He may not have been born here, but 16-year-old Veer Karan Sobti is as true blue a Singaporean as they come.
Born in Hong Kong to Indian parents, the unassuming United World College student first set foot in the Lion City at the tender age of just three, marking the beginning of a 13-year love affair with the country he now calls home.
Currently in the first year of his IB Diploma course at UWC, Karan’s appreciation for both his adopted homeland and the game of football have blossomed immensely over time, with the young Lion City Sailors goalkeeper determined to make waves in the sport, both at home and abroad.
“I’m what you like to call a third culture kid!” chuckled Karan, speaking exclusively to Goal. “I’m not necessarily from Singapore originally, but I classify myself as Singaporean.
“My parents both grew up in India and met in college. They then got jobs in Hong Kong, and they migrated and lived there for around 11 years.
"Singapore is my home, definitely. I feel most comfortable here, but I’m not your regular Singaporean kid, because I went to an international school and I wasn’t born here. Singapore means everything to me, it’s my home, but probably not the same way a local would feel because I don’t have ancestors here. It’s all I know, though."
For Karan, football has always held a prominent role in his life. Having developed an obsession with the game at an early age, he made it his mission to develop a deeper understanding of the tactical and psychological side of the sport, on top of his playing commitments. This has meant hours poring over tactical analysis books, as well as attempting to draw parallels between his school work and football.
“I’ve been playing football my entire life," the youngster continued. "My grandpa realised this, and he bought me this book called 'The Football Book', which is like a 500-page football bible. I read that for three years, from when I was six to nine, literally every day. Football just became my life, everything I did revolved around it.
“Some of my subjects at school now include sports science, psychology and economics, and the mix of sports science and psychology does help me a lot. I’ve learnt a lot of stuff I can transfer to football, about mindset and stuff."
A boyhood Arsenal fan, it came as a surprise that Karan’s biggest role model in the sport was not a club icon like David Seaman or even current first choice Bernd Leno. Instead, it was the former Arsenal number two and current Aston Villa custodian, Argentine Emiliano Martinez.
“His work ethic and everything he does is phenomenal to me,” Karan enthused. “He’s one of my biggest idols. Martinez can do everything, I don’t think there’s a single thing he can’t do as a keeper. I think we should’ve kept him and we should’ve sold Leno instead!”
Having been grafting for years with a number of different amateur teams, Karan’s big break finally arrived in the form of the 2019 AFC Under-16 Championship Qualifiers.
Singapore had been selected as host for their group, which contained the likes of North Korea, Guam, and Karan’s birth country Hong Kong. It was a tough group, but not one which fazed the young shot stopper.
"The whole team played so well and I just used the energy and wanted to put 100 per cent into everything I did at that tournament," he stated.
"Also, the fact that we were playing at home, it was our first time playing in front of our fans, I think there were around 1000 people there. It was a great experience. Some people might get nervous, but I like to thrive off that kind of atmosphere, and that’s where I feel I played the best.
“Against Hong Kong, everyone in the team played so well, and to lose because of a last-minute penalty was heart breaking. But that’s the rollercoaster of football."
It was a disappointing end to the tournament for the Cubs. That late penalty cost them dearly, with Hong Kong progressing at their expense. Had they managed to hang on for a point, it would’ve been them going through instead.
However, despite the AFC U-16 dream in tatters, Karan still had something big to look forward to that year; a trip to Wales for a trial with Championship side Cardiff City.
Having been picked up by an English scout during one of Turf City FC’s training camps in Europe, Karan’s abilities were appreciated by the Welsh club, who invited him to training not once, but twice.
“Turf City used to go to Europe two or three times a year for tournaments. We’d play against massive teams like Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, Porto, stuff like that," the goalkeeper went on.
"We were in the Czech Republic playing against Slavia Prague and Sparta Prague, and a scout from England was there to watch. He talked to me about coming over to Wales to train with him, because he’s also a coach specialising in goalkeeping, as well as getting the opportunity to train with Cardiff."
It wasn’t an opportunity he was about to let slip. Karan travelled to the UK in the summer of 2018 and trained with the scout for a week, before having a day with Cardiff’s youth team. The Welsh club’s coaches were so impressed that they invited him to return for a longer, week-long trial in late 2019.
However, it didn’t go as well as the young keeper would’ve hoped.
“It was difficult,” he admitted. “I had six days with them, and something I found a bit weird was that I was only 15 at the time, but I got put with the U-18s. I just went along with it, but that week just didn’t work out for me. I couldn’t play the football I wanted to play. Maybe that was God telling me it wasn’t the right club for me.
"Things just didn’t work out. But I learned from it, and it was important, because I know the next time I go back to a club in Europe I’ll definitely be able to do much better.”
Despite his struggles the second time round in Wales, there was a silver lining for the then 15-year-old goalkeeper. Having had an unbelievable AFC U-16 Qualifying campaign individually, Karan’s performance had not gone unnoticed by the general public, and certainly not by onlooking coaches and scouts.
