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.”