A new football season begins in Singapore on March 13 with more than 90 matches slated to take place by October, starting with the 2021 Singapore Premier League this week followed by the Singapore Cup in September. Will 2021 be the year in which a local side can top teams from outside the country to become the first champions from Singapore in seven seasons?
This season's SPL will only feature eight teams after the withdrawal of 2019 winners DPMM FC, who sit out another season due to travel restrictions placed by Brunei Darussalam. Teams will play each other three times with fans still not allowed into the stadiums because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A major change for the season is that Singaporean clubs are now allowed to roster up to four foreign-born players, at least one has to be Asian, and with no age restrictions. The move aligns the league with the rules set for the AFC Cup and the AFC Champions League.
Foreign clubs have had a monopoly on league titles in recent years. Japanese satellite team Albirex Niigata FC (S) and DPMM have combined to win the league in each of the last six seasons.
In a bid to increase competitiveness in domestic football, foreign outfits have been allowed to compete in Singapore ever since Chinese side Sinchi FC took part in the S.League -- as the competition was previously known -- back in 2003. It wasn't until 2010 that one emerged victorious when a predominantly-French Etoile FC won the top division title.
The local sides have largely been forced to take a backseat since then Warriors FC were crowned champions in 2015, as Albirex and DPMM have run away with the league. However, the dominance of foreign teams could finally be challenged by a two-pronged assault during the new season.
So, which are the sides that can outclass Albirex this term?
The Lion City Sailors are among the league favourites this season. While in just their second year of existence, they have assembled a heavyweight roster. The club's most impressive addition is 26-year-old Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes, who became the league's first multi-million dollar star after signing from Rio Ave for €1.8 million.
Singapore's first-ever privatised club, powered by the financial muscle of billionaire Forrest Li and Aurelio Vidmar's coaching, can also call upon new signings Faris Ramli in attack and Jorge Fellipe in defence as they challenge an Albirex side who had to reassemble their squad in the midst of pandemic restrictions.
The Sailors also have among their ranks last season's SPL Player of the Year Gabriel Quak and Young Player of the Year Saifullah Akbar, as well as the league's top scorer Stipe Plazibat. With the quality of Lopes and Faris added into the mix, they should be eyeing a much better campaign after falling short by five points in the 14-match 2020 season.
Not to forget are Tampines Rovers who were leading the standings up until the penultimate fixture last season, but eventually had to settle for the runners-up spot finishing three points behind Albirex. With a debut outing in the AFC Champions League also upcoming, the Stags have managed to keep most of their key stars at the club.
The only notable departure has been that of winger Jordan Webb, who has been replaced with Montenegrin attacker Armin Bosnjak. Manager Gavin Lee will want his new arrival to form an instant partnership with compatriot Boris Kopitovic and Zehrudin Mehmedovic as they aim for their sixth league title.
Will it be the Sailors who will leave their mark on Singaporean football in only their second season? Will this be the year Tampines finally ascend to the top after finishing runners-up in five of the last six seasons? Or will normal service resume in the SPL with an Albirex triumph?
Only time will tell -- but there's not long left to wait in order to find out.