“It was amazing. I was still playing for Turf City FC at the time, but I needed a step up because it wasn’t the level I wanted to play at anymore, so I spoke to the head coach of the U-16 National Team, Philippe Aw, about where I should go next year,” Karan recounted.
“I found out that [Young Lions head coach] Nazri Nasir was actually one of the commentators for the qualifiers, and he had watched my games against Hong Kong and North Korea. Philippe told me Young Lions were actually really interested in taking me in for the 2020 season. I was not expecting that, but I was so grateful for the opportunity I took it with both hands.”
Having expected to be made to undergo a trial period with the club, Karan was pleasantly surprised when he was informed that wouldn’t be necessary, and they wanted him straight into the team. Things were looking great for the youngster; a first professional contract at just 15-years-old, and a seemingly achievable route into the first team.
However, as it often does, football would once again surprise us all.
About a week after having been convinced by Young Lions’ project and given assurances over his pathway to the first team, the team’s goalkeeper coach, who had been a big part of Karan’s decision to sign, abruptly left his post. A new face joined the fold, and unlike his predecessor, wasn’t as keen on the prospect of having such a young, inexperienced player between the sticks.
"I learnt so much at Young Lions last year, but because of certain internal conflicts, I wasn’t able to play," Karan explained. "I felt I was ready, and I was training at a level where I should be playing, with all due respect to everyone else at the club. But they felt I wasn’t ready. Last year, as a 15- or 16-year-old, I played one game in 2020, all the way back in February. Not where I wanted to be.”
It was a bitter double whammy for the youngster. Having been unable to secure a trainee scholarship at Cardiff, he found himself frozen out of the Young Lions side without so much as having played a league game for them. It was a difficult time for the player, who revealed it had been a definite low point for him in his fledgling career.
He wasn’t about to give up any time soon, though.
“You need those low points to push yourself more and motivate yourself," he insisted. "It’s done so much for me, it still plays on my mind, and I push myself harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again."
Despite a number of clubs being interested in signing the youngster following his decision to leave Young Lions, he was instantly drawn towards Lion City Sailors due to their professionalism and clear setup. He never expected to be playing first-team football for a club as big as LCS this season, so the Sailors’ proposal of allowing him to train with the first-team, while playing matches regularly for their Under-21 side was enough to win Karan over.
“The reason I wanted to come over was for game time,” he said. “The proposal was for me to play with the U-21s and get first-team training, and I felt that’s what I needed for my development.”
With LCS having made several new acquisitions in the summer, including the jaw-dropping S$3m purchase of Brazilian Diego Lopes, one gets the sense the vibe around the club at the moment couldn’t be much better.
“I haven’t really been around the first team, but at the U-21s, the motivation to get to the first team is huge," Karan explained. "If it was big before, it’s even bigger now, because you get to play with and learn from so many experienced pros, and that’s such a huge thing for us. We push each other to get into the first team, and all the players are around the same level."
The youngster has worked hard to pick himself up and he acknowledges his hugely supportive family has been instrumental in his young career so far.
“My parents have been massive,” he revealed. “They’ve supported me from day one. They’ve always felt that if you’re passionate at something, you should try and do your best at it, and my mum was a prime example of this. She was in the finance industry, but she gave that up to become a professional artist. My parents are there for me during both my highs and lows. They taught me that if you think positively, positive things will happen to you.”
With the goalkeeper turning 17 this year, he still has another couple of years to develop before he moves on to the next stage of his life as a teenage male Singaporean: National Service. Having proved a stumbling block for many a talented youngster, Karan, while not especially looking forward to it, is determined to maintain his fitness and match sharpness over his service term.
“There’s no hiding from NS, it’s something I have to do and I respect what the government does,” he admitted. “I think all I can do is learn as much as I can from it, be positive and use it to improve myself both mentally and physically. I think being able to juggle football and NS has to come naturally. I’m already used to it with school, so I don’t think it would be too much of a problem for me. It’s not ideal, but I just have to take it as it comes.”
Looking further down the line, however, Karan’s footballing ambitions are huge. With a dream of playing in a top European league and becoming Singapore’s undisputed number one, it’s a daunting challenge, but one that he will not shirk.
“The dream would be to play for Arsenal, that would be heaven," the shot stopper exclaimed.
"But I’d say another thing I really want to do is to win a trophy with Singapore, because this country really deserves one. For the fans, and also for the recognition of what football can do. Whether it’s the SEA Games or the AFF Championship, it would be huge, because we definitely have the calibre to win it, we just need to believe we can.
“Aside from that, my end goal is to be a first-choice goalkeeper at a club in Europe, maybe in a top five league or in Belgium, the Netherlands, something like that. I just want to go as far as I can.
“Once I’m done with playing football I definitely want to go into managing, that’s a big dream of mine. I can’t imagine a career outside of football. That’s me!”