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Albirex lesson for Singapore

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By: Suresh Nair
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, is the rip-roaring football influence of Albirex Niigata FC Singapore (ANS) in the S-League.
Currently top of the S-League with a commanding seven-point lead after 12 matches, the White Swans (Albirex’s nickname) stand out like an inspiring thumb in the way they blow their trumpets to instill a sense of genuine professional football.
They are just one of two foreign clubs, the other being reigning league champions Brunei DPMM, playing in the 21-year-old S-League. They’ve been here since ANS was founded in 2004.
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.
At Jurong East Stadium, which is home ground to the Singapore-version of Niigata with only a capacity of 2,700, 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.
That’s the secret of ANS 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.
100-YEAR-PLAN
 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 149) and Malaysia (No 173).
And hard work, in engaging the community, shows in the attendances, too. ANS 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. 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 scatter-gun approach.
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?
 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.
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 Japan and the ANS, 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.
WET BLANKET
Football remains the undisputed No 1 sport in Singapore. In theory, there are fewer hurdles to overcome when chasing the sporting entertainment dollar. Yet in terms of regional results or in drawing the grassroots fans, they appear like a wet blanket.
Look at ANS, under a Singapore-born general manager Koh Mui Tee, who’s a terrific advocate of community bonding. The club 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, the ANS-way is something that 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.
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.
For the moment, let’s forget the imaginary figures, grandoise plans and unachievable  World Cup goals for now and just concentrate on getting bums on seats.
At the end of the ANS match against Balestier Khalsa on May 6 (a record 6-0 win), I was pleasantly surprised at the post-match atmosphere. The Albirex players mingled with fans, posing for photos and bowing in gratitude, emphasising that crucial umbilical cord once more.
FOUR TITLES
Little wonder when ANS Chairman Daisuke Korenaga was asked about his goals for the season, without blinking his eye, he replied: “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).”
Elusive is 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.
Their player-turnover is perhaps the highest. But they don’t feel the setbacks. For this season, the club signed 16 new players from all over Japan. Most are fresh out of university, all yearning to be professional footballers but, as they found out, making the cut in Japan is a tall order.
In a nutshell, ANS is 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 ANS from other Singapore professional clubs.
Simply put, Singapore must learn the ANS-way at Jurong East Stadium, a mini-replica of the J-League, that hard off-the-field work counts and the need to emulate Asia’s most established footballing template. Never ever say that we cannot replicate in a little red-dot-of-an-island like Singapore with a few simple, inexpensive tweaks.
Like in the Land of the Rising Sun, positivity is the key word and if the ANS 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. ANS have inspiringly shown that by sincerely engaging the community in small ways, the big leagues grow.

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.


Republished with permission from Sports247.

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