Singapore’s Best Asian Imports: An impressive ten from the region

They came, they saw and they conquered. Closer to home, a number of prominent names from Asia have stood out during their time in the Singapore Premier League. FOX Sports Asia has a look at 10 of the very best…

Therdsak Chaiman

Midfielder | Thailand | SAFFC (2002, 2005-2009)

Regarded as one of the best foreigners of his generation to have played in both the S.League and the region, Therdsak featured for SAFFC (now Warriors FC) over two separate spells – with both proving equally successful.

Named S.League Player of the Year in 2002, he terrorised defences with his vision, clever runs, accurate set-plays and shot-taking as he managed 74 goals over six years with the club.

A player with vast experience on the continental club football scene, he was also a key member of the Warriors side which clinched four consecutive S.League titles and two Singapore Cups between 2006 and 2009.

After his time in Singapore had ended, the diminutive midfielder – who had also helped BEC Tero Sasana to the final of the AFC Champions League – returned to Thailand to play for T1 side Chonburi FC in 2010. He became player-coach of the Sharks in 2015 before being appointed head coach in 2016 following his retirement from football but would step down from the post in 2017.

Now 45, the former Thailand national team captain is with Chonburi FC where he is assistant to Jukkapant Punpee.

Photo sourced from FourFourTwo Singapore

Sutee Suksomkit

Forward | Thailand | Tanjong Pagar United (2001-2002), Home United (2003-2006), Tampines Rovers (2007-2009)

Adept at operating either at left-wing back or anywhere in the attacking third, Sutee was a speed merchant who also had goals in him.

First arriving in Singapore with Tanjong Pagar United in 2001, he netted 30 times in two seasons with the Jaguars and that was the start of many things to come.

Sutee then signed for Home United in 2003, the same year he earned a training stint with English giants Chelsea, as he chipped in with two goals to help the Protectors reach the last four of the AFC Cup in 2004.

The Thai attacker stayed at Bishan until 2006 before moving to Tampines Rovers where he made over 100 appearances for the Eastern giants, thus concluding his journey in the S.League.

In 2009, Sutee joined A-League side Melbourne Victory for a short stint as a guest player, playing nine games there before returning home to play for Bangkok Glass, Suphanburi, TTM Customs and Krabi.

Hanging up his boots in 2015, the 40-year-old moved into coaching back in Thailand.

Photo sourced from FourFourTwo SG

J Surachai

Midfielder | Thailand | Gombak United (1999-2002), Home United (2003-2005)

One of the first Thai players to play in the S.League, the midfield maestro made local headlines when he first entered the S.League with Gombak United in 1999.

Possessing high work rate and technical ability, he put in consistent displays in his four years with the Bulls as they finished fifth in the league and reached the quarter-finals of the Singapore Cup in his first two seasons at Bukit Gombak Stadium. Following Gombak’s sit-out from the league, he moved to Home in 2003 where he enjoyed three trophy-laden years.

Surachai – who was part of the Protectors side which reached the last four of the AFC Cup in 2004 – achieved a S.League and Singapore Cup double in his first season which culminated in him winning the Player of the Year. He would follow up with another Singapore Cup in 2005 before retiring from professional football.

His association with Home would not end there, as he served as the club’s Prime League coach for a brief period before returning to Thailand in 2009 where he was head coach of Bangkok Glass over three separate spells.

Surachai was known for being a hard tackler. Photo courtesy of Home United

Totchtawan Sripan

Midfielder | Thailand | Sembawang Rangers (1998-2003)

Known for his excellent passing range and set-piece abilities, the excellent Thai midfielder – who scored against Manchester United and Holland for the War Elephants – signed for the now-defunct Sembawang Rangers in 1998. For a modest side then, his presence alone was enough for the fans to flock to the Yishun Stadium.

Full of flair and one who was difficult to mark, Tawan, as he is also known, recorded 29 goals in 180 appearances over a period of five years for the Stallions as he helped them to a fourth-placed finish in the 1998 Singapore Cup and played an important role in keeping them in the top-half of the 12-team league in 2002.

He then moved to Vietnam to join top-flight side Hoàng Anh Gia Lai FC in 2004 before returning home to turn out for BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero FC), subsequently retiring from professional football in 2009.

Tawan would move into coaching in the years of come, taking charge of Police Tero, Saraburi FC, Police United. He led Muangthong United to the league and league cup titles in 2016, winning the league cup again the following year but recently resigning from his post as head coach after a 6-1 thrashing by PT Prachaup in the league. He joined Police Tero in the recently concluded Thai League campaign.

Photo courtesy of Muangthong United

Kenji Arai

Defender | Japan | Albirex Niigata (S) (2004-2005), Warriors FC (2006-2009), Hougang United (2010), Home United (2011-2012)

Coming to Singapore as part of the first-ever Albirex Niigata squad in 2004, Arai was a composed ball-playing defender who also featured for SAFFC (now Warriors), Sengkang Punggol (now Hougang) and Home United in the S.League.

Fondly remembered for his time with Warriors, he was the cornerstone of the defence alongside Daniel Bennett as he lifted two Singapore Cup and four straight S.League titles during his tenure with the club.

