Swans' home sweet home
Japanese side Albirex making an impact on and off the pitch
They may be a foreign side in the S.League, but that has not stopped Albirex Niigata from bonding with the local community.
Following the example of their parent club in Japan, Albirex have spared no effort to reach out to residents in their neighbourhood and engage them.
For instance, the White Swans donate $1 to the Yuhua Community Sports Club (CSC) for every fan who attends their home matches at Jurong East Stadium.
A total of $36,781 was raised in 2013 and 2014, providing the foundation to set up the Yuhua Albirex Football Academy last August.
Albirex, who are into their 12th season in the S.League, have also been actively involved in community outreach and regularly conduct football clinics for the youth.
For their efforts, they were presented with the People's Association Community Spirit Award (Community Partnership Awards) at the Yuhua National Day Dinner last Saturday.
The award honours organisations that have made "outstanding achievements in community service" and fostered a partnership with the People's Association in "building greater social capital".
Albirex have been particularly active in the district since signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Yuhua CSC in 2013, and club chairman Daisuke Korenaga says they will continue to do their bit for what he affectionately calls their "hometown".
"Football can be the pillar of a community," he told The New Paper yesterday.
"Albirex hope to be that pillar in our community to develop a sporting culture in Singapore.
"For example, in Japan, (parent club) Albirex Niigata are not just a football club… the young and old, men and women, everyone enjoys football within the community.
"We may be a Japanese team but we don't see ourselves as guests in Singapore; it's important to us to build a relationship with the locals.
"I'm very proud and honoured to have received this award because it's recognition from a government body for activities that go beyond sports."
On the field, they have also been more than a side to contend with.
Despite seeing regular player turnover, and always having one of the youngest squads in the S.League, Albirex have established themselves as one of the heavyweights.
They have finished in the top five for the past four seasons. Last month, they also won the TNP League Cup to add to their success in the same competition in 2011.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Albirex, who face Hougang United at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday, are eyeing their first S.League title.
With a third of the campaign to go, they are second in the standings, two points behind leaders Brunei DPMM but having played a game more.
Under previous coach Koichi Sugiyama, they were known to favour a short-passing game that was pleasing particularly to football purists, while his successor Tatsuyuki Okuyama prefers a fast, all-action style that also excites the fans.
The professionalism within the ranks of Albirex, the fitness and sportsmanship displayed by the players are examples for all to follow, and arguably the team's work off the field is another aspect local clubs can mimic.
Korenaga also spoke about what he termed a "community sports circulation system", where he believes the relationship between a football club and the community is like a wheel in continuous motion.
Albirex's community initiatives have also resulted in a steady crowd of fans who identify with the team.
It is not uncommon to see locals decked out in Albirex colours on match days at Jurong East, while more children are enrolling in the Yuhua Albirex football programme.
White Swans team manager Yeo Jun Xian confirmed they average more than 1,000 fans at each home game - one of the best attendance records in the S.League.
Yeo also revealed that 60 per cent of the fans are locals, with the rest from the expatriate Japanese community in Singapore.
One of them is Toshi Okada, who has been working in Singapore as a scientist for more than three years.
The 41-year-old has two sons aged nine and five and the elder one, who is part of the club's soccer school, also gets to walk out with the players on match days.
"We started going for games when my older boy started with the Albirex Soccer School," Okada told TNP during half-time of last week's 0-0 draw with Home United.
"Since then, I would say we attend 80 per cent of the matches.
"In Japan, it's really difficult to get tickets to watch matches and it's very rare that the children get to be player escorts.
"But here, it's different and it's nice to get out and make friends with people who share a common interest… and after a while you get emotionally attached to the club."
While they do enjoy a stable fan base, Albirex never stop thinking of new ways to engage the spectators.
Last October, they held the first "Pokemon Day" in Singapore in conjunction with one of their games, drawing a crowd of more than 3,500.
This year, the club have planned a similar event in the form of "Yo-Kai Watch Game Day", which will be on Sept 11, when they take on Tampines Rovers in a heavyweight clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Fans will get to meet Jibanyan, an anime character from a popular video game, and receive memorabilia.
''We may be a Japanese team but we don't see ourselves as guests in Singapore; it's important to us to build a relationship with the locals.''
— Albirex Niigata chairman Daisuke Korenaga, on receiving People's Association Community Spirit Award at the Yuhua National Day Dinner last Saturday
BY THE NUMBERS
$36,781 - The total amount of money that Albirex Niigata donated to the Yuhua Community Sports Club in 2013 and 2014, laying the foundation for the Yuhua Albirex Football Academy.