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Albirex and Deinze build new pathway to Europe for local youngsters

Lions starlet Ilhan Fandi may be the sole Singaporean footballer playing for a European club now, but Albirex Niigata and KMSK Deinze, his former and current clubs, believe he need not be the only one, as South-east Asians have what it takes to get there.

On Friday, Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions Albirex announced the Rising Star Singapore project in partnership with Belgian second-tier club Deinze, which opens up another pathway to Europe for local aspiring footballers.

There will be trials on Nov 11 and 12, culminating in a final cut on Nov 19 for their Under-15 and Under-17 Centres of Excellence teams.

Outstanding youngsters from these trials will then go on a free training stint in 2024 with Deinze, who signed Ilhan after the youngster had a breakthrough SPL season with Albirex in 2022.

This will be a pilot project that could become an annual programme.

Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga said: “We believe this will be a valuable project to connect Singapore and worldwide football, and we dream that Singaporean players will play on the world stage.”

The four selection criteria are technical ability, tactical awareness, collective understanding of the game and physical, social and mental qualities, said Albirex director of methodology Marcal Trulls Sevillano, who is also their head of youth development.

More than these attributes, Deinze vice-chairman Hiroyuki Ono is also looking for a player’s adaptability if he is to forge a career in Europe eventually.

He told The Straits Times: “Football in Singapore is different from football in Japan, which is different from football in Europe. To succeed, you need to be able to adapt and have the right mindset.”

During the press conference, Ono shared the experience of three Vietnamese boys from their Rising Star collaboration with the PVF Football Academy. The trio struggled initially but overcame homesickness to benefit from their two-month stint. One of them, 16-year-old Nguyen Le Phat, has since earned a national Under-21 call-up.

Separately, the Deinze senior team also signed Indonesian attacking midfielder Marselino Ferdinan in 2023 and the 19-year-old has scored once in four appearances.

Describing the Rising Star programme as an internship, Ono added: “The interns will be able to improve their football skills and develop their international mindset by gaining experience off the pitch, as well as broadening the career paths of the players.

“We hope that the Rising Star project will be a milestone for the next generation of players who want to build their football careers with a global perspective.”

Ono, who is also the chief executive officer of Singapore-based investment fund ACA Football Partners which owns Deinze, revealed that his company is looking to further expand, as well as acquire an Asian club.

In 2021, he initiated ACA Football Partners as a “brother company” of ACA Investment, a fund-managing firm which moved from Tokyo to Singapore in 2012 and has a capital accumulation of more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion). It is funded by contributions from the ACA group, Ono and other investors.

Other than Deinze, ACA Football Partners also owns fifth-tier Spanish side Juventud Torremolinos and has a minority stake in English League One’s Charlton Athletic.

Ono said: “Football is always a prime destination but it’s about time to look for a partnership in Asia, and it has to be the right fit. I want to develop successful football players, but I want to go beyond that and build a football, education and business ecosystem.”

While he has not thought about privatising SPL’s Albirex, a Japanese side which will become a local outfit from 2024, Ono did not rule out the possibility.

He said: “From a structural perspective, we are always open. If it makes sense for the best interest of this project and for everyone, it is something we will consider.”

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