It must be said, it’s quite fitting that Singapore’s latest striking talent has the name he does. Zikos Vasileios Chua, a name reflective of a unique amalgamation of cultures, both East and West, and one which perfectly encapsulates the hybridity of a boy who’s spent half his life in Northern Greece, and the other half in sunny Pasir Ris.
Growing up in Kastoria, a 16-hour flight from the Lion City, the first 10 years of Zikos’ life were a far cry from the hustle bustle of life in Singapore. From warm summers to chilling winters and picturesque scenery to boot, the striker spent much of his childhood enjoying kickabouts with an almost postcard-like backdrop.
“It was very different from here, for sure. Here, the life is very fast-paced, but over there it was very slow,” he told Goal in an exclusive interview.
“Life is very nice there, very enjoyable. Especially the town I was living in, it’s such a small town and a great environment. You had the change of seasons which I really like, and there was more ‘kampung spirit’ because there are fewer people in town so everyone knows each other. I really enjoyed my time there, and it’s definitely shaped me into who I am today,” he continued.
Having been a football fanatic since he was a child, the boyhood Manchester United fan and current Geylang star has been scoring goals for as long as he can remember. From kindergarten backyards to Jalan Besar Stadium, he’s been there, done that.
“Ever since I can remember, the only thing on my mind was football. That was my biggest interest. I remember in kindergarten in Greece I would play outside the school during recess with my friends and we’d use metal gates of the school as the goal! That’s one of the first experiences that I remember playing football,” he explained.
“For me, my childhood idol, and still, was always Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s why I started watching football, it was really everything about him.
"His style, his confidence, his stance, the dribbling, I think he’s a great prototype as to how a professional footballer should be, because he’s evolved a lot. He has improved, he’s changed through the years. Obviously, everyone talks about his work ethic, which every player should have.
"But as the years have gone by, I’ve tried to model my game after players who have more similar traits to me, like Zlatan or Lewandowski.”
Despite living predominantly in Greece though, Zikos and family were no strangers to Singapore. With a Singaporean father and a Greek mother, Zikos would visit the Little Red Dot once a year during his summer holidays, to catch up with his Singaporean relatives. Jumping from the sleepy town of Kastoria to a mega-city like Singapore was indeed awe-inducing for the youngster at the time.
“Whenever I came here, I was just amazed by everything. In Greece, you don’t see all these skyscrapers, especially where I’m from. One thing I remember boasting about was how there’s a boat on top of Marina Bay Sands! I was like, guys, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed.
However, Zikos’ life was about to take a dramatic turn. He recalls his mother entering his room in Kastoria on a cold night in December 2012, and uttered the words that would send him into a short spiral of sadness and despair: ‘We’ll be leaving here’.
His father had already left Greece six months prior to look for a job in Singapore, and with the family’s move all but confirmed, the 10-year-old was left devastated at the thought of leaving all his friends and family behind.
“It felt surreal,” he said. “Kastoria was all I’d known, and that lifestyle was all I’d known. I have so many friends here, I have my grandpa, it was my whole life.”
Nonetheless, it was sadness tinged with a shade of excitement at the prospect of seeing his father for the first time in months, and reuniting with his Singaporean relatives. As Zikos was soon to learn though, the culture shock at moving from a relaxed Greek town to an incredibly fast-paced city was no joke.
“The biggest (shock) was the studies!” he recalled. “I was so used to being the top student in Greece, and when I came here, I was horrible, and I remember crying a lot and feeling very down."
Eventually, things started looking up for the youngster. He graduated from Tanjong Katong Secondary in 2018 with an impressive L1R5 of eight points, gaining entry into Nanyang Junior College. That same year, he was offered an Under-19 contract by Geylang International head coach Noor Ali, who had coached him back at Tanjong Katong. With the offer from Geylang promising the chance to train with the senior team, it was a huge opportunity for the then 16-year-old, who had done remarkably well to juggle his academics with his football.
“The initial deal with Coach Noor was for me to join the U-19s and play for them, but I’d get to train with the first team, sporadically at the time. It was a big opportunity for me,” he said.
