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Ay Caramba! Bart’s here to deliver his best years in Singapore for the Sailors

Bart Ramselaar was at the Lion City Sailors Training Centre taking photos and doing video interviews, when someone off-camera suddenly made a reference to his famous namesake, Bart Simpson.

That cheeky comment drew a chuckle from the Dutchman, who remarked, “I get that a lot wherever I go!”

While many are familiar with Bart Simpson as a mischievous character from the popular American animated television series, The Simpsons, the Sailors’ second signing of the 2024/25 campaign is anything but. Unlike his fictional counterpart, known for his disruptive behaviour and disregard for rules, the 27-year-old prides himself on being a consummate professional.

After establishing himself as one of the most promising talents from the FC Utrecht youth system in the Netherlands and accumulating nearly a decade of experience in the Dutch Eredivisie, Bart reached a critical moment of self-reflection last year: “I’m becoming too comfortable here, and this stagnation won’t benefit my career.”

Thus, when the offer to join the Sailors in Singapore came calling, it did not take long for him to decide his next career move – one that would take him more than 10,000km to make a new mark in his football journey. 

While it was not an easy decision to make, Bart is adamant that it is the right one, as he aims to begin a new chapter in his football journey.

“After almost 10 years in my country, I think it was time for me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new,” said Bart, who made a total of 192 Eredivisie appearances since 2015, with 130 of those coming for Utrecht. 

“It was hard because I played so many games for the Utrecht first team and we’re located close to my hometown (Amersfoort) where my family lives, but I knew I had to go.”

And what was Bart’s first impression of Singapore? “It’s a really clean and safe country. I noticed it was raining very heavily when I just arrived – in Holland, it rains like a full day but not as heavily as here.”

Bart has already achieved many milestones in his career  – he won the league title with PSV Eindhoven in 2018, and has made three appearances for the Dutch national team between 2017 and 2018. This included a start in their 3-1 World Cup qualifying win over Luxembourg in November 2016, where he played alongside the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Wesley Sneijder, Georginio Wijnaldum and Arjen Robben.

Despite his impressive résumé, Bart comes across as a genuine character who has the absolute respect for his new club and league that he will play in. 

“I know there are high standards set at the Lion City Sailors – we want to win league titles, and there are ambitions to become one of the top clubs in the region, so that’s why I’m very excited to be here,” he said with steely blued-eyed determination.  

The Aleksandar Ranković connection was the most obvious pull in luring Bart to Southeast Asia, with the pair working together at Utrecht in the 2022/23 season, when the Sailors Head Coach was still assistant at the club. 

But that is not the only connection Bart has with the Sailors – he has also played with Sailors forward Richairo Živković for Holland at the Under-21 level. One of the more memorable games they played in was a 3-0 UEFA Euro U21 Championship qualifying win over Ukraine in October 2018, in which Bart captained the side while Richi scored a brace. Bart also revealed that he knows Maxime Lestienne through mutual friends. 

“I spoke with him (Richi) last week. He spoke very positively about everything, but I’ve already made the decision to sign anyway!” he joked. “I didn’t play with Max – I only joined PSV the season after he left – but he has a lot of friends there who are also friends with me.” 

However, one of the biggest pull factors for Bart is the Sailors’ playing philosophy and robust youth development program, which ensures a pipeline from the club’s Elite Academy to the first team. 

“I know this club places great emphasis on nurturing youth talent, which is evident in their investment in the development process and the construction of an impressive Training Centre – reminiscent of football culture in the Netherlands. I made the step up from the Utrecht youth team to the first team, so it’s nice to see youth players developing like this as well,” said Bart, who made his Eredivisie debut as a 17-year old in Utrecht’s 0-0 draw with Feyenoord in March 2015. 

“Utrecht was a club that gave youth players a chance, and that was so important for me. I was only turning 18 when I joined the first team, and was one of the youngest players there. It was really beneficial for me to train and play with the more experienced players, to see how my level compared to them, and that helped me a lot in my career.” 

Turning 28 this June, Bart still has his best footballing years ahead of him. And he is determined to give everything to push the Sailors a step closer to the club’s aspiration of being amongst Asia’s elite.  

“People always say 27 to 28 is the age where you’re at your best, and I hope to prove that. I’m a creative player who can create chances for other players and also score,” said Bart, who has recorded 31 goals and 18 assists in the Eredivisie.

