Hariss Harun and the rest of the 14 Lion City Sailors who were called up to the various national teams returned to the Sailors Training Centre on Thursday (14 September) and immediately put their heads down, driving their feet towards the club’s second foray into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL).
There is less than a week to 20 September, the day the Sailors will host Thai side Bangkok United at the Jalan Besar Stadium in their opening Group F ACL encounter, with two-time ACL champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC to come in the months ahead.
And there is little surprise that at Mattar Road, anticipation hangs heavy in the air.
The Sailors will fly the Singapore flag at the continent’s top-tier club competition again after an encouraging maiden voyage in the 2022 ACL, beating K League 1 side Daegu FC and Chinese Super League outfit Shandong Taishan enroute to securing seven points in a creditable campaign.
This time around, the Sailors look to add European pedigree to the Singapore spirit as they play at Asia’s top table.
“I’m obviously really excited because not a lot of people my age would have the chance to experience something like this, so this opportunity makes me really grateful and motivates me to work even harder,” said Nathan Mao, who became the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) youngest-ever player at 15 years and 5 days old when he came on against Tampines Rovers earlier this year in March.
“I’ve been learning so much by training with the first team day in and day out and the senior players have been patiently guiding me with many tips. Nothing is guaranteed in football and I’m not going to think of how many minutes I’m going to play (in the ACL) – the key for me is to give my 110 percent and set my mentality right to help the team whenever I get the chance to go on the pitch.”
Nathan has a spread of potential “teachers” to learn from.
There is a strong European flavour at the club, with the likes of former Portugal youth captain Rui Pires, ex-Ajax Amsterdam forward Richairo Živković, former Sunderland defender Bailey Wright joining the likes of Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes – both of whom have played in some of Europe’s top leagues and impressed in the Sailors’ blue at last year’s ACL campaign.
Maxime, who has been in blistering form this season with 25 goals and 21 assists in the SPL, is adamant that the Sailors can go further in the ACL than any Singapore club has – or has even believed is possible.
“We had a great experience in 2022 and I believe we can qualify for the last 16 this time,” said the 31-year-old Belgian, who had one goal and two assists the previous ACL campaign.
“I know the squad has changed a lot from last season, but there’s still a lot of experience and quality in the team. I don’t want to say we’re going there to create a surprise, because it shouldn’t be a surprise – we have quality and we know what we can do.”
Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković, who was coaching in the Dutch Eredivisie as recently as this May, shares a similar confidence and has been gradually assembling the various parts in piecing together a plan for his Sailors to do the job out on the pitch.
And the signs are positive.
With the Sailors turning in a creditable performance in July’s Tiger Cup encounter against visiting English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur at the National Stadium, and ending the SPL season with some high-scoring victories over Balestier Khalsa, Tampines and Hougang United, Ranko is excited at what his charges can produce in the ACL.
“The new boys like Bailey, Rui and Richairo arrived not long ago, but they are already very immersed in the team – interacting and communicating inside and outside the pitch. That’s the most important part of creating a team together and it makes my job so much easier – I can focus on more straightforward things like tactics and conditioning,” said the Serbian.
“We’ve players who have played in big matches internationally so there’s no issue for them to make the step up to play in the ACL. I have every reason to believe that we can be very competitive in this campaign.”
Looking beyond the on-paper expectations, Bailey drew inspiration from representing a club and community that he has embraced – and has started to embrace them.
“When I first heard that the shapes on our training kits, jerseys and ACL campaign designs were inspired by the triangles we see on the buildings around our Training Centre, I thought it was very apt, even heartwarming,” said the 31-year-old.
“We are representing Singapore at the competition, and it’s fantastic that we’re literally wearing the shapes and colours of our community and carrying all that on our chests and shoulders when we go into battle and aim to do them proud at the ACL.”
Like Bailey, an inspired Maxime is also braced for battle in the campaign ahead.
“Our players – even the new and young players – know what the club wants and requires from us, so there’s no excuse,” said the former PSV Eindhoven man.
“We know the ACL is a different level of competition, but we’re all ready to show our spirit to compete and show what a Singapore club can do.”
Tickets for the Sailors’ first AFC Champions League 2023/24 Group F game against Bangkok United is now on sale. Snap the tickets up now via https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/afclcs2023.