Albirex's Kawata named best player of 2016
Kawata adds to Albirex honour roll after being named best player of 2016
It was the biggest prize on offer at Marina Bay Sands last night, with four stars of the recently concluded Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season vying for domestic football's most glittering individual honour.
In the end, it was Atsushi Kawata from Albirex Niigata who was named the S.League's 2016 Player of the Year.
Fitting perhaps, after the extraordinary season the Japanese club have enjoyed this year.
Kawata, whose 20-goal haul fired the White Swans to all four titles on offer in 2016, saw off competition from Home United's Danish maverick Ken Ilso, reigning Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure of Hougang United, and Tampines Rovers' Hafiz Abu Sujad, arguably the most consistent local footballer this season.
Having never played professional football until he arrived in Singapore at the start of 2015, Kawata has since established himself as one of the competition's most lethal strikers.
"I'm very happy to win this award and, as a team, we won many titles this year," said Kawata, of Albirex's unprecedented sweep.
"We could not have asked for a better result.
"This is the first time I've ever won so many big titles in a short period, so it is definitely the happiest moment of my life."
The 24-year-old netted only six goals in the league last term, but did show glimpses of his ability and duly took his game up another level this year.
Although he is renowned for his technical ability and deadly finishing, Kawata believes the biggest change has actually been the improvement in his athletic ability.
"I definitely think I improved physically this year," he explained.
"Last year, I came from Japan having played only against university students.
"After coming here, I had to play against very strong opponents, especially the foreign players, and I had no choice but to adapt.
"This year, I believe I've been able to play at an even higher level because of the way I improved my physical strength."
It could have been an even better night for Kawata as he was also in the running to win the Goal of the Year, only to lose out to teammate Tomoki Menda for his wonder-strike against the Garena Young Lions.
Given his relative youth and obvious talent, the future appears very bright for the Osaka native and a return to the J.League may even be on the cards.
Did he expect to achieve as much as he has when he first arrived on these shores as a bright-eyed aspiring footballer?
"I didn't know anything about Singapore and the S.League before I came here," Kawata said.
"The only thing that was on my mind at first was to just do my best.
"Nonetheless, I can safely say that, both last year and this year, our team have put in a tremendous effort and have been working very hard together.
"Although we tried to keep calm and not look too far ahead, it was during the halfway point of this campaign when I had a feeling that we could really win it."
This year, I believe I’ve been able to play at an even higher level because of the way I improved my physical strength.
— Player of the Year Atsushi Kawata