“I want to show my qualities here and help to attract more people to the stadium. I’m here to win trophies with the team, and I want to help the team do well in the AFC Champions League 2.”

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Toni ‘El Sicario’ Datković: The hardman with a tender side

Sporting the archetype of a battle-hardened Eastern European, Toni Datković’s body is a canvas of tattoos and blemishes – each mark telling a story of battles fought. 

It therefore comes as little surprise that Toni has been affectionately nicknamed El Sicario – a Spanish term that translates to “The Hitman” in English.

However, beneath Toni’s hard-as-nails exterior lies a soft core – a facet of his personality he would like to emphasise.

“When people first hear the term ‘Sicario’, they often think I’m a dangerous guy,” Toni elaborated “But after getting to know me, everybody says I should have nothing to do with the nickname. 

“I’m a family-oriented guy. After training, I’ll just go home and play with my kids. I’m also someone who likes relaxing at the beach and going fishing. One day, when I’m done with football, I’ll go back to the island (Pag Island) where I was born, buy a boat, and enjoy a calm life there!”

So how did the El Sicario nickname come about?

According to Toni, it originated in 2019 when he joined LaLiga 2 side SD Huesca on loan from NK Lokomotiva Zagreb – his first big move out of Eastern Europe. 

He explained: “When you arrive in Spain and you say that you come from Croatia, everyone’s first thought is that of war. And when I take my clothes off, I have a few scars on my body, so I look a bit like someone who’s always fighting. That’s why my teammates started calling me ‘Sicario’.

“The nickname stuck wherever I went and soon nobody was calling me by my actual name anymore. But I liked the nickname from the first moment, so I was perfectly fine with it.”

As further proof of Toni’s sentimentality, he revealed that each tattoo holds its own meaning. On his right arm is a picture of Pope John Paul II – who he calls his guardian angel – as well as his 5-year-old daughter, Luce. Across his right chest is the shape of Pag Island, as well as selected lyrics from a Croatian song that depicts a love of home.

What’s currently missing? A tattoo of his 2-year-old son, Roko.

“I need to do one for him soon, so maybe I’ll do it here (in Singapore)!” he exclaimed.

Throughout the interview, Toni made several references to Pag Island, clearly demonstrating his pride in how far he has come from his humble beginnings to carve out a successful football career.

It is a career that has seen him don the Croatian national team colours, win the LaLiga 2 title, as well as make a century of appearances in the second tier of Spanish football. Along the way, he has even crossed swords with internationally acclaimed stars like former Manchester United star Javier Hernández (Chicharito) and Chelsea forward Nicolas Jackson.

Toni’s football adventure has taken him to Slovenia, Greece and USA. But it was in Spain where his experiences moulded him into the El Sicario who endeared himself to the fans with his heart-on-sleeve attitude and warm personality off the pitch.

Indeed, 75 of his LaLiga 2 appearances came at FC Cartagena, where he cemented his reputation as a reliable and steady defensive presence on the pitch, while building up synergy with the fans. This led to him winning the Fans’ Player of the Year award for the 2022/23 season.

Toni left at the end of that campaign due to matters out of his control, but he remained popular with the fans. Chants of “Sicario, Sicario” from the Cartagena faithful echoed around the Estadio Municipal Cartagonova when he came on as a late substitute for Albacete Balompié in a 1-1 draw against them last November – just a couple of months after his switch of club.

That moment led to the emotional scene of the hard man tearing up at the final whistle as he went over to acknowledge his former fans.

“Cartagena is the most special club in my life; the way the people there loved me and still love me after everything is just amazing,” said Toni, who also has a FC Cartagena-related tattoo on his right leg. “The love they gave really fired me up and provided me with the energy to fight for them on the pitch, so that was huge for me.”

Unfortunately for Toni, his move to Albacete did not work out the way he envisaged it would, leading him to seek new opportunities. 

That was when the Sailors came calling – a call that he had no hesitation answering.

“When my agent told me there was interest from Singapore, I started to do some research and speak to some Croatian guys who used to play here – one of them is Mirko Šugić (formerly from Tanjong Pagar United), who I played with a while in the youth academy of Rijeka,” he recounted.

