Albirex Niigata: How ‘ugly ducklings’ turn to ‘White Swans’

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By: Suresh Nair

JAPANESE humility is just awesome and they match their deeds with action especially after they reach their overwhelming targets of being the top football club in another Asian country.

Flashback to the start of S-League season: There were many raised eyebrows and sarcastic smiles when Albirex Niigata FC Singapore (ANS) Chairman Daisuke Korenaga replied to a big question about his goals for the S-League season.

Without batting an eyelid, he said: “We want all four titles (The S-League title, the Singapore Cup, the League Cup and the Charity Shield). Every year we come very near to titles, even though almost all the players change (each season).”

Normally, Japanese are known to be the most humble humans, playing their cards close to their chests but Korenaga was simply being honest because he knew the White Swans (Albirex’s nickname) had the genuine Samurai-spirits, with rousing fires in their bellies, and truly ready for the big challenges.

Especially so, when elusive may well be the right word for ANS’ S-League title attempts, a crown that has never been won by the Japanese-based club in Singapore since its inception in 2004.

Yes, last season was the most successful campaign, winning the Singapore Cup and the League Cup. But since then, the team suffered a blow due to a number of key departures, including the S-League’s Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure, who left for Hougang United.

But on Friday, Korenaga, 41 years and a former football journalist, was on Cloud Nine, smiling and celebrating as the Swans were crowned S-League champions at the Jalan Besar Stadium with an emphatic 3-0 win over Hougang United. But not before a divine-intervention scare as the match was suspended in the 52nd minute due to lightning. But outstanding goals from Atsushi Kawata (fourth minute), Masaya Jitozono (eighth min) and Rui Kumada (32nd min) made the first victory the sweetest.
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Perhaps it’s a slap for the state of professional football, too, as Albirex’s win also significantly marked the second straight season that a foreign club has won the title after Brunei DPMM captured the crown last year. But they’re the third foreign club to win in the competition’s 21-year history, after the now-defunct Etoile FC did it in 2010 and Brunei DPMM (2015).

BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT

Korenaga was blunt yet bubbly in title victory: “Winning the title (feels) different to the Cup wins. This is our biggest achievement. Sometimes, Singaporeans don’t like us (because we are a foreign team). But let me say it with true Japanese humility: We sincerely exist for Singapore.”

Yes, go on and blow your trumpets, Korenaga, go on and open plenty of Japanese Sake and Nikka Whisky as you’re now on the verge of an unpredented  “Treble” this season. The League Cup was successfully defended, a maiden S.League title in the bag with two matches to spare, and Tampines Rovers await in the Singapore Cup final at the end of the month.

I will admit that the White Swans’ success is a befitting lesson for the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). They worked hard, sometimes cried, too, since making their S-League debut in 2004. There were very close shaves – three third-place finishes (2012, 2013, 2015) – and there were seasons to regret (eighth in 2007). But finally, the story of the proverbial “ugly duckling” came true, like a special Japanese fairy-tale, on Friday.

And, mind you, they really let their boots do the talking as thoroughbred champion. They boasted the S-League’s best attack, scoring 48 goals in 22 matches and they have the meanest defence – shipping just 16 goals. Friday’s win means they have 50 points, 10 more than five-time champion Tampines, with three games remaining for the latter, making it mathematically impossible for the Stags to catch up with them.
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But traditional Samurai-styled humility is in the true-blue Japanese blood and Korenaga, in the jubilation of an extraordinary victory, said “we want to contribute a lot more to Singapore football” by signing Singaporean players to their roster.

He wants to integrate with Singapore grassroots to build up the sagging fortunes of Singapore football by adopting younger Singaporeans to play for Albirex Niigata. He believes that “some” local players are good enough to play for Albirex here and the club could help in the development of Singaporean footballers by giving them opportunities with their parent side in Japan.

“We want to be the bridge between Singapore and Japan,” he says. “Yes, I want to bring them to the J-League (if possible), that’s the best way, I think.”

INTEGRATION WITH YUHUA

Korenaga believes the perception of Albirex as a “foreign” club by local football supporters will significantly change because the Swans have taken serious and sincere steps to integrate with the heartlander community. He promises more corporate social responsibility initiatives, such as expanding their Yuhua Albirex Football Academy, a partnership with Yuhua Community Club that was established in 2014.

My message to Singaporeans: Just pass by the west coast of Singapore and you get a bubbly Japanese feeling. The Japanese School is there, the Japanese Gardens offer refreshing green scenary but, more captivating, now is the rip-roaring football influence of Albirex Niigata FC.

I dare stick my neck out and say that the White Swans stand out like an inspiring thumb in the way they blow their trumpets to instill a sense of genuine professional football and grassroots community spirit.

For the record, their parent club is in Niigata, one of the most fanatical Japanese sporting cities, and even in 2003, while still playing in the second tier of Japanese football (J2), Albirex attracted the best average crowd in the country of over 30,000. Since promotion to J1 in 2004, they recorded an average crowd of over 38,000, and in 2005.  Albirex were the first ever club in Japan to record an average gate of over 40,000 at the 42,000-capacity Denka Big Swan Stadium.

Please come to Jurong East Stadium, which is home ground to the Swans, with only a capacity of 2,700. But the boisterous spirit is there, from the colourful eye-catching posters, the stirring banners of every player on match-days, the publicity campaigns along bus-stops and supermarkets to lure the community, all point to a role-model Japanese club that is showing Singaporeans the right way to move forward in professional football.

