Lion City Sailors set sights on Asia after winning first title
Privatised side dream big after ending foreign teams' dominance of local league
It was not all smooth sailing, but in just their second season as the Singapore Premier League's (SPL) only privatised club, the Lion City Sailors won their first championship after beating Balestier Khalsa 4-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday.
In front of a maximum 1,000 spectators allowed under Covid-19 safe management measures, the Sailors took an eighth-minute lead through Song Ui-young, but were made to sweat after Aidil Johari equalised in the 31st minute.
|LION CITY SAILORS||BALESTIER KHALSA|
|(Song Ui-young 8, Gabriel Quak 41, 81, Diego Lopes 78)||(Aidil Johari 31)|
Even though Gabriel Quak pounced from close range 10 minutes later to make it 2-1 to the Sailors, there was still an element of uncertainty.
Defending champions Albirex Niigata were leading Tanjong Pagar United 4-1 at half-time at Jurong East Stadium - thanks to four goals from Kiyoshiro Tsuboi - and could still leapfrog them on goal difference.
But $2.9 million signing Diego Lopes and Quak settled any frazzled nerves with goals in the 78th and 81st minute respectively, even if Adam Swandi was sent off for a second booking in the 87th minute.
Tanjong Pagar eventually came back to draw 4-4 with Albirex, which ensured that the Japanese side finished two points behind the Sailors.
Sailors skipper and goalkeeper Hassan Sunny said: "It's about time, but there were hiccups and nervy moments. We failed last season, worked very hard to bounce back and never stopped believing. And now, we have our reward."
After ending a six-year foreign domination - Albirex had won the championship four times and Brunei DPMM twice since 2015 - the Sailors have set their sights on establishing their own era and making an impact on a bigger stage.
Sailors chairman Forrest Li wrote in his matchday programme notes: "We understand we will not achieve all our goals overnight, but we aim to keep moving forward as quickly as we can, because the change we dream of is not just within our club, but across Singapore football."
Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon recognised how his team have "out-performed my expectations" during a mini-injury crisis when top scorer Stipe Plazibat and centre-back Jorge Fellipe were ruled out, to score the necessary goals even as he worked on tightening the defence during a 10-match unbeaten run since he took charge in July.
He said: "Teams will come at us stronger next season, but we have to keep improving as we try to win every game and enjoy playing our football. We should be a team that are constantly winning the title.
"We would like to make our mark in the AFC Champions League and prove ourselves among the big boys next season."
TOSSED IN THE AIR
After the final whistle, Kim, an AFC Champions League winner who took over after Aurelio Vidmar's departure in April, was tossed in the air by his players.
The selfies he took were to mark the day he claimed his first league crown as a coach after losing the K-League title with Ulsan Hyundai to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on goal difference in 2019.
This was also a first league title for Lopes, 14-goal Plazibat and midfielder Song, who has been at Home United - the club that the Sailors replaced - for almost a decade.
Incheon-born Song said: "It really feels like a drama. I continued to work hard to contribute to the team when I can, and I also believed I can do the same for Singapore.
"And now, I have won the league title and I also have my Singapore citizenship this year."
For national skipper and serial title winner with former club Johor Darul Ta'zim, Hariss Harun, the triumph fulfilled a boyhood dream to win the SPL.
The 30-year-old said: "It feels great to help the Sailors break the glass ceiling and overcome the pressure. Sometimes, the first title is the most significant because it sets the tone and mentality for the future."