“The club shared with me a really good vision of what they want to do in the future. I see a lot of potential, a really big will in what they want to achieve, so it fired me up, and I didn’t think much in agreeing to this deal.”

It might seem like a brave move to take the road less travelled. But it is nothing new for Toni, who left his home in Pag Island to go to the city of Rijeka at the age of 13 to pursue his footballing dream.

“It’s a big thing to leave a small village and move to a big city at that age – living alone, learning to cook and taking care of yourself,” said Toni. “But I did everything for football from the first day, so taking risks – this is how I’ve always lived my life.”

Toni envisions going back to relax in Pag after his career, but for now, he is keen to write a new chapter with the Sailors – and to strike up synergy with the club’s faithful fans, The Crew.

“I want to contribute a lot of energy on the pitch – energy that will move fans and help my team win matches. I’ve heard about the tremendous support from the Sailors fans, and I want to witness that for myself,” he stated.

“If we play good football and do well in competitions like the AFC Champions League 2 (ACL2), more fans will come to the stadium. I want to promise the fans that they’ll get everything from me and I’ll try to pass on this energy to the other players. Together as a team, I’m sure we’ll make this a really good season.”

 

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Happy 4th Birthday Sailors, the best is yet to come: Badri Ghent

As the Sailors celebrate the fourth anniversary of the club’s founding, Sporting Director Badri Ghent reflects on a memorable 2023 campaign while looking ahead with optimism to the new 2024/25 season. 

 

Today, as the Lion City Sailors celebrate the fourth anniversary of our club’s founding, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what a fruitful year 2023 was for us, and look ahead to the exciting changes that the 2024/25 season will bring. 

Last year ended with silverware for both our First Team and the Women’s Team. 

A glance in the rear view

Despite a challenging season that saw the squad depleted by injuries and players leaving to pursue studies abroad or overseas scholarships, our Women overcame the odds to clinch a second straight Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title

I am especially proud of the seven girls – Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran, Chloe Koh, Natasha Naszri, Josephine Ang, Cara Chang, Tia Foong and Madelin Lock – who made the step up from the club’s Girls Academy to help the team retain their crown.

The First Team also wrapped up the year by beating Hougang United 3-1 for our first-ever Singapore Cup triumph. It was just reward for the boys who worked hard all season for the team’s cause. 

We also continued to take steps forward on the regional front, producing several resilient and encouraging displays in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) under Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković

While we were unable to surpass our 2022 tally of seven points from the ACL group stage, we did fly the Singapore flag high, defeating Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC in our first ACL game in opposition territory. And who will forget that night at Jalan Besar when we stunned nine-time K-League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-0

Of course, not being able to reclaim the Singapore Premier League trophy was a disappointment but it is one that has only served to fuel our determination to reclaim our place at the pinnacle of Singapore football in the coming campaign. 

Recalibrating for further success 

But it is not enough to simply have an insatiable thirst for success. We also need to constantly reinvigorate the team to ensure it stays motivated and well-equipped to challenge for honours.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Diego Lopes, Pedro Henrique, Súper (Manuel Herrera López), Kodai Tanaka, Rusyaidi Salime and Rudy Khairullah for their commitment to the Sailors’ cause. They have left the club in a better place than when they first arrived, and we’ll want to build on that foundation. 

While it has been a quiet off-season for the club thus far, I can assure you that we have been working hard behind the scenes scouring the region and beyond for exciting talent who can take the Sailors to the next level. 

We’re currently in the midst of finalising our new signings for the 2024/25 season and will be able to share these in due course. 

While we wait for the announcement of new arrivals, it is good to remember that we have kept a very strong local core in the squad. The likes of Zharfan Rohaizad, Lionel Tan, Hami Syahin and Zulqarnaen Suzliman are all maturing and entering the peak of their careers, and I am really looking forward to seeing their progress continue this coming season. 

With a combination of exciting new signings and local talent both experienced and up-and-coming, we are building a squad for the new campaign that you can be excited about – one that can make a splash regionally in the new ACL2 competition. 

This season also marks Coach Ranko’s first proper pre-season with the team, which will give him the opportunity and time to bring his football ideologies and philosophy across to the boys. Having already seen the positive impact he had after taking over midway through the 2023 season, I am confident that the team will continue to evolve and produce the attractive brand of football that he aspires to. 

