After leading his side to a 1-0 win at Hougang United yesterday to seal Albirex Niigata’s fourth Singapore Premier League (SPL) title in five seasons, skipper Kazuki Hashioka could not stop looking at his winner’s medal with a wide grin.
His younger brother Daiki may play for the more illustrious Urawa Red Diamonds in the J.League and featured in last season’s AFC Champions League final, but Kazuki can now boast of being the first in the Hashioka family to win a title.
The 23-year-old laughed as he told The Sunday Times: “I will definitely call him later to show off my medal. We are both right-backs and such friendly competition motivates us both.”
The White Swans have definitely been a family on the field this season, showing impressive teamwork to overcome a perceived lack of individual brilliance to run out SPL champions and winners of the $150,000 prize money.
In the last 45 days of a coronavirus-disrupted season, they have been the most consistent team. Other than two defeats by runners-up Tampines Rovers, they always found a way to win the other nine games after the restart, while their title rivals faltered.
When striker Reo Nishiguchi was out with an ankle injury after scoring in each of his first five games, Tomoyuki Doi stepped up to contribute 11 goals. They were not short of leaders – when the chips are down, Hashioka marauded forward and he was the one who supplied the late match-winning assists in the two crucial 3-2 wins over Lion City Sailors.
Their superior fitness during a packed schedule also played a big part in their success. In the past month, they were held goalless at the break by Hougang, Balestier and Tanjong Pagar, but each time they just stepped up a gear in the second half to win 4-0, 2-0 and 3-0 respectively.
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said: “We worked very hard for this title, especially on our fitness during the coronavirus suspension. We ran 5km three times a week, and increased that to 7km. Being fit helps us not to lose concentration late in the game, and gives us an edge when we are trying to score.”
It was the same story yesterday – latching onto a missed clearance by Nazrul Nazari, Doi set up Ryoya Taniguchi to finish clinically beyond Ridhuan Barudin in the 53rd minute. The goal sent the group of about 20 Albirex fans and cheerleaders outside Hougang Stadium wild with delirium.
And when Albirex take the lead, they usually hang on to it. Despite news of Tampines equalising against Geylang in the last 10 minutes, and the prospect of late drama emerging – another goal from the Stags and Hougang would see the trophy destination switched – Albirex remained unflappable.
In any case, no team other than Tampines and the Sailors have managed to breach their goal after the restart.
They rode their luck as well, especially in their first 3-2 win over the Sailors, in which they threw away a 2-0 lead, but won in added time after Hashioka’s handball went unpunished in the build-up.
In their penultimate game, Tanjong Pagar were also unlucky to have a late equaliser ruled out for offside before Albirex sealed a 3-0 win.
Yet few could begrudge the champions after they figured out how to assimilate local players into their predominantly Japanese roster.
Singaporeans Fairoz Hasan, Gareth Low, Iman Hakim and Ong Yu En all contributed in midfield and attack throughout the season.
Midfielder Fairoz said: “The local players can definitely learn from the Japanese players. They have great discipline, fitness and a never-say-die attitude. I’m fortunate to be able to play in this team and experience this culture.”