Albirex Niigata sign seven Singaporean footballers, their highest-ever
Coach Shigetomi picks Iman, 17, as one to watch
Albirex Niigata are set for a greater local flavour for the new Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, which kicks off tomorrow.
The Japanese club have seven Singaporeans on their books, their highest-ever total, and coach Keiji Shigetomi has suggested "three or four" of them could make his starting XI.
He told The New Paper: "This year, we tried to get better local players as well as better Japanese players and tried to get them to blend better."
He pointed to pre-season friendlies against Safsa and Singapore Khalsa Association, in which he picked three and four Singaporeans in his starting line-up respectively.
SPL rules require the White Swans to have two local players in their starting line-up and, last season, Albirex did not field more than two in a match.
In most games, at least one local player was taken off at half-time, with Albirex finishing the 90 minutes with a Singaporean only four times last term.
They retained former Lions goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma'at and winger Zamani Zamri from last season, adding midfielders Gareth Low, Daniel Goh, Iman Hakim Ibrahim, Ong Yu En and goalkeeper Aizil Yazid.
Shigetomi named Iman, 17, as one to watch as his side hope to bounce back from their first trophyless campaign since 2014.
He said of the attacking midfielder, who won The New Paper Dollah Kassim Award last year: "He is still young but we can see that he can compete at training.
"He has good imagination and creativity and has a good first touch. Iman can link up well with the Japanese players."
Republic Polytechnic student Iman is making his fledgling step into the SPL and said while he had offers from other clubs, he was keen to start his professional career at Albirex.
He said: "I wanted to challenge myself to see how far I am from the Japanese players...
"The small details matter - like sleep, punctuality and diet. These details separate them from the players I've played with before...
"I hope to be a key player... and contribute as much as I can. I hope we can regain the (SPL) title and play good football."
Besides Iman, former Young Lions midfielder Low and ex-Balestier Khalsa winger Goh look best-placed to challenge for a first-team place.
Goh, 20, who played in last year's Merlion Cup, said Albirex's increasing local flavour made them his first choice when he was deciding who to sign for.
He said: "When Albirex said they wanted to sign me, they were my first choice.
"This is a one-time thing to play for a foreign club; I can play for a local club any time.
"I heard about how things are different at Albirex and how their players do extra training.
"Some players at local clubs also do extra training, but these Japanese boys have got nothing to lose. They just want to fight and prove themselves."
But Goh admitted that he was less enthused about the White Swans' pre-season regimen.
Laughing, he said: "When I knew I was going to Albirex, I prepared myself that I would 'die' during pre-season."
Albirex Niigata v Geylang International (5.30pm, Jurong East Stadium)
Tampines Rovers v Balestier Khalsa (5.30pm, Our Tampines Hub)
Young Lions v Hougang United (5.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)