A key facet that is driving the Sailors revolution is the launch of our hybrid pitch – with natural lawn grass reinforced by synthetic fibres – to complement the two artificial pitches at our Training Centre in the second half of 2023. It has given our first-team players the best possible platform to train and prepare for matches, and no doubt contributed to the improved levels of performance towards the end of last year. 

A continual push in youth development 

As a club, we’ve been investing a lot in our youth talents and preparing them for the eventual step up to professional football. Nathan Mao was a starter in last year’s Singapore Cup final at 15 years and 258 days old and gave a great account of himself – he is just one of four Academy graduates who made the step up to the first team last season, alongside Nur Muhammad Asis, Idzham Eszuan Shah and Jonan Tan. 

To support our youth development efforts, we have established a robust Elite Development Program to groom future football stars at Mattar Road, with these youth players benefitting from being embedded in a professional environment with elements of sport science, analytics and nutrition to bring their game to the next level. 

The Academy trainees have the opportunity to train under a combination of accomplished European coaches and experienced local coaches like Firdaus Kassim (pictured below), Tengku Mushadad, Hamqamaal Shah and Shahril Jantan. 

At the Sailors, we understand the key role we play in building Singapore’s football ecosystem and are committed to nurturing the stars of tomorrow who can become national stalwarts that wear the Singapore badge with pride.  

After a rigorous 2023 season which saw 36 games at club level as well as a number of high-level international matches for many in the team, the boys are getting a well-deserved break but will be returning for 2024 pre-season training very shortly. 

It’s been an unusually long and extended off-season, and I – like all of you – cannot wait for the start of the 2024/25 campaign that will take us to the club’s fifth anniversary.

 With that significant milestone on the horizon, we look forward to continuing our journey with you as we strive to become one of Asia’s elite clubs.

Happy birthday, Sailors!

 

Badri

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Sailors’ Sterling Seven: WPL Invincibles fuelled by girls’ academy graduates

“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”.

That famous quote attributed to Sir Matt Busby is an often used message to players that anyone can make a mark on the team, as long as they put their heart into everything they do on and off the pitch.

The Lion City Sailors Women Class of 2023 is a living breathing example of that.

The Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) champions, led by Head Coach Yeong Sheau Shyan, promoted seven academy players to the first team as the side showcased their dominance, going unbeaten throughout the 2023 season.

Three of them – Ardhra Arul Ganeswaran, Chloe Koh and Seri Ayu Natasha Naszri, all 16 – have shone, receiving scholarships from the national project Unleash The Roar! (UTR) and moved on to overseas opportunities, while the rest – Josephine Ang, 17, Cara Chang, 15, Tia Foong, 16 and Madelin Lock, 16 – have contributed significantly to the team, especially towards the tail end of the campaign.

Additionally, Josephine and Cara recently made their debuts for the national team, donning red for the first time in an international friendly against Bangladesh on 1 December.

Sheau Shyan revealed that promoting academy players has always been part of her plan to refresh the squad each year, but what she did not see coming was the number of such players featuring this season.

“When we started the women’s team, what’s already in our plans was that in years to come, when the academy players graduate, they’ll form the core of our WPL team,” said the league’s Coach of the Year.

“There’s also a general trend in women’s football that players are getting younger and eligible to play in the WPL. But I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly, largely due to our circumstances this year, including our injuries and foreign players leaving.”

And these seven were not there to make up numbers, they made real and significant contributions to the team cause.

“I’m very surprised. Initially I thought of letting them come in and develop themselves, but instead they showed me that they’ve been ready all along,” said Sheau Shyan.

One of the seven, Ardhra, is now finding her feet at the IMG Academy in the United States, and she still recalls the moment she made her WPL debut in a 1-0 win against rivals Tampines Rovers on 21 May.

“When I got called up to train with the WPL squad at the end of last year, I did not see it coming at all because I thought we were done for the year,” the lively winger said, during a phone call from Florida.

“It felt amazing because I was one of the first few from the academy, alongside Natasha, to make my debut for the team and to do it against not just any normal team, but Tampines, was a great experience overall.”

Her time in the WPL squad played a role in helping her obtain the UTR scholarship, she said.

“It’s given me the opportunity to play at a higher level and more regularly. To train with such high quality players, most of whom have also represented the national team, gave me a lot more exposure and experience,” Ardhra noted.

