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.”