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Six-time champions Albirex Niigata to become local Singapore Premier League side from 2024

SINGAPORE – Singapore Premier League (SPL) winners Albirex Niigata will transition to a local outfit from the 2024 season, the club announced at a press conference at the Jurong East Stadium on Wednesday.

This means the six-time champions will have to abide by the same competition rules as local teams, including the foreign player quota. They will also be able to represent Singapore in regional competitions such as the Asian Champions League or AFC Cup, should they get the nod from the Asian Football Confederation and earn those spots.

The White Swans, who are a satellite team of their parent club in the J-League, have been playing in Singapore’s top flight since 2004, with their players mainly of Japanese nationality. But locals have been introduced gradually, including Adam Swandi – who became the first Singaporean to play for them in 2018 – and Ilhan Fandi in 2022.

Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga said the switch has been in the works for years. The 46-year-old said: “We’re very serious about the future of Singapore football.

“As we continue to manage Albirex, it has become more important how we can contribute to local football, rather than our original objective of distributing players to Japan. Next year is our 20th anniversary… so it’s time for change.”

There are plans to keep coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who led them to the SPL title in 2017, 2018, 2022 and 2023. The three-time SPL Coach of the Year said: “I believe that Albirex can contribute more to the development of Singaporean football.

“We’ve always demanded that all players, not just local players, understand football correctly and prepare themselves professionally.”

Korenaga added that their foreigner spots will be filled by Japanese players. When asked about the local players they are targeting, general manager Koh Mui Tee said: “Because players are still contracted to other clubs… we’ll talk to them when the season ends and the time is right.

“Our team will be competitive, because we’re champions this year. It’ll be difficult next year, but we want to retain our title next season.”

Albirex’s 2023 squad has nine Singaporean players, with six of them staying for next season, including national goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, who signed a two-year extension in June, and winger Hilman Norhisam, who has also committed his future to the club.

Hilman, who came off the bench four times and scored once in the league this season, called the move “an exciting step ahead”. The 19-year-old added: “After being part of this wonderful club for the past three years, I’ve learnt so much from the coaching staff and Japanese players. The discipline they have both on and off the pitch is amazing.”

Looking ahead, he said: “It would do us good to have the Albirex mindset and culture built into aspiring Singaporean players.

“Additionally, being localised gives us a chance to fight for AFC Champions League and AFC Cup spots, which we weren’t able to do in the past years.”

Albirex, who sealed their sixth league title in eight years on Aug 11, have also won four Singapore Cups and four League Cups.

The Jurong-based club have been known for their community outreach efforts in Yuhua, including donations to the Yuhua Albirex Football Academy, which has benefited more than 1,000 aspiring players since it was launched in 2014.

Highlighting the club’s plan to create a developmental path for their youth players, Koh said: “This year, we started to be aligned with the FAS Centre of Excellence youth system. There is progression… as we become a full-fledged Singaporean team.”

Fans whom The Straits Times spoke to were confident the club will continue challenging for the top spots. Muhammad Haziq Hafizhan Zahare, an Albirex fan since 2018, added: “Albirex are literally a club in Jurong that we can all come down and support, and it’s accessible.”

Operations executive Amir Hamizan also pinpointed several Singaporean players he hopes will don their club colours, including former player Adam, and “players who grew up in the area” like Haiqal Pashia and Syukri Bashir.

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