“I think I’ve grown tremendously as a player this season. At the start, I was terrified whenever I got the ball, I just didn’t feel comfortable with it but towards the end of my time at the Sailors, I could feel myself wanting the ball more and making more of an impact.”

Another player who has improved leaps and bounds since joining the WPL side is Josephine, who made her debut in a 3-0 victory over Still Aerion.

She admitted that the step up to the league was a daunting one, and to make matters worse, she was substituted 45 minutes into the match.

“I felt I had a lot of responsibility to carry, everything was on my shoulders and I was nervous. Even though coach Sheau Shyan told me I played well that day, I kept thinking I played badly,” the forward recalled.

She also opened up on the challenges she faced mentally as she attempted to acclimatise to different surroundings. Everything worked out for her eventually as she finished joint-third highest goal-scorer in the team with seven.

“At first, I struggled to keep up with the intensity and pace of play, and I kept overthinking and I had a negative mindset. But once I felt more settled, I became more positive and just wanted to play football. Everything seemed fun again,” said Josephine.

“This experience has definitely helped me grow as a player because now, I know what I want to do on the field and my role in the team. I want to set a very high standard for myself and keep improving every day.”

Just like Josephine, having a strong mentality was a key factor behind Madelin’s successful season.

The dynamic midfielder was struck by an injury in a match on 5 August that kept her out for the rest of the month. She eventually returned on 15 October and finished the season on a strong note, starting all of the remaining matches.

“I was training quite consistently with the team before that injury and coach Sheau Shyan told me it was my time to step up then. I had to sit out all four matches that month and I was disappointed about that,” she said.

Despite the setback, Madelin’s love for the sport is evident. Although the multi-talented athlete has to juggle not only her studies but also basketball training – she was part of the National Under-16 setup – football still has a special place in her heart.

“It’s quite a big commitment to be part of the WPL team, especially as we train four times a week. It’s hard for me to go to both football and basketball training sessions as it causes a lot of strain on my body,” she shared.

“It was very hard for me to commit to training with the Sailors, but it’s just about how much I wanted to do it. If I didn’t like this team, I wouldn’t sacrifice so much of my time for it.

“But this team has given me so much, I’ve grown so much and it’s always a pleasure to train and play with them. So I’ll always make sure I have time for training by setting aside time to do my school work.”

Besides pulling the strings from the middle of the park, Madelin has also added goals to her game in recent weeks. She finished the season on seven goals, including a hat-trick in the final game, this despite only scoring her first on 22 October.

“For some of the matches earlier this season, I played a more defensive role and didn’t want to take risks going forward. But once I started gaining goal-scoring momentum, it felt great to keep banging them in,” said Madelin.

Cara is another who has inspired on the goal-scoring front. The youngest debutant in the team this season has netted five times, while mesmerising fans – and opponents – with her tricky footwork.

She revealed that things were not exactly rosy in the early days of her WPL experience.

“At the start, I’d be worried for every training session because I wasn’t the best and couldn’t really keep up,” said the 15-year-old.

“I also thought that this would just be a new opportunity for me, but to score five goals, I feel like whatever I did was an accomplishment.”

Being the youngest in the team, nervousness would be a factor for Cara, but she chooses to look at it positively instead.

“On one hand, people may ask ‘who let this kid in?’ if I don’t perform well, but at the same time I look at it as the chance to learn and to take every opportunity as it comes,” she noted.

“Hopefully in a few years time, I get to try playing different positions and continue being at a high level.”

The contrast between playing in the academy and the WPL is stark, as all players agreed that the senior team is on a completely different level.

Madelin pointed to the physicality of players in the WPL as one of the biggest changes.

“The players here are much more physical than any I’ve ever faced. They are much stronger, and in the beginning, there were times where I did not go for challenges as I was scared I would be bumped off the ball,” she said.

Ardhra added: “At the academy level, no one really expects anything from you. In the WPL there’s more at stake, you’re expected to win every match especially at the Sailors, so I’d say composure is the biggest difference.”

Although the players have faced their own challenges since being promoted, one thing that stayed constant was the support they received from Sheau Shyan and their teammates.

“My teammates give me a lot of assurance and encourage me. They tell me to be open-minded and even just their words give me a boost,” said Josephine.

Added Cara: “We have a really great team atmosphere and I could feel comfortable with the team. The players were very welcoming from the start and always guided me.”

