Singapore youngster Adam Swandi builds future with Albirex Niigata (S)
For the first time since their inception in the S.League in 2004, Japanese invitees Albirex Niigata (S) will have Singaporean players on their roster, having signed playmaker Adam Swandi and goalkeeper Shahul Rayyan.
The White Swans have swept all four domestic trophies, including the 2016 and 2017 S.League titles in the past two seasons. They exercised the option to sign two local players under the new regulations set out by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) for the 2018 S.League season.
In particular, the signing of Adam is an intriguing one. The former FC Metz youngster, who turns 22 on Jan. 12, has been viewed as one of the most promising local footballers to emerge in recent times, but has yet to fully realise his potential.
This move to Albirex could well be the one to propel his career to great heights, with the opportunity to work in tandem and learn from his technically superior new teammates.
If he impresses, there is the possibility that he could be snapped by their parent club in the J.League.
Alumni like Atsushi Kawata and Yasutaka Yanagi have made it back to Japan's Albirex, who will feature in J2 in 2018 after being relegated from the top flight last season.
"It's definitely an honour to be signing for the best team in Singapore and being the first two Singaporean players to join Albirex," said Adam, who will wear the No. 10 shirt vacated by 2017 S.League player of the Year Kento Nagasaki who has moved to second tier Thailand side, Thai Honda.
"2017 was one of the best seasons for me as a footballer [with seven goals and two assists for Home United]. When I was presented the opportunity to sign for Albirex for the 2018 season, I didn't hesitate.
"These are the type of opportunities that no one knows if it will come round again and I believe that at Albirex, I will be able to develop my football to the next level. I am excited and looking forward to this new challenge. My focus is to do well for Albirex."
Meanwhile, the lesser-heralded Shahul is expected to be the back up to 38-year-old custodian Yosuke Nozawa, who has played around 300 games previously in the J.League.
"It is once in a lifetime to play with the Japanese, and they are the best [club] in Singapore," said the 22-year-old, who will officially join the team in May after completing National Service.
"It's a great opportunity to better ourselves, so we'll definitely make full use of it and give our 100 percent."
Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga is pleased with his two local acquisitions as they look to aid the development of Singapore football with their participation in the S.League.
"The objective of Albirex in the S.League is to help develop football in Singapore and strengthen the national team," he said.
"Since 2004, we have been working hard towards building a strong team to provide a real challenge to the local clubs.
"Our successful seasons in 2016 and 2017 prove that we have met this objective. From 2018, changes with the various [S.League] age restrictions are kicking in so we considered that it's the appropriate time to contribute more directly to the Singapore national team by recruiting two Singapore players.
"Our record for developing young players is well-recognised in Japan and our next step is to groom Singaporeans players ourselves and bring them to the J.League.
"We don't want to be known as just a foreign club in the S.League. We have vision and have taken action to contribute to the development of Singaporean football in many areas - that is the reason for our existence."
Meanwhile, FAS president Lim Kia Tong is supportive of Albirex's initiative in signing Singaporean players.
"This is a historic moment for Singapore football as we have two of our local promising young players signing contracts with Albirex Niigata FC (S) for the first time," he said in an FAS statement.
"Albirex is a stellar example of the new strategic pillars we have defined for the S.League -- a focus on youth and community as well as capability development, and we are pleased that they are fully supportive of our direction to develop local youths for the national team.
"Training with and competing for the two-time S.League champions will be beneficial for Adam and Shahul and I am looking forward to seeing how they will develop and what is in store for them."
Albirex have come a long way since a fifth-placed finish in their inaugural S.League season a decade and a half ago, and are now providing an aspirational destination for Singapore's rising stars.
Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT