Albirex Niigata set the standard
Albirex's dominance shows local clubs have plenty of catching up to do
They swept all four domestic titles in 2016, and Albirex Niigata are on course to repeat the feat again this year.
They thumped Warriors FC 5-1 last night to retain their Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League title, adding to the Community Shield and The New Paper League Cup already in the bag.
Beat Philippine side Global Cebu in the RHB Singapore Cup final on Nov 25 and the White Swans will pull off another spectacular Quadruple.
The football fraternity admits that there is much to do if local clubs are to catch up with the Japanese outfit, who started playing in the S.League in 2004.
Said Geylang International coach Noor Ali: "Albirex are a very professional club and the rest of us are far off their standard. We have to change our mentality."
The Japanese side are well known for their commitment to training and nutrition and even the way the players carry themselves, but one particular detail stood out for former Singapore international Noor.
"I spoke to their coach and he told me that the team train in the morning on matchdays, and that's something that we (local clubs) definitely don't do in Singapore. Everyone complains that it's too hot and players prefer to sleep more before a match," said Noor.
"But Albirex have conquered the S.League only in the last two years, it's not like they have been dominating in the last 13 years that they have been playing here. That means we've been doing something wrong in this time."
Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic believes it was a league policy shift that helped strengthen Albirex and another change could help local clubs close the gap.
"They are the best team at the moment, but they started to dominate the league only when the league reduced the number of foreign players from five to three," he said of last year's rule change.
"Let's be honest, the Japanese football standard is very high. We have to reduce the age of their players, maybe match that of the Garena Young Lions. Even then, they will do well," added the Croat.
The Young Lions are effectively Singapore's Under-22 side and ply their trade in the S.League. The club, who have one game left to play, will end the season bottom of the nine-team standings.
Twelve players in Albirex's 24-man squad are above 22 years old.
Kraljevic said: "Older players are experienced professionals, and (in our context) that means that Albirex have that many foreign players. There are a few S.League clubs with Japanese foreign players, too."
Kraljevic and Noor believe a stronger youth development system can help young local players narrow the gulf in technical ability between young Japanese players and them.
ALBIREX TO TAKE IN LOCALS
But Kraljevic also feels Albirex can do more to help.
"They do great work in the community, but Albirex should contribute more to Singapore football," said Kraljevic.
"They should take five or six local players into their squad.
"And if those players train and live like these Albirex players, they will surely improve."
Albirex have already declared their intention to do that and it is understood that a proposal is being put together for Albirex to take in local players next year, although the number has yet to be confirmed.
The number of Singapore players is set to match the number of foreign players clubs are allowed to sign next year.
Whether or not Albirex have benefited from the reduction in foreign player quota, Noor said that local clubs must learn from the S.League champions.
"They have a professional approach throughout the club, from the administration to the coaching and the players," said Noor.
"So, credit to them, they are by far the best team in the league these last few years and they have been deserving winners."