Sheau Shyan shared that the impact made by the seven players in any way cannot be underestimated as they have punched above their weights and showed what they were capable of.

“These players are technically stronger than some of our existing players, because they’ve started playing the sport from a much younger age,” she said.

“Their technical abilities and skills help us to play a more possession-based style of football, and also score more goals.

“And I’m certain they will only get better from here.”

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Champions League: The bright orange light at the end of Kodai’s dark road

He sat there in silence, ice-pack pressed onto his head, eyes lost in the ripple of a blank gaze that bounced back upon itself.

Kodai Tanaka had already ripped off his armour and rinsed off the sweat of battle, but there in the bowels of Pathum Thani’s Thammasat Stadium, wounds were still raw. That dull throbbing in his head – a result of a coming together of two opponents in the heat of competition – was not the source of the 23-year-old’s pain, at least not the cause of the sting at the core of his being.

The Lion City Sailors fell to a 1-0 away loss to Bangkok United on Wednesday (29 November) in Group F of the 2023/24 Asian Football Federation Champions League (ACL) campaign. It was a defeat that snuffed out their dreams of becoming the first Singapore side to qualify for the last 16 of Asia’s top tier club competition.

The difference between the teams was measured in small margins, and defeat was bitter – and stinging.

The long dark road

But just six months ago, Kodai would have given anything to look defeat in the eye – and take that dastardly devil’s best punch square in the mouth.

At the time, Kodai was trudging along the long road to recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury that threatened to deny the 2022 Singapore Premier League Player of the Year any chance of competing on Singapore football pitches in the year he reigned as their best player.

“When I was injured, I really felt like my mind was a complete blank – I couldn’t think about anything.

And of course, I cried a lot – night after night,” said Kodai. “There were many times when I felt like breaking down, and many times when I wanted to quit.”

“I have now achieved my goal of playing in the Champions League, and I have so many people to thank for helping me get here, like the trainers around me, and of course my family and friends.”

Light – and tears – at the end of the tunnel

Kodai made his ACL debut in the Sailors’ famous 2-0 win over two-time ACL winners, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and he remembers every second of the experience, even the thoughts running through his head as he stood on the sidelines waiting to come on for Maxime Lestienne.

“It’s true, I was crying at the time. I felt like I was finally able to stand here, after all that I had to go through to work my way back from the injury,” he said.

“I could picture all kinds of people’s faces, and when I remembered them, it was very emotional.”

Tears would flow again – more freely so – after the final whistle.

Said a wistful Kodai: “I was trying not to cry, and I knew that if I shook Niels’ hand, I would definitely cry. So I wanted to just briefly shake his hand and quickly move along, but he caught me.”

Physiologist Niels van Sundert was an ever-present on Kodai’s recovery journey, and the Japanese forward was effusive with his praise for the Dutchman – and not only for his professionalism on the rehabilitation front.

“He was always there for me when I was good and bad, even when things were difficult and I was feeling down, he would very firmly tell me that I had to do this,” said Kodai. “Sometimes we even fought, and he would be angry with me.

“But he was always there for me, helping me in any way he could, sometimes that meant just being with me.”

And all those memories came flooding back when Kodai embraced Niels at the touchlines of Jalan Besar.

“It wasn’t exactly what he said to me at the time. There were times in the past when he comforted me by hugging me when I was going through a really hard time, and I had flashbacks of that – I naturally started to cry,” recalled Kodai, his voice quivering.

“I’m really grateful for all that he’s done for me.”

The path ahead

The thought of lining up alongside his teammates to face Asia’s best in the ACL fuelled Kodai’s drive to get off the treatment table and back onto the pitch.

The Sailors still have one match to play in Group F, against Kitchee SC at Jalan Besar on 13 December despite already out of contention to qualify for the Round of 16.

And while Kodai is still raring to go, looking for his first ACL goal, he has already derived so much from his long hard road to recovery.

“When I returned to the pitch, I heard many fans and supporters calling my name “Kodai”, and I felt really happy,” he said, again recalling that Jeonbuk Jalan Besar night as a beaming smile flashed across his face.

“It felt fantastic to be back on the pitch as a professional footballer, and it made me want to work even harder in my career.

“I feel that I need to work harder to show my gratitude to the people who have helped me on my journey to recovery, and by showing that kind of attitude, I can give courage to people who have suffered the same injury or have been out of action for a long time.”

For now, Kodai has turned his focus to finishing the season strongly.

“I believe in my teammates, and of course the head coach and staff as well, and I know how hard everyone works, and I know how hard everyone works for the team, and that’s why we’ve won as a team,” said Kodai.

“I have unshakable confidence in the team, and that we will have a strong finish to 2023.”

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Battleground Thailand: Final Group F stop brings the Sailors to Thammasat Stadium

In Battlegrounds Asia, we look into the history and lore of the stadiums that will host the Lion City Sailors’ second foray into the AFC Champions League (ACL), Asia’s top-tier club competition. 

In the third part of this series, we dive headfirst into the Thammasat Stadium where the Sailors will battle Bangkok United.

 

Located in the city of Rangsit, Pathum Thani, some 40 kilometres north of the busy Thai capital of Bangkok, is the rustic-looking Thammasat Stadium. 

Located within a school

Roughly half the size of the Rajamangala Stadium – the biggest football stadium in Thailand – the Thammasat Stadium has a capacity of 25,000 spectators.

Opened in 1998, the stadium first opened its doors to that year’s Asian Games, hosting four group-stage matches of its women’s football tournament.  

Interestingly located within the Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus, the stadium comes under the purview of the school and as such it regularly hosts sporting and other events of the university.

Since the turn of the millennium, four Thai League clubs have called the stadium home, most recently Bangkok United – who feature in Group F of the 2023/24 Asian Football Confederation Champions League alongside the Lion City Sailors, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Hong Kong’s Kitchee  SC – who have been hosting their matches at the venue since 2016.

In terms of appearance, the Thammasat Stadium resembles a scaled-down version of the Rajamangala, except that it has a roof covering its two side tribunes.

And perhaps what sets the Thammasat aside from other Thai stadiums are the remarkable floodlights – with the architects opting for steel material instead of the typical concrete pylons. And as such, the base of each pylon seems to grip the exterior of the stadium when viewed from outside and they lean over the tribunes that properly illuminates the pitch area.  

The Thammasat Stadium is also known as the True Stadium for commercial purposes, as they are owned by True Corporation who runs TrueMove H – one of Thailand’s biggest mobile providers.

The venue for regional tournaments

With the great lighting and decent facilities, it has been a venue that has proven favourable to organisers of international fixtures.

In January 2020 before Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the world, the Thammasat Stadium was one of four venues chosen to host the 2020 AFC Under-23 Championship that were held in Thailand.

A total of 12 matches ranging from group-stage affairs all the way to the semi-finals was played there – including South Korea’s 2-1 quarter-final win over Jordan that witnessed current Korean star forward Cho Gue-sung netting the opening goal on the night.

The best-attended match of that tournament was the quarter-final affair between Thailand and Saudi Arabia. The hosts were chasing a historic place in the last four but succumbed to a 78th-minute penalty to bow out in front of 14,958 fans.

The stadium was then used again for four matches of 2022 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship that involved the Thailand national team – most notably the second leg of the final that welcomed dignitaries like FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Thailand defeated Vietnam 1-0 to prevail 3-2 on aggregate to claim a record-breaking seventh AFF triumph.

The attendance of 19,306 that night is the Thammasat Stadium’s all-time attendance record.

In June this year, it was also used for nine matches of the 2023 AFC Under-17 Asian Cup.

Entertainment

The stadium is also occasionally used for entertainment events. Earlier this March, it hosted Thai Channel 3’s 53rd Anniversary Beloved Festival that saw fans indulging in a night of fun and entertainment with a celebrity football match and performances from Thai superstars like Mario Maurer, Bella Ranee and Yaya Urassaya.

Next January, K-Pop group NCT 127 is scheduled to host a two-day concert at the venue as part of their world tour.

But football remains the heart and soul of the Thammasat Stadium and on Wednesday, it will for the first time play host to a Singaporean club in the ACL.

It was supposed to host PEA FC’s ACL qualifying play-off against the now-defunct Singapore Armed Forces FC in 2009, but the pitch was deemed unplayable and the match was switched to Rajamangala.

Fans of the Sailors will relish screaming and creating a ruckus from the stadium’s South Stand as the club looks to take one step further to fulfilling our aspirations of becoming the first Singaporean club to qualify for the ACL’s Round of 16. 

