SINGAPORE — The Lion City Sailors became the first Singapore football club to win the Singapore Premier League (SPL) since 2014.
A rollercoaster 4-1 win over Balestier Khalsa at Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (10 October) allowed them to pip defending champions Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on the final matchday of the season.
In the six seasons after Warriors FC won the league in 2014, the SPL title was won by non-Singapore clubs - Brunei’s DPMM FC (2015, 2019) and Japan’s Albirex Niigata (2016 to 2018, 2020) - leading fans to wonder if any of the local clubs could ever match the two sides' excellence and overtake them to win the league again.
The streak was finally ended by the Sailors, who are Singapore's first privatised football club after billionaire Forrest Li bought out the stakes of the former Home United in 2020.
Li continued to bankroll a formidable squad that featured national-team mainstays such as Gabriel Quak, Faris Ramli, Shahdan Sulaiman and national captain Hariss Harun.
Together with top striker Stipe Plazibat as well as Brazilians Jorge Fellipe and Diego Lopes - who became SPL's most expensive player when the Sailors signed him for $3 million this season - the Sailors made dramatic improvements in each of their two seasons to become legitimate contenders for the title.
Dramatic end to tight title race
Both the Sailors and Albirex began the final matchday level on 45 points, with the Sailors having a better goal difference. Should both sides win their final matches, Albirex would have to score five more goals than the Sailors to overtake them.
Facing Tanjong Pagar United at Jurong East Stadium, Albirex stormed to a 4-1 half-time lead, with striker Kiyoshiro Tsuboi scoring all four goals to offset an early Jaguars goal from Anaqi Ismit.
Meanwhile, the Sailors took an early lead through newly-naturalised Singapore midfielder Song Ui-yong, but Balestier equalised through Aidil Johari after 31 minutes, raising the tension at Jalan Besar Stadium.
However, Quak eased those worrying moments as he restored the Sailors' lead in the 41st minute. And Lopes sent their fans into raptures when he stormed forward in the 78th minute to head acrobatically home following a superb cross by Faris.
By then, Albirex had dramatically crumbled as Tanjong Pagar kept reducing their lead. And when Reo Nishiguchi scored an 86th-minute goal for the Jaguars to improbably make the score 4-4, the Sailors could finally relax and enjoy their stroll to victory.
After a rollercoaster season in which they changed head coaches, with Australian Aurelio Vidmar having left mid-season to join Thai side BG Pathum United, the sweet taste of league success was finally the Sailors' to enjoy.
Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at http://t.me/YahooSingapore