Let us humbly learn from the secret of Korenaga’s club dreams. Simply because, unlike the other Singapore-based S-League clubs like Tampines Rovers, Geylang International, Hougang United, Balestier Khalsa, Warriors, Garena Young Lions and Home United, the smart-thinking Japanese prioritise the small stuff, the less eye-catching stuff, the magical passion that builds a football identity, club by club, community by community.

Big deal, perhaps to football-naive Singaporeans? Maybe it’s an anomaly in the S-League. But in the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s the norm in the J-League, probably respected as Asia’s most dynamic.

Mind you, Japanese football has a traditional Samurai-like 100-year “bola” plan, unlike Singapore or Malaysia, and that’s why you see the very differing football objectives. Japan ranks No 53 in the FIFA rankings, compared to Singapore (No 155) and Malaysia (No 158).

HARD WORK IN SUCCESS

It’s not flash-in-the-pan success. It’s hard ground-swell work, in engaging the community, and it shows in the attendances, too. The White Swans had the best S-League crowds last year. Now with a newly-laid astro-turf pitch, it continues to improve the ground as it enjoys year on year attendance increases.

For the FAS, it’s a timely reminder that this is no fluke, just sheer hard work, but another glittering example of that obsessive attention to detail, taking incremental steps in the right direction, rather than a scattergun approach.

I really wonder: Why can’t every S-League club make every match-day like a carnival, like how the Japanese do? Why can’t we have fan-fares and fun-fares, with a circus-like atmosphere with bouncy castles, face painting, family-styled competitions, temporary bars and enough food stalls to rival a Chinatown or Little India or Geylang Serai “pasar malam” at every S-League playing arena, from Bedok Stadium in the east to Jurong West in the west, Bishan Stadium in the central or Choa Chu Kang Stadium in the north?

Please, in this emphatic victory by Albirex, pick an inspiring leaf from the Japanese books. Learn from the J-League lessons. In the early days, as the Japanese journalists tell me, the community came for the carnival. Over time, they stayed for the football. A connection was established between footballer and fan, a kind of unofficial contract was signed, in some cases literally.
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And the sponsors, too, queue to soak the professional approach of ANS. Canon, Mitsubishi, Daiko, Denka and Kikoman, just to name a few strategic partners, work hand-in-hand to bring a mini-Kallang Roar flavour to Jurong East Stadium.

Like Korenaga’s longer-term vision, the 21-year-old S-League must remain a rousing national project in a proud Asean country, certainly not keen on losing face. It must get back to the footballing basics of grassroots engagement with attractive pre-match entertainment: Reach the community. Capture a new fan. Get his family. Then go for his neighbours. Focus on piecemeal growth. Lift attendances. Improve stadiums. Repeat and repeat, please.

SHINING SUNRISE

Let it be put on record, too, that under a Singapore-born general manager Koh Mui Tee, who’s a terrific advocate of community bonding, the White Swans recently signed a fourth memorandum of understanding with the Yuhua Community Club, pledging to donate $1 to Yuhua CSC for every fan who attends the home matches at Jurong East Stadium. From last season’s games, they contributed a record $19,499, taking their four-year total to $56,280.

And the Yuhua Albirex Football Academy was also formed to provide the younger generation in the heartland constituency with a timely platform to develop not only technical skills but also life values through football, and will continue for another 24 sessions this year. 

Yes, Friday’s Albirex success must be a shining sunrise which must be emulated by every S-League club. Without fear or favour, they must be encouraged, by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to return to their communities and, if need be, start from scratch. Go back to the basics. Set up the carnivals. Engage with local businesses. Form regional partnerships. Establish local academies and supporters groups. Cultivate the communities and, most of all, be patient to longer-term success.

Remember: Keeping the S-League afloat is critical for the Made-in-Singapore footballing industry. The bread-and-butter of over 3,000 are at stake. FAS President Zainudin Nordin revealed in an October 2013 interview that the S-League reportedly contributes $200million to the nation’s economy.

Let’s seriously look at Albirex, a gung-ho club with a do-or-die attitude. They will survive at all costs and no individual is above the club. It’s an institution that preaches that absolute teamwork and community bonding rank as high as player performances and crowd entertainment.

Yes, the need to find an edge, an advantage or even a slight opening that may prove beneficial down the track defines Japanese football, both on and off the field. Such an obsessive attention to detail separates the J-League from the S.League. And the White Swans from other Singapore professional clubs.

Like in the Land of the Rising Sun, positivity is the key word and if the Albirex players and officials can do it in the west corner of Singapore, so can the rest in Bedok, Choa Chu Kang, Bishan and Hougang.

It’s always the little things that we fail to nourish in the 21-year S-League. And we must humbly learn from role-model Japanese examples right at our door-steps.

The White Swans have come out from being the “ugly ducklings” and in championship successes, inspiringly shown that by sincerely engaging the community, right at the heartlands, in small ways, the big leagues grow.

And in ending, let me quote an old saying in Japan, “Kachou Fuugetsu”, which means : “Experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself.”

Congratulations Korenaga for this humbling lesson after Friday’s S-League victory. You put your money where your mouth is. You delivered what you boasted and now Singaporeans must absolutely, and very humbly, learn from Albirex Niigata.


Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has been involved with the management of Tampines Rovers (1996-1999) when the S-League first started in 1996.