SINGAPORE – In 2020, Singapore Premier League (SPL) outfit Lion City Sailors heralded a new era in local football when they became the first privatised club here. Backed by Singaporean billionaire Forrest Li, the defending SPL champions have become a headline act in the local scene.
About 2,000km away in a more modest environment in Vientiane, another Singaporean entrepreneur Jason Lim has been quietly building a championship contender too – Lao Premier League (LPL) side Young Elephants FC.
It is a side that he inherited from ground zero after he was appointed president and chairman of the club in 2018.
Young Elephants were founded in 2015 by the Lao Football Federation (LFF) with the aim of giving exposure to footballers aged 16 to 19 years old and helping them launch their professional careers.
But in 2017, the LFF gave up ownership of the club due to rules around club licencing and privatisation and sought out Lim, who was well known to the federation due to his voluntary work as team manager for the Laos Under-23 team between 2009 and 2017. A year later, Lim took the reins. He also roped in other Singaporeans based in Laos – Kevin Pereira and Philip Tay – as board members.
Said Lim, 54, who has also served as president of the Singapore Business Association in Laos (SBAL) since 2017: “When I was approached, I told the people at LFF that I will try to do what I can. But as time went by, I grew into the role and I love what I do.
“It’s been very tough and owning a football club in Laos is not easy especially due to a lack of sponsorship. People here are not making (enough) money for themselves so why would they provide for a club?
“I have had to build almost everything from zero with the help of friends who have chipped in here and there.”
In the club’s inaugural season in the LPL in 2018, they finished sixth in the eight-team league. Two years later, the club won their first domestic Cup competition – the Lao FF Cup – to qualify for this year’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup. They are also currently leading the LPL after nine matches, yielding seven wins and two draws.
On Friday (June 24), Young Elephants made their AFC Cup debut in a 5-1 defeat by V-League 1 runners-up Viettel at the Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City. On Monday, they will face fellow Group I competitors Hougang United. The Cheetahs posted a 4-3 victory over Cambodian champions Phnom Penh Crown to start their campaign last Friday.
Singapore’s other representative, Tampines Rovers, are in Kuala Lumpur and will face Malaysia Cup winners Kuala Lumpur City and Indonesia’s PSM Makassar in Group H. Both groups are part of the Asean Zone, along with Group J. The three group winners, along with the best runner-up, will advance to the zonal semi-finals.
Lim’s development of the Young Elephants to what it is today resembles his own life. An avid Singapore football fan, he admitted that he was not good enough to play the game at a professional level. He joined the TATA-Government Training Centre under the Economic Development Board and learned technical skills which he then put to use as a Precision Machinist for an oil rig.
While visiting friends while on holiday around South-east Asia in 1997, Lim fell in love with Laos’ simplicity. He seized the opportunity and settled there. Today, he has a family there and two companies – a surveillance system company called Smart Solutions and a construction and maintenance firm Lim Trading Group.
But Lim’s real love lies in football and his dream of getting the club to qualify for continental competition has been achieved.