The top-flights of England and Japan – S.League stars that made it outside of Southeast Asia

In part three of this series, FourFourTwo's Teng Kiat tracks the success of five S.League exports who made their name moving abroad…

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Yosuke Saito

The Japanese forward spent one season in the S.League when he arrived as part of the Albirex Niigata (S) squad in 2011, having spent the previous four years appearing for top-flight Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos.

The then 23-year-old scored 10 goals in 34 appearances in all competitions, though he was outshone by the likes of Shotaro Ihata, Tatsuro Inui and Bruno Castanheira as the White Swans finished fourth.

Better things were in store though, first with a move to Latvian top flight outfit FB Gulbene the following season. A remarkable 11 goals in his first 16 games for the club saw him earn a move to division rival FK Ventspils in mid-season.

While Gulbene eventually finished bottom, Saito hit six goals in 12 games to finish as the Virsliga’s second top scorer with 15 goals, just three behind the winner. Ventspils ended in third place and secured a spot in Europa League qualifying, where Saito played two times.

Another move quickly beckoned as Russian second-tier side FC Ufa, which was formed only in 2010, snapped him up in February 2013. Saito spent one and a half seasons there, with the club winning promotion in the second one, but he only started three out of the 10 games he featured in and scored just once.

Saito sought another change of surroundings in 2014, this time with FC Slutsk in Belarus’ top flight, banging in a credible eight goals in 18 games as they finished ninth.

He was not retained, however, and spent 14 months as a free agent before heading back to Latvia this February as FC Riga picked him up. With three goals in six games, it looks like the well-travelled Saito can revive his career in familiar surroundings.

The S.League was Saito's (right) stepping stone to moves to Eastern Europe and Russia

Gligor Gligorov

The Macedonian midfielder arrived with considerable pedigree in 2012 to sign for Tampines Rovers, having represented his country as a youth international through the age groups and even receiving one cap in 2009.

While Gligorov took some time to adjust to the S.League, he started all but two games that year as the Stags won the title, finished runners-up in the Singapore Cup and reached the semi-finals of the League Cup.

However, he was not retained and subsequently joined Bosnian top flight side Zrinjski Mostar, who were approaching the tail end of the 2012/13 season. Gligorov would play only thrice before moving back to his homeland, where he joined top division club FK Bregalnica Stip.

He played 33 times in his first season but only six in the following season, both of which ended in seventh-place finishes.

Roy O’Donovan

Having played in the Premier League, the former Sunderland man arrived in the S.League to much fanfare when Brunei DPMM signed him for the 2014 season.

The Irish striker delivered with 26 goals in 35 games as the Wasps won the League Cup for a third time to go along with second place in the league and third in the Singapore Cup.

That was enough to earn him a move to Indonesia’s Mitra Kukar the following year, but that quickly turned sour as the league was scrapped after he played just once due to FIFA issues.

Three months later, O’Donovan landed in the A-League with Central Coast Mariners on a two-year contract. While he missed a late penalty on his debut, he did finish with eight goals in 19 games to be their top scorer.

However, O’Donovan could have scored more if not for an eight-game suspension in December 2015 for a head-butt - the third-most severe ban in the league’s history.

The 30-year-old will hope to do better in the upcoming season after the Mariners finished bottom of the table in the previous campaign.

Move aside, Jermaine Pennant – O’Donovan is the original Premier League import

Masato Fukui

Brought in from J2 League side Gainare Tottori as part of a major revamp by Home United ahead of the 2013 S.League season, Fukui was expected to be one of their key pillars in attack.

Instead, the Japanese frontman failed to find the back of the net even once, drawing a blank in 13 league games and one cup outing. Unsurprisingly, the Protectors cut their losses in the mid-season and released Fukui.

Like Saito, he decided to seek a change of fortunes in the lower European leagues and ended up signing for Montenegrin top flight side Sutjeska Nikšić in July of the same year. Fukui scored on his debut and even netted a wonder goal from behind the halfway line in his tenth match!

He played 30 times as Sutjeska retained their league title and also played both legs of their Champions League qualifying loss to Sheriff Tiraspol the following season, in which they finished second and narrowly failed to win a third consecutive league crown.

Fukui did score in their two-legged Europa League qualifying loss to Debreceni VSC at the start of his third season in Montenegro, but was signed by Albanian top division outfit FK Tirana before he kicked a ball in the league.

He failed to set his new league alight though, scoring just four times in 37 appearances as Tirana finished fifth in the 2015/16 season that ended this May.

Bizarrely, Fukui, now 27, still managed to earn a move to champions Skenderbeu Korce ahead of the new Albanian Superliga season, which is expected to begin in August.

Skenderbeu have impressive credentials: they have won the last six league titles and became the first-ever Albanian side to reach the play-off stage of the Champions League last August.

They lost to Dinamo Zagreb and dropped to the Europa League group stages, making them the first Albanian side to ever reach such a level in European competitions, but have been banned from UEFA competitions this season after match-fixing allegations.

Zhang Xizhe

He only featured very briefly in the S.League, but FourFourTwo would still like to think that Zhang’s five games here on our shores played some part in making him the player he is today.

Back in 2010, the then 20-year-old midfielder arrived in Singapore to join Beijing Guoan Talent on loan from parent club Beijing Guoan. Zhang underlined his potential by coming off the bench to score on his debut and made four more appearances before Guoan realised he was too good to be farmed out and recalled him.

Zhang very quickly added to his sole Chinese Super League appearance from the year before and established himself as a first-team regular the following year, which also brought about an international debut.

In 2012, he bagged the Young Player of the Year award and enjoyed a breakout 2013 where he scored 11 goals and made 12 assists in 30 league games. The rising star had another solid 2014 season, which earned him a transfer to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, though he never made an appearance for them.

A return to Beijing followed last July and he already has five goals this season playing alongside the likes of Brazil international Renato Augusto and Turkey star Burak Yilmaz, though the club is languishing in mid-table.

Fun fact: Zhang’s first goal for China was against Singapore in a 6-1 friendly win in September 2013. Talk about biting the hand that fed you! Well, sort of…

Kevin De Bruyne and Renato Augusto are some of the illustrious names Zhang has trained with