Exclusive: S.League CEO optimistic of best season ever

With an influx of quality signings and the strengthening of all clubs, S.League chief executive Lim Chin tells FourFourTwo he expects an outstanding season ahead...

S.League chief executive Lim Chin is optimistic the domestic competition is about to enjoy its best ever season in 2016.

Hopefully the fans will support their clubs and make this the best season

While it is well documented Singapore’s only professional sports league has fallen on hard times in recent years, there has been plenty of welcome goodwill surrounding the upcoming campaign.

It started gaining publicity for the right reasons following Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho’s link-up with Tampines Rovers for a coaching academy and gathered pace following LionsXII’s removal from Malaysian football.

That meant the majority of LionsXII’s galaxy of Singaporean stars headed back to the S.League.

But the optimism reached new heights from the moment news broke that former Liverpool and Arsenal standout Jermaine Pennant was considering joining an S.League club.

While some were initially sceptical, as we all now know the move did in fact become reality, and Pennant will be a Stag for 2016 and potentially beyond.

That feeling of optimism has been felt all the way up to the league’s head office, as Lim Chin told FourFourTwo in an exclusive interview.

“This has been one of the best pre-season build-ups for the S.League in recent years,” he said.

Jermaine Pennant

“The return of Lions XII players, the signing of superstar Jermaine Pennant and the positive moves by all the clubs to revise and strengthen their squads, coupled with good support from the media, has gained more public attention.

“Hopefully the fans will turn up and support their clubs at the matches and make this the most exciting and best season.”

While all the clubs have undoubtedly strengthened, they appear to be chasing the benchmark set by Tampines.

Along with Pennant, the Stags added no less than eight LionsXII players to their books, including Singapore internationals Izwan Mahbud, Christopher van Huizen, Izzdin Shafiq and Hafiz Sujad.

Throw in last year’s leading local striker Fazrul Nawaz (ex-Warriors FC), goalscoring winger Jordan Webb (Garena Young Lions) and veteran forward Billy Mehmet (Sarawak) and the Stags have depth in every position.

Lim Chin admits to being impressed by the moves made by Tampines chairman Krishna Ramachandra, but says that doesn’t necessarily mean they will swoop for all the silverware on offer.

“I would like to congratulate Tampines Rovers on their signing of Jermaine Pennant,” he began. “It was entirely the club’s initiative and they have certainly raised the bar in their efforts to want to do better.

“Pennant’s signing has improved the profile of the S.League and given us more publicity too.

“I think it is great that every club including Tampines Rovers wants to strive for silverware and I would imagine it will be very competitive and exciting this season as well.

“Tampines Rovers could well be the club everyone wants to beat … but with the increase of squad sizes to 25, all the clubs have strengthened their squads this season.

“I can see a lot more youth coming through the ranks and that augurs well for the S.League and football development in Singapore.

“It will be even more competitive than previous seasons and hopefully more exciting as well. It’s hard to predict the outcomes, but may the best team win.”

In terms of that youth, brothers Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi are sure to attract attention, with the teenagers signing with Home United for 2016 from Chilean club Universidad Catolica.

Like his former National Football Academy teammate Ikhsan, highly-rated teenager Saifullah Akbar has also graduated to the S.League, signing with Tampines.

Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi

Lim Chin says these moves can only benefit the national programme, with the Lions chasing Asian Cup qualification later this year.

“I am glad to see more young and upcoming players making the grade this season and that augurs well for football development in Singapore,” he said.

“Ultimately, the S.League wants to support our national team and having these young players playing professional football will be a step in the right direction.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Lim Chin said he was encouraged by how quickly LionsXII players signed with domestic clubs, with Khairul Amri (Garena Young Lions) and Madhu Mohana (Warriors FC) among those also joining local teams.

He is also pleased with the level of television coverage the competition will receive this season, with both StarHub and Astro signing on as broadcast and production partners.

While we haven’t seen a repeat of the S.League’s 2013 season launch, when Lim Chin and a group of players famously donned body paint and paraded down Orchard Road, the CEO says there will be new initiatives implemented this year.

“The S.League is in its 21st season and we never stop wanting to do better and constantly find ways to improve our S.League every season,” he said.

“There will be new ideas to drum up more publicity for the clubs and matches.

“I certainly hope the fans will give us their full support and turn up at the matches, enjoy the football and support their clubs this season.”

The 2016 S.League season kicks-off this Saturday, with the match-up of reigning champions Brunei DPMM against Singapore Cup holders Albirex Niigata at Jalan Besar Stadium.

The other games include a double-header on Sunday between Garena Young Lions and Balestier Khalsa at Jalan Besar and Home United versus Warriors FC at Bishan Stadium.

The opening round then concludes on Monday with Pennant’s debut for Tampines against Geylang International at Jurong West Stadium.

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo

Click here for FourFourTwo's comprehensive preview of the 2016 S.League season