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The bigger the pressure, the better the rewards: Adam Swandi is embracing the ACL

A stunning 3-0 win over Daegu FC in April 2022 for a Singaporean club’s first-ever win over a K League 1 side, a plucky 2-1 victory over Hong Kong champions Kitchee SC a month ago and now a brilliant 2-0 upset over two-time Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

There is clearly something about the ACL that brings out the best in the Lion City Sailors. 

Adam Swandi, one of the key members of the Sailors squad, believes it boils to the desire of wanting to push the Sailors and Singapore to the forefront of Asia in the continent’s flagship club competition. 

“It’s a huge honour for us to play at the highest level in Asia, on the same stage players like Ronaldo are also playing. We’re so motivated coming into the Champions League because it’s really important to show what we – a Singaporean team – can do,” said the 27-year-old. 

“The level’s really high of course – we’re not just coming up against teams from Korea and Japan, but the champions in these countries. It’s tough, but I’ve always believed that the bigger the pressure, the better the rewards are. 

“Getting results in this competition brings happiness not just to our fans, but to the entire Singapore football fraternity. It helps to elevate the sport here as a whole, so we want to keep doing well.” 

And motivation to excel is very easily found. 

“Whenever we’re going up against big teams, there’ll be many people saying ‘sure lose’, ‘sure bantai’ (Malay word for massacre) – it’s like we’re going there to get shot. But in football, the ball is round. You can always get surprising results if you work hard as a team. 

“We’ve shown these two years that we can get good results against teams that people least expect us to deliver against, and that’s a great feeling that we want to keep replicating,” said Adam. 

After achieving seven points – the best-ever points tally by a Singaporean club in the ACL group stages – in an impressive debut voyage last year, the Sailors were always going to be under pressure to do even better in their second year participating in the competition. 

Adam acknowledges that expectations levels have rocketed but the Sailors are embracing the pressure, and indeed, cherishing jostling with the continent’s best players. 

“We’re a decently good team who can do well in this competition. While we understand these expectations, we’re also setting our own targets high because that’s the only way to go forward,” he said. 

“As much as there’s pressure, it’s definitely an experience that us Singaporean players have to cherish. There was a time we wouldn’t even imagine being at this stage. I did talk to Hami (Syahin) recently, saying that ‘a few years down the road, we’ll realise what a big stage this was for us’. 

“Footballers sometimes feel like we’re going through motions, trying to get through a run of games. But if we sit down and look back for a moment, we’d realise that it’s something really significant and one that we all should be proud of.”

To Adam, nothing tops the feeling of winning ACL matches and he has already been involved in a few significant ones since 2022. 

“Honestly, that feeling of joy once the final whistle is blown is indescribable. It just feels like everyone’s hard work as a team – from the players to the backroom staff, and even the kit man – have come off together. 

“And it’s a kind of feeling that we want to feel week in week out and we’re definitely now fueled to go for more,” he said. 

While the Sailors are bidding to become the first Singaporean club to qualify for the ACL knockout stages, the club is already looking further into the future and the work that lies ahead.

“Obviously as a club, we have ambitions of being a big club in Asia and there’ve been investments to ensure we’re on the way to achieving that. But it’s a difficult process – football looks simple, but it’s actually very complicated and takes a lot of work outside the pitch to succeed. Even the smallest of details will matter in a game,” said Adam. 

“Everyone hopes the road to success can be instant or cut short somehow, but it definitely takes some time. A good example is our neighbours JDT (Johor Darul Ta’zim) – it took them quite some time to get used to the ACL and they’re now competing at a very good level, so we’re definitely looking to emulate them. 

“The key is to be exposed to this level of competition every year, where we have to play our A game and raise our levels physically and mentally. First, we need to make sure we do well in the league to gain a spot in the ACL every year.”

An incredible upset of Jeonbuk on Matchday Four has sparked life into the Sailors’ ACL campaign reigniting their chance of qualifying for the Round of 16, and Adam continues to believe in that dream. 

“It won’t be easy because we also have our eyes set on the domestic (Singapore) Cup while the ACL is going on. We want to win the Cup, but at the same time we want to help the team create history. I think this team is on a good way to achieve all our aspirations, if we continue to play like this and work as a team.”