The 10 young players who impressed in the Singapore Premier League 2020

These 10 under-23 players caught the eye in the 25th season of Singapore’s only professional football league, which concluded on Dec 5.

Kenneth Tan

Consuming a well-written piece is the tonic to perk up my day.

Published: 6 December 2020, 2:40 PM

The future is bright for Singapore football, with a number of young talents rising to the fore in the 2020 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season. 

Ahead of the Singapore football annual awards ceremony on Monday (Dec 7) evening, Youthopia takes a look at 10 under-23 footballers who managed to make a name for themselves in the league this season.

1. Ong Yu En (Albirex Niigata)

Ong Yu En (left, in orange) impressed with league champions Albirex Niigata this year – a feat considering the high standards that the Japanese team has set in Singapore football. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


It does not get any better for Ong Yu En, who became the eighth youngest-ever SPL scorer at 17 years and 54 days old in November when he led Albirex Niigata to a 2-0 win over Young Lions. That strike belied his lean years and showed his maturity on the pitch, as he exchanged passes with Tomoyuki Doi before lashing home a belter into the roof of the net. 

Yu En also lifted the title with the White Swans, representing a hugely successful debut season for the teenager, although he started just two games all season and scored a solitary goal. 

There are definitely areas of improvement to be made, especially in terms of his physicality, but the future certainly looks bright for the technically-gifted midfielder.  

2. Jacob Mahler (Young Lions)

Jacob Mahler was by far the Young Lions’ most influential player. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


In a tough season where many of his teammates were having their first taste of professional football, Jacob Mahler stood out in a leadership role and was a sturdy influence at the back for the Young Lions. 

The 20-year-old led by example on the pitch with his no-nonsense tackling style and was always an encouraging figure to the less experienced ones when the chips are down. He also played in all 14 matches in the season and had the most minutes among all Young Lions players. 

Ending the season as the Young Lions’ joint-top scorer as well, Jacob is definitely becoming an influential figure on the pitch. His performances should have impressed Singapore national coach Tatsuma Yoshida and at this stage, it is without a doubt that Jacob will become a regular in the National Team soon. 

3. Harith Kanadi (Geylang International)

Harith Kanadi (right, in green) played in all 14 games in 2020, registering one assist. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


It has been quite sometime since we saw a natural left-footed full-back flying down the wings and whipping in crosses for the Singapore national team. Harith Kanadi could well buck the trend very soon. 

Having featured in every game this season, the 20-year-old has been a revelation for the Eagles.

He impressed with his tenacity, stamina and ability – which probably explains why he played the second-most minutes in the Eagles team. 

Having been called up for centralised training with the Lions back in March, we wouldn’t count against him earning his first national cap soon when international football returns.

4. Khairin Nadim (Young Lions)

Khairin Nadim ended the season as the Young Lions’ joint-top goalscorer alongside Jacob Mahler. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUNG LIONS


As the ball ricocheted off Daniel Bennett, Khairin Nadim instinctively ran in behind and curled home an excellent finish with his first touch as he put his side one up against title-chasing Tampines Rovers. The Young Lions eventually lost 3-1, but it did not matter personally for the teenager – he became the third-youngest scorer in league history at 16 years and 194 days. 

He could have well broken Hariss Harun’s record as the youngest scorer, if the SPL was not halted for seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That he scored his three goals from just five shots on target should signify his potential as a finisher. Should Khairin continue to develop in the next few years, he could be the natural goalscorer that Singapore has been crying out for ages. 

Time is definitely on his side. 

5. Saifullah Akbar (Lion City Sailors)

In 11 starts this season, Saifullah Akbar had two goals and one assist. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


Long been touted as a playmaker for Singapore in the future, the former teenage prodigy took his game to the next level at a club with high expectations as the first privatised club in league history. 

Often used in a trident along with Shahdan Sulaiman and Song Uiyoung at Lion City Sailors, Saifullah has developed into a modern attacking midfielder who does not just lay on the killer passes, but also makes late runs into the box to score goals. 

The 21-year-old is beginning to fulfil his early promise and looks ready to make the next step – which is to secure a move to an overseas club. 

6. Shah Shahiran (Tampines Rovers)

Shah Shahiran (left, in white) played like an experienced campaigner this season for Tampines Rovers. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


The blow of losing Shahdan Sulaiman in midfield for Tampines Rovers was minimised by Shah Shahiran, who stepped up this season. The 21-year-old followed up a promising 2019 campaign with yet another consistent year, often shining with his silky passing skills that enabled him to link up play seamlessly with the attackers. 

Head coach Gavin Lee certainly trusts Shah, who played all 14 games and had the fourth-most minutes among all Tampines players. 

With just one goal to his name all season, Shah’s contributions can sometimes go under the radar due to the goalscoring exploits by foreign teammates Jordan Webb and Boris Kopitovic. But more often than not, Shah is the one making the decisive moves in the build-up.

7. Iman Hakim (Albirex Niigata)

Iman Hakim (left, in orange) started nine games for the league champions this season. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Albirex’s initiative of signing local players for their roster has benefited many over the past couple of years and this year, Iman is the beneficiary. 

The technically-skilled 18-year-old was trusted to start in the White Swans engine room in most matches and his confidence grew as the season went on, becoming more involved in the attacking third.  

While he did not register a single goal or assist in 2020, starting nine games in his maiden SPL season is evidence of his potential. Should Albirex choose not to retain his services, there should be plenty of offers on the table for the 2019 Dollah Kassim Award winner. 

8. Naqiuddin Eunos (Lion City Sailors)

Naqiuddin Eunos started all 14 games for the Lion City Sailors, showcasing his importance to the team. PHOTO CREDIT: LION CITY SAILORS


Known as an energetic winger in his time with the Young Lions, Naqiuddin Eunos has been converted into a left-back to great effect in his first year with the ambitious Lion City Sailors. 

Having started every game this season, the 23-year-old has improved the defensive side of his game tremendously and has not looked out of place at all when taking on some of the league’s top wingers like Jordan Webb, Shawal Anuar and Hazzuwan Halim. That he had only one yellow card all season is testament to his ability. 

His versatility will stand him in good stead for the future, as he targets a place in the Singapore national team. 

9. Syahrul Sazali (Tampines Rovers)

Syahrul was an integral part of Tampines Rovers’ plans this year, until his enlistment towards the end of the season. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


His move to Tampines Rovers in the off-season did not raise much eyebrows, but Syahrul Sazali has made a significant impact in the Stags’ title challenge this season. 

Apart from playing in his accustomed left wing-back, the 22-year-old has also been deployed at the heart of defence and managed to thrive in this unfamiliar position. 

Syahrul’s campaign was curtailed by National Service (NS) enlistment towards the end, but he did end it with a flourish with his first professional goal in open play – a thunderous right-footed drive after exchanging passes with Jordan Webb – to lead his side to a crucial 2-0 win over Albirex in late October.

10. Arshad Shamim (Lion City Sailors)

Arshad Shamim (left, in blue) started seven games this year for the Lion City Sailors. PHOTO CREDIT: SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE


The Sailors have proved to be a great breeding ground for youngsters, with Arshad another one that has benefited from training day in, day out with experienced national players. 

Blessed with blistering pace and incredible stamina, the 20-year-old is beginning to add an end product to his game – with a clinically-taken brace in the 4-0 thrashing of Young Lions in November doubling his previous entire career tally of one goal. He also added one assist this season. 

The next step for Arshad to get more goal involvements next season and perhaps help his club to the title. 

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