Stars, key backroom staff depart Lion City Sailors following owner Sea Ltd’s financial woes
The Lion City Sailors’ arrival as Singapore’s first privatised club shook the local football scene in 2020.
It saw the club, backed by billionaire Forrest Li, investing a significant outlay to recruit million-dollar foreigners and experienced backroom staff. They also boast the cream of local players, with the provisional 26-man Singapore squad for the upcoming Asean Football Federation Championship containing 11 Sailors.
But two years on, the bubble looks to have burst.
The Sailors have released several of their highest-paid local footballers and The Straits Times understands that the club has also parted ways with a host of backroom staff.
On Monday, the club announced the departure of six players, including the experienced quartet of Gabriel Quak, Faris Ramli, Shahdan Sulaiman and Hassan Sunny – who have a combined tally of 289 caps for the national team.
The four are believed to be among the highest local earners at the club.
Quak departs after scoring 29 goals across three seasons for the Sailors. He was also named the league’s Player of the Year in 2020.
The winger, who scored 11 goals this season for the Sailors, said that he was informed of the club’s decision not to renew his contract just after their 3-1 win over Tanjong Pagar in October.
Quak said: “It caught me a little off guard to be honest. I expected changes but to be part of that, I’m disappointed and hurt, especially after the genuine effort I’ve given to the club on and off the field the past three years.
“I started this journey together with the Sailors and I have enjoyed my time at the club.
“Footballing-wise, I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. But I believe the club has it own reason.
“I have to move on and accept it.”
Several members of the club’s backroom staff have also been told that their contracts will be terminated. This includes head of physiotherapy Nurhafizah Abu Sujad, sports trainer Danial Feriza, head of performance Mario Jovanovic, video analyst Adi Saleh and football physiologist Firdaus Maasar.
An affected staff member said that the news - which was delivered by chief executive Chew Chun-Liang and sporting director Badri Ghent at a staff meeting on Friday - came as a huge shock.
“They told us that their hands are tied and there is nothing they can do. None of us expected it. We went into the meeting thinking it was a planning session for the next season. When we joined the club, we were told of their long-term plans. It’s hard to digest this,” said the staff, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Compensation packages were offered and accepted by departing staff.
In a statement, Chew said: “There are positives to be drawn from the 2022 season, including the operationalisation of Singapore’s first integrated football training facility at Mattar Road, the club’s record-setting performance in the club’s maiden ACL campaign, the meaningful deepening of our relationship with our German partners, Borussia Dortmund, and our women’s team taking important strides to improve the women’s game here.
“But in the final reckoning, 2022 has been a poor season for us - we have not hit the targets we set for ourselves.
“Our long-term ambitions remain unchanged, but we believe we need a strategic reset to get us back on track and help our Sailors return with a much-needed renewed spirit as we prepare to attack the 2023 season.
“After this reset we are confident that we will see a different - renewed and reinvigorated - Sailors next season.”
Quak also shared that he had heard of the departure of key staff members who had played a pivotal role behind the scenes. He added: “When I found out, I rang Firdaus and comforted him. Because I understand how tough it is to be handed such news so suddenly.”
Since privatising LCS in 2020, owner Sea Limited, whose founder, chairman and group chief executive officer is Li, has pumped in tens of millions of dollars to improve the Singapore Premier League (SPL) club, building training facilities and investing in sports science and a data analytics department.
In 2021, the club paid an SPL record transfer fee of $2.9 million for Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes, which shattered Hougang United’s 2018 mark of just $50,000 for Fazrul Nawaz.
This year, they shelled out $2 million for Brazilian centre-back Pedro Henrique, and snapped up former South Korea captain Kim Shin-wook and Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne on free transfers. Kim and Lestienne are on record salary deals worth more than $1 million annually.
In July this year, the club also launched a $10 million training centre along Mattar Road. Then, Li said the 28,000 sq m facility, the first of its kind in Singapore football, was “a symbol of our commitment to revitalising local football” and the club’s drive to pursue excellence.
However, Sea Limited, Singapore’s largest consumer Internet company, has in recent months been buffeted by a perfect storm of an economic slowdown, inflation, increasing competition and a broader tech sell-off.
The parent of e-commerce giant Shopee and gaming firm Garena has suffered a US$150 billion (S$205 billion) plunge in its value since late 2021. There have been at least three rounds of layoffs at Shopee, both here and at its international offices, with the most recent exercise taking place on Nov 17.
The Sailors are now the next to be affected and ST understands that besides the culling of players and staff, the club will also operate on a much reduced budget next season. It is believed LCS operate on an annual budget close to $7 million, a far cry from the other local SPL clubs, who run on just over a $1 million a year.
The club’s search for a head coach is an indication of the cost-cutting at hand.
Sources close to contract negotiations surrounding the hunt for a new head coach revealed that terms being offered to candidates are a far cry from what was offered to LCS’ previous permanent head coach.
In 2021, in what was viewed as a coup, the Sailors snapped up former Asian Champions League winner Kim Do-hoon of South Korea on a 2½-year contract.
At that time, prominent names such as former Chelsea head coach Andre Villas-Boas and Cosmin Olarou, who is well respected in the Arabian Peninsula having led Al Hilal, Al Sadd, Al Ain and Al Ahli - the most decorated clubs of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates - were also in the fray.
In 2020, LCS’ first coach was former Australia captain Aurelio Vidmar, who had also helmed his country’s Under-23 and U-20 teams. Then he had inked a two-year deal.
This time, the Sailors are understood to be offering a one-year deal and are looking closer to home, having sounded out Bojan Hodak, coach of Malaysia Super League club Kuala Lumpur City, and former Melaka United tactician Risto Vidakovic. At least one turned down the Sailors after receiving an offer that did not match his expectations.
The Sailors’ culling of key players and staff comes on the back of a roller-coaster season.
The year had started brightly with an impressive maiden campaign in the Asian Champions League group stage where the 2021 SPL champions beat South Korea’s Daegu FC 3-0 and China’s Shandong Taishan 3-2. It marked the first time an SPL club had beaten a Korean team and registered two wins in Asia’s top club competition.
But things were less rosy at home.
In August, Kim, who led the club to their maiden SPL title last year, left the then-league leaders less than 24 hours after he was handed a three-match suspension and $2,000 fine by the Football Association of Singapore for headbutting a rival team’s coach in an SPL game.
Luka Lalic, the club’s academy technical director, was installed as interim coach.
They eventually lost the league title to Albirex Niigata and crashed out of the Singapore Cup in the group stages.