes has arrived in the Lion City at his peak, having been a key player for top-flight Portuguese outfit Rio Ave over the past few seasons.
While this may be the playmaker’s first foray into Asia following various stints in Europe and South America, Lopes’ inherent quality means he should have no problem acclimatising to the demands of Singapore football.
Since he first started training with the team three weeks ago, Lopes has already struck up a good understanding with chief striker Stipe Plazibat. The Brazilian maestro will surely add a new dimension to the Sailors’ attacking play, and it will be interesting to see how he links the lines between midfield and attack.
2. Make that a double order of Samba
While Lopes’ signing has dominated the headlines, the arrival of his compatriot Jorge Fellipe is equally crucial to the Sailors. Standing at 1.9m, the 32-year-old centre-back adds height and aggression to the backline – traits the team could have used last season. After all, Aurelio’s men kept just four clean sheets in 14 games, a statistic which they need to improve on in order to win the title.
Recruited specifically because he is a left-footed centre-back, Fellipe provides balance to suit the team’s philosophy of playing out from the back. With his experience playing in top leagues around the globe such as the Brazil Serie A and Portuguese Primeira Liga, Fellipe’s know-how will surely be a huge boost to the entire Sailors’ backline.
3. Developing S’pore best young talents
Amidst the excitement surrounding the signings of Lopes and Fellipe, the arrivals of Nur Adam Abdullah and Amirul Adli may have flown under the radar somewhat.
However, both Nur Adam and Adli are astute signings who will add vibrancy, speed and hunger to the Sailors backline. With the Sailors committed to developing local youth players, the duo will likely play a significant role this coming season.
Nur Adam arrives at the Sailors after a breakthrough campaign with Young Lions where he impressed with his bravery and tenacity at the tender age of 19. The left-back has all the makings of a modern full-back, with his ability to create in the final third – he recorded four assists last season – set to provide a new dimension to the Sailors’ attack.
Meanwhile, Adli has already established himself as one of the best defenders in the SPL. Since making his debut in 2016, Adli has featured regularly in the SPL – a testament to his consistency and reliability. His superb reading of the game and ball-playing abilities means he stands a good chance of pairing up with Fellipe at the heart of the Sailors’ backline.
4. Faris linking up with familiar faces
A household name in Singapore football, Faris Ramli is a proven star who will be expected to come in and make an immediate impact for the Sailors.
Having won the SPL Player of the Year (POTY) gong in 2019, before plying his trade in Malaysia last season, Faris is now back at a familiar place, having enjoyed a stellar season in 2017 with the Sailors’ predecessors, Home United. That season, Faris contributed 21 goals and as many assists for Home across four competitions.
Crucially, Faris is no stranger to the core of the Sailors squad, having previously played with many of them at some point of his career. Players such as Stipe, Adam Swandi, Song Ui-Young and Amiruldin Asraf were all his teammates at Home in 2017. Faris has also played with the likes of Gabriel Quak, Shahdan Sulaiman and Hassan Sunny while turning out for the National Team.
With so many familiar faces in the squad, and with the 28-year-old at the prime of his career, Faris looks set to make waves once again in the SPL this year.
5. Stipe looking to make the most of his first full season
Known to be a fierce competitor who always demands the best of himself, Stipe was naturally disappointed that he was unable to play a part in the Sailors’ 2020 season run-in due to injury.
While the Sailors still managed to do decently without Stipe, the Croatian’s absence was a huge miss in several key matches, including the loss against Albirex Niigata (S) and the draw against Tampines Rovers.
Such was Stipe’s goalscoring prowess that despite missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury, he still managed to clinch the SPL Top Scorer award, and was even nominated for the POTY award.
Now back to full fitness, the 31-year-old is looking to pick up where he left off in his first full season with the Sailors as he seeks to lead the team to glory. With Lopes and Faris added into the attacking mix and providing him service from the midfield, few will bet against Stipe from finishing the season as the league’s top scorer once again.
6. Gabriel and Saifullah out to impress national selectors
As the saying goes: one swallow does not a summer make. That is especially the case in football, where consistency is the deciding factor in determining whether a player is the real deal or just a flash in the pan.
Last season, Gabriel Quak and Saifullah Akbar enjoyed outstanding individual seasons as they clinched the POTY and Young Player of the Year awards respectively. Unsurprisingly, expectations are now higher on them to replicate and hopefully even surpass what they did previously.
Gabriel enjoyed being the fulcrum of the Sailors’ attack in 2020, topping the assists chart with seven and contributing five goals. This season, he may play a slightly different role with Lopes set to be featured in the no. 10 role. Nonetheless, be it playing on the wings or down through the middle, Gabriel has the ability to make a positive impact in attack. With the AFF Suzuki Cup looming at the end of the year, Gabriel will be extra motivated to perform at a consistently high level to cement his place in national coach Tatsuma Yoshida’s starting XI.
The same goes for Saifullah, who, having come of age last season, will seek to add more goals and assists to his repertoire. Lopes’ presence in the team also means he will have the perfect role model to learn from. If Saifullah continues on his upward trajectory this season, then a maiden national call-up will surely not be far away for the young playmaker.
7. Wide array of attacking talents and solid squad depth
With the Sailors set to compete on three fronts this season – the SPL, the Singapore Cup, and the AFC Cup – it is crucial for there to be sufficient depth and quality in the squad if they are to win honours this season.
And that is exactly what the Sailors have. In attack, there is the irrepressible Stipe leading the line up front, while 2019 and 2020 SPL POTY award winners Faris and Gabriel, as well as Adam Swandi and Hafiz Nor, will provide the threat on the flanks.
The supporting cast in the middle includes the likes of Lopes, Shahdan, Saifullah and Song. Let’s not forget up-and-coming talents in the form of Haiqal Pashia and Justin Hui.
In the defensive third, Fellipe, Adli and Nur Adam add depth to a backline that already boasts the likes of Tajeli, Abdil and Naqiuddin Eunos. All this simply means that coach Aurelio will have the luxury of rotating his players to keep them fresh, without adversely affecting the team’s level of performance.
8. Possible continental success
The Sailors’ predecessor Home United achieved success in the AFC Cup in 2018, when they finished as the ASEAN zonal champions. Now, the Lion City Sailors have a chance to not just emulate that, but possibly go even further in the tournament.
With the squad vastly strengthened for the coming season, the Sailors are well-equipped for a deep run in the second-tier Asian club competition. Just as important, in coach Aurelio, the Sailors have a man who has the experience of excelling on this stage. Back in 2008, the former Socceroos captain led Adelaide United to become the first A-League club to reach the AFC Champions League final.
With Aurelio’s expertise and the overall quality in all departments, the Sailors will be amongst the favourites to conquer the ASEAN Zone again. Of course, there will still be the inter-zonal semis and final to navigate before they achieve the dream of reaching the final. But there is every chance that the Sailors will be able to fly the Singapore flag high on the regional stage this time around.