Albirex Niigata (S) reign supreme in Singapore Premier League again with new era beckoning

Having won their 6th Singapore Premier League title in eight years, Albirex Niigata (S) will embark on a new era in 2024 as they transition to a local team rather than one predominantly made up of Japanese players. Albirex Niigata Singapore FC

For the 6th time in the past eight years, the Singapore Premier League came to a close at the weekend with Albirex Niigata (S) champions once more.

With the title already secured, the White Swans marked yet another coronation on a high as they ended their campaign with an emphatic 5-0 rout of Hougang United, finishing with an impressive eight-point margin between them and second-placed Lion City Sailors.

Even if it did at times look as though both the Sailors and Tampines Rovers might give them a run for their money, few would argue that Albirex were not deserving champions.

They almost always are and deserve plenty of credit for the way they go about their business.

Armed with a fairly modest budget, Albirex -- who are technically still a satellite club of the J1 League team of the same name -- undergo massive personnel changes on an annual basis, scouring the Japanese lower leagues and university competition to build a squad.

On occasion, they do lure a big name such as former Southampton striker and Japan's 2011 AFC Asian Cup hero Tadanari Lee, who has recently announced his retirement after two seasons in the SPL.

By and large, the nature of Albirex's game is nurturing promising talent and helping them on to greater heights, rather than splashing big to buy success.

And yet, they have six SPL titles to their names.

As the dust settles on their most recent triumph, and further success still possible this year in the form of the upcoming Singapore Cup, a far bigger challenge is just further down the horizon for the White Swans.

After two decades in Singaporean football, Albirex's 21st year -- in 2024 -- will see the club transition to a local team similar to most other sides in the SPL (excluding Brunei's DPMM FC and age-group outfit Young Lions).

This move has been years in the making with Albirex first adding Singapore-born players to their ranks back in 2018.

Initially, these were mainly younger prospects but soon evolved to also including more-experienced role players and culminated at the start of this season with the headline signing of Singapore international Hassan Sunny, who remains the only goalkeeper to have won the league's Player of the Year award.

Prior to boasting Singaporeans in their professional squad despite being a Japanese club for all intents and purposes, the White Swans had long been committed to being a part of the local community with various outreach and academy programs at grassroots level.

Throughout the local footballing community, including players and coaches past and present and even from the opposition, praise has regularly been showered on the impact Albirex have had on the game in Singapore -- from the style and identity of their play to the work ethic and values instilled into anyone who walks through their doors.

But for a club who have long been looking to show they are a Singaporean team, the biggest step of all has finally arrived.

Starting next season, Albirex will be just that -- primarily made up of local players with only the maximum number of imports that other clubs such as the Sailors and Tampines are allowed to field.

Perhaps the greatest prize of all will be the chance for the White Swans to now well and truly fly the Singapore as they would be eligible for continental competition, having previously been unable to take part in AFC tournaments despite technically qualifying through the countless trophies they have claimed in recent times.

As ever, a new adventure will bring about as many challenges as it does excitement.

It remains to be seen what kind of primarily-local squad the White Swans can assemble, and how long it will take for coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga to impose his style of play on his new charges.

Yet, this is a milestone that has long been on their roadmap -- and they are finally here.

If and when they get it right, bigger successes could be lying ahead for the 'new' Singaporean club that is Albirex -- greater even than the impressive six league titles, four Singapore Cups and four League Cups they have claimed as a Japanese satellite club.