'Win or lose, we will never stop cheering' for Albirex
Albirex's army of supporters, including Singaporean Soffie, ready to roar on the White Swans to victory
On matchdays, he stands out among the passionate Japanese fans cheering on Albirex Niigata.
Muhammad Soffie may not be Japanese but he has been accepted as one of their own.
The freelance security officer has supported Albirex since the Japanese club started competing in the S.League in 2004.
To date, he owns over 30 Albirex jerseys and is a proud member of the Albirex Niigata Singapore Supporters Club, which have over 700 members including cheerleaders and children.
"I attend about 99 per cent of their matches. As best as I can, I try to reschedule my work timings so that I can watch their games every week," said Soffie, who lives in Hougang but does not mind the long journey to the Jurong East Stadium - Albirex's home ground.
"I have missed only two matches so far since 2014."
When asked why he pledges his allegiance to Albirex instead of other local clubs, Soffie said: "They are the most interesting team to watch because the players are not individualistic. They play together as a team."
Off the pitch, Soffie, who is fondly known as Satria by his friends, is touched by the warm welcome that members of the Albirex fan club have extended to him.
"I have never felt left out. They take good care of the fans, and they engage us. Most of all, they are very approachable. I feel like part of the family."
On his 39th birthday on May 5, he even received a personal birthday message from White Swans head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga on Facebook.
"The coach messaged me on Facebook and wished me happy birthday. He was the first person to wish me at midnight!" said Soffie.
Albirex can count on Soffie's support when the league leaders take on Tampines Rovers in a top-of-the-table clash at Jurong West Stadium on Sunday.
"Tampines have the home advantage and they will be looking to close down the gap with a win on Sunday," he said.
"But I think Albirex have the upper hand. They are on a roll and they are becoming stronger (as a team).
"The morale of the players is high and they have the quality to get a win in this showdown.
"We are not known to be the noisiest bunch among the S.League fans, but our support is always constant and strong.
"Win, lose, or draw, the fans will never stop cheering."
Cheerleader Takagi Shizuka also likes the close ties she has forged with everyone associated with Albirex.
Hailing from the city of Kitakyushu in the Fukuoka prefecture, the 33-year-old Japanese has been a cheerleader with the club for almost one-and-a-half years.
For Albirex's home games, close to 100 cheerleaders aged between three and 33 take to the field.
Shizuka practises with her fellow cheerleaders for an hour every Thursday evening.
"The club is a great place for us to bond. Also, the Japanese players who come to Singapore are young and they need all the support they can get, and we all want to support them," said Shizuka, who has worked in Singapore for two years.
"I love dancing in front of large groups of people because it is very exciting," added the customer support specialist, who practised ballet for 12 years and is also into jazz dance.
"Cheerleading is fun and I really enjoy it. As long as I am in Singapore, I want to continue doing it."
Albirex can also count on support from local fans for their home games because of their partnership with Yuhua Community Sports Club (CSC).
In 2013, the White Swans pledged to donate $1 to Yuhua CSC for every fan who attended their home games at Jurong East Stadium. Nowadays, Yuhua CSC brings down about 200 supporters to each home game.
Lim Chock Sing, chairman of Yuhua CSC, told The New Paper that the partnership with Albirex has been crucial to the development of the Yuhua Albirex Football Academy which caters to children and youths aged between five and 15.
"They provide coaching through locally appointed coaches and, because of the support we receive from them, we charge $50 for 32 training sessions, providing the children with a full jersey set, shin pads and boots," said Lim.
"We have partnered Albirex for five years and they are one of our best partners."