From impeccably timed challenges to pinpoint passes pinged from defence, Toni Datković stood out as an assured presence in the heart of the Lion City Sailors backline in their 2-0 win over Albirex Niigata (S) in the 2024/25 Singapore Premier League (SPL) Community Shield last Saturday (4 May) night.

Given how comfortable and confident he looked throughout the game, it was hard to believe that Toni – who is affectionately known as El Sicario – was making his competitive debut for the Sailors.

Though it is still early in his Sailors career, it already looks clear that the 30-year-old will be integral to his new team’s bid for domestic supremacy – a responsibility that he clearly relishes.

“It was the perfect start for the team – we wanted a trophy to kick-off the season because we’re aiming to win all the trophies in Singapore this year, and we made sure we did it,” said Toni.

“I don’t like to talk about my own performance – I think we played well as a team and controlled the game, but of course we can’t be satisfied as we’re always aiming to play even better.”

Having quickly forged strong bonds with his new teammates since joining the Sailors in February, Toni  – boasting a century of appearances in Spain’s LaLiga 2 – shared that he feels at home off the pitch, especially with his wife and two children having relocated from his native Croatia to join him in the Lion City.

“From the moment I joined, the team has accepted me, and we’ve become incredibly close-knit. Of course, my centre-back partner Bailey (Wright) and I have developed a strong bond – we regularly share our footballing experiences with each other, and you can see our synergy is evident on the pitch,” Toni shared.

“The rest of the team are also great guys. Our captain Hariss (Harun) has helped me a lot to be comfortable here…we also have young guys like Nathan (Mao) who always gives the team a good vibe with his hunger and mentality to succeed, despite being only 16.” 

Under the leadership of Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković, the Sailors have set ambitious goals for the 2024/25 season. This includes a breakthrough on the continental stage in the inaugural ASEAN Club Championship (ACC) Shopee Cup, as well as the revamped Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League 2 (ACL2), both of which commence later this year.

However, the primary focus for the Sailors this season is clear: to reclaim the SPL trophy and bring it back home for the first time since 2021.

Their quest to overthrow Albirex as league champions begins this Friday (10 May) night, as they face a new-look Hougang United side in the SPL season-opener at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

With a blend of Balkan signings like Petar Banović, Stjepan Plazonja, Faris Hasić, and Ensar Brunčević, alongside a core Singaporean roster featuring Nazrul Nazari, Gabriel Quak, and Shahdan Sulaiman, the Cheetahs have strengthened their squad significantly. 

As such, Toni has urged his teammates to maintain their full focus when they take on Hougang, as they look to start the Sailors’ SPL campaign on a strong note.

“We have to give our 100 percent in every game and showcase the brand of football that Coach Ranko wants us to display,” Toni declared. “That’s the key to a strong league season. We shouldn’t be underestimating any team.

“Coach Ranko pushes everyone hard, because he trusts us and wants the team to reach the levels that we’re capable of. We’re all working very hard because ultimately, we want to deliver the league trophy for our beloved fans.”