December 27, 2023
SINGAPORE – The Singapore Premier League (SPL) is set to bump up the number of foreign players next season in a bid to raise the standard of the domestic top flight.
The Straits Times understands that a key change for 2024-25 will see the foreign player quota increased from its current maximum of four (including one from an Asian Football Confederation member association) to six (including one from an AFC member association and one Under-21 player) per match.
The latest change means that the new season will see the highest number of foreign players permitted for each club in the history of the league.
The foreign player quota has seen multiple tweaks since the first year of the S-League in 1996, when teams were able to field up to five foreign players each. In 2018, when it was rebranded as the SPL, clubs were allowed to register only two foreign players.
Sources have also informed ST that apart from the quota of six foreign players who can be registered for each match day, discussions are also ongoing to allow clubs to sign up to nine foreigners (five of any nationality, one from Asia and three U-21s).
This will mean greater flexibility for clubs, especially for those who have qualified for continental tournaments as there will be no foreign player quota in AFC competitions from the 2024-25 season.
Previously, clubs could register a maximum of four foreign players in the SPL at one time and were not allowed to change it from match day to match day.
SPL defending champions Albirex Niigata – who will be a local club and bound by the rules on foreign players from 2024 – have already announced the rule change on their social media and have moved early by revealing six Japanese players for the new campaign.
They have handed out a contract renewal to defender Koki Kawachi, 23, and recaptured Shuhei Hoshino, 28, from fellow SPL side Balestier Khalsa, signed 20-year-old midfielder Arya Igami Tarhani, defender Stevia Egbus Mikuni, 25, former Japan international Yojiro Takahagi, 37, and midfielder Yohei Otake, 34, who comes with J-League experience.
It is also understood that the league is set to drop the contentious Under-23 quota.
The rule was introduced in 2018 making it mandatory for clubs to field three U-23 players for at least the first half of a match before the number was later cut to one for the 2022 season.
While the intention was to develop more young players, the move received mixed reactions.
Although budding players enjoyed more exposure, most felt it was not always on merit and came at the expense of deserved playing time for older players.
The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has yet to officially announce the changes. But in his Christmas message on Dec 24, its president Bernard Tan said that in a move to “make the league more attractive to private investors”, the SPL will also move towards the European calendar, in two steps, bringing it in line with the AFC calendar.
He added: “The SPL will kick off in the middle of the year with a pre-tournament before that. It will also feature changes in the number of foreigners to play, bringing us more in line with AFC rules. Albirex Niigata will compete as a local club for the first time. And there will be more games overall.”
Tampines chairman Desmond Ong is convinced that the quality in the league will improve given that “foreigners are going to be of a higher standard than our locals” but he acknowledged that the increase in foreigners will mean fewer chances for locals.
He also pointed out that with six foreigners occupying a starting spot and the remainder of the five spots going to locals, it is crucial for a new local team to enter the fray.
On Dec 6, FAS put up a request for parties who are interested to form a 10th SPL club next season to submit a comprehensive proposal. Tengah FC and Woodlands Lions are two clubs who have submitted their interest.
Ong said: “If the new team come in, plus with Albirex going local, we would have two more teams for locals to ply their trade in. But on the other hand, when you bring in a foreigner, it is usually for the spine of your team, which means a centre forward, a central midfielder or a centre back. So you then have your locals fighting to play fullbacks or wingers. That can also be a concern.”
But he added: “I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all (solution) but we do need to do something to lift the standard of the league and something drastic in terms of getting more people to be interested again. If the league does get competitive, the locals who are good enough and want to make a living got to up their game.”
Football consultant Khairul Asyraf said the changes were much needed in the face of declining quality.
He said: “The sad reality is that the local talent that we churn out has been going down by volume and by level of quality. The Lion City Sailors academy or the UTR (Unleash the Roar!) project will take a minimum of five years to churn out quality so while we wait for that, at least with an increase in foreigners, we have a solution for now.”
Khairul, who played a role in the transfer of 2023 SPL Player of the Year Maxime Lestienne to Lion City Sailors and also represents several local players in the SPL, said it was important that clubs do their due diligence in the transfer market.
He said: “It can’t just be any foreigner. We saw in the past season that there were a few players who were not great and if the quota is in place, then the players coming in must be of a certain quality and be much better than the local players.”