Now 40, Arai has retired from professional football and resides in Saitama, Japan where he is coaching the Under-12s at Fly High Soccer School.

Part of the first Albirex squad, Arai stayed in Singapore for almost a decade. Photo courtesy of Home United

Lee Kwan Woo

Midfielder | South Korea | Home United (2013-2014)

Brought into Home under the marquee player scheme, the former Suwon Samsung Bluewings playmaker was a class above the rest and this was despite him missing a number of games due to a niggly knee problem.

Dangerous from dead-ball situations and also capable of threading defence-splitting passes, ‘Sirius’ as he is affectionately known, enjoyed two successful seasons with the Protectors where he recorded 25 goals in all competitions.

Lifting the Singapore Cup in 2013, he also picked up the Player of the Year gong in the same year – a deserving reward for someone who made everything look so easy on the pitch.

The ex-South Korea international would guide Home to yet another Singapore Cup final the following season as they fell to Balestier Khalsa this time before hanging up his boots to return to his home country.

Although it has been four years since Lee left our shores, ask any Home fan out there and they are likely to have fond memories of the midfielder who once set the league alight.

Kento Nagasaki

Midfielder | Japan | Albirex Niigata (S) (2013-2017)

Spending five years with the Japanese satellite club, Nagasaki was a consistent performer throughout his time in Singapore as Albirex steadily became a force to be reckoned with.

Brought into Albirex under then head coach Koichi Sugiyama, Nagasaki could pick a pass and was deadly at set-pieces as he managed 30 goals in 126 appearances in all competitions for the White Swans.

But it was in 2017 that the 1.7m-tall midfielder really came into his own as he netted 17 times in all competitions to help Albirex romp to a quadruple and win himself the Player of the Year award.

Nagasaki’s impressive displays were rewarded when he sealed a move to T2 side Thai Honda FC this year, thus ending his association with the White Swans.

Nagasaki was almost unplayable in the league in 2017. Photo courtesy of SPL

Brendon Santalab

Forward | Australia | Geylang International (2003)

Joining Geylang on loan from Sydney United in 2003, Santalab took to the S.League like duck to water and became arguably one of the best strikers to have played here.

Partnering former Singapore international Aleksandar Duric up top, Santalab was a goal machine who averaged slightly over a goal per game as the Eagles finished S.League runners-up and was the losing Singapore Cup finalist – both to Home United – that year.

Despite establishing himself as a fan favourite during his time at the Bedok Stadium, he was soon on the move.

Santalab would spend the next three years in Belgium turning out for Pro League clubs K.V. Oostende and Sint-Truiden, before stints with Chinese Super League clubs Chengdu Blades and Chongqing Lifan where he scored 33 goals in 75 games for the latter two clubs.

The 36-year-old then returned to Australia to play for A-League outfit Western Sydney Wanderers in 2013, winning the AFC Champions League the following year and will turn out for Perth Glory in the 2018 campaign.

Mohammad Khakpour

Defender | Iran | Geylang International (1996)

During his only season in Singapore, Khakpour was the fulcrum of a Geylang defence that were the stingiest overall among the pioneer participating teams. An excellent reader of the game and a sound stopper, he packed a powerful shot from distance and was dangerous from free kicks.

The ex-Iranian international helped the Eagles win the first series of the league campaign before netting the opening goal in their 2-1 championship final win over SAFFC (now Warriors FC) with an unstoppable 40-yard free kick that left Rezal Hassan with no chance at the old National Stadium.

Leaving Singapore after that season, Khakpour went on to captain the Iran team at the 1998 World Cup before ending his career in the United States playing for Metrostars in 2000.

He then established a youth academy called MK Soccer Club in Newport Beach, California and became involved in Iranian football where he was coach of their Under-23 side from 2014 to 2016.

Khakpour (back row, fourth player from right) featured in the 1998 World Cup. Photo courtesy of FourFourTwo Singapore

Hamid Reza Estili

Midfielder | Iran | Geylang International (1996-1997)

Another Iranian to have made his mark in the S.League is Estili who was signed by Geylang prior to the 1996 season with little fanfare.

A cultured defensive midfielder, he impressed with his ability to not only shield the defence but also to help the transition from midfield to attack. His most memorable moment came when he scored the all-important goal to help the Eagles beat Warriors 2-1 in the S.League Championship playoff.

The former Iranian international left Bedok Stadium after two years with the club and would go on to seal his name in world football history when he scored in Iran’s 2-1 win over United States in the 1998 World Cup.

Retiring from the sport in 2004, Estili last coached Iranian second tier side Malavan FC in 2016, following spells with Rah Ahan Tehran FC and Persepolis FC.

Honourable Mentions:

With such a huge player pool to choose from, it was not an easy task for FSA to narrow it down to the final number. There were however a number of players whom we felt deserve a honourable mention and they include Song Ui-young, Santi Chaiyaphuak, Vlado Bozinovski, Ernie Tapai and Park Tae Won.

In addition, players who went on to become Singapore citizens were not considered in the list.


Photo credit: FourFourTwo Singapore