“I really thought it through a lot… but the promise of getting the chance to train with the first team is something I couldn’t give up, especially at a young age. I think I was very lucky also because Coach Noor was my school coach- if he wasn’t, I don’t think I’d have been given that chance,” he continued.
The upward trajectory didn’t stop there. Despite initially being signed for the U-19 side, Zikos’ sharpness and predatory instinct in front of goal soon propelled him into the first team, and before long, he had become a regular in the Singapore Premier League. It took a while for him to get going at that level, but when he netted his first ever professional goal in April 2019, things really began to take off.
“I was ecstatic. I didn’t know where to run! I just ran forward,” he enthused, speaking of his first goal, scored against Young Lions at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
“All my team-mates were like ‘why didn’t you run to the other side; all the fans are over there!’ I don’t know, I just ran wherever! When I scored the goal, I was going to my left so I just kept running straight after that! I was just screaming, and I was so happy. Of course, it was a bit lucky, but there was still some work to be done! I’d say my biggest strength is I’m just in the right place at the right time,” he explained.
He has since gone on to score five times in 13 SPL matches for Geylang, a hugely respectable return for an 18-year-old. And despite many young forwards struggling to replicate their domestic form on the international stage, it’s been no problem for the youngster.
Full of confidence and scoring regularly at both senior and age-group level, the striker was selected to represent Singapore U-19 at the 2018 AFF U-18 Championship in Vietnam. It was set to be the biggest tournament of his career to date.
With Singapore having struggled traditionally in age-group competitions, great expectation was pinned on young Zikos to finally deliver the goals that could see the Cubs go far in the tournament.
The team’s talisman was picked to start the side’s opening match, a 1-1 draw with Thailand, but disaster soon struck. In the 89th minute of that game, the striker experienced a sharp pain in his knee after being on the receiving end of a strong tackle, and was subsequently sent home for scans in Singapore. The scans all but confirmed his worst fears; it was the dreaded, much-maligned anterior cruciate ligament injury.
🇸🇬 Our U18 boys showed their support for injured team-mate Vasileios Zikos Chua before their AFF U18 Championship match against Cambodia yesterday. We all wish you a speedy recovery, Bill! 💪 #ONESTRONG— FAS (@FASingapore) August 14, 2019
Photos courtesy of VFF 🙏 pic.twitter.com/PwgWsXN6wD
“It was a very low moment. I felt like I was really getting a feel for all the games, I got a lot more confident and comfortable on the pitch after scoring all these goals. Then we went for international duty with the U-19s, and I got injured over there,” he recounted.
“It was tough, because it feels like you’re at rock bottom, and you have to start all over again. At the start especially when you’re off the crutches you have to learn how to walk again, get all the strength training and all, but as you see the progress go on and you get closer to 100 per cent, I felt very motivated to keep going,” he continued.
“It’s definitely tough, especially because Geylang were doing really well after I got injured and I just had to watch through that. My team-mates definitely kept me involved, they always encouraged me and asked me how my progress has been, which gave me more strength and motivation to push and get back to playing. The support around the rehab has been very good. My parents, my brother, the sports trainer, everyone has been very supportive and encouraging, which is very important.
“My parents have been the most important people in my life. Of course, it’s the job of a parent, but not all parents will support you when you’re trying to pursue a sports dream when academics is heavy. They’ve been amazing at letting me do my thing. In the bad times and the good times, they’ve been there, giving me advice, supporting me, not letting me get too high or too low.”
With no return date previously having been set for Zikos, he revealed to Goal that he was about to start training just before the season got halted, and was pencilled in to start playing tentatively in May. Describing himself as 90 per cent fit, he estimated that it would now take him about a month from when the season resumes before he is back to full fitness.
As is the norm for Junior College students, Zikos is set to enlist for National Service early next year, upon completion of his A-Level examinations. With that comes a hugely important decision he will have to make- the choice between Greek and Singaporean citizenship. With both countries having compulsory military service and Singapore not recognising dual citizenship beyond the age of 21, the youngster’s decision on his military allegiance will likely have a huge bearing on his international footballing one.
He has previously stated that he was torn between the two and unsure of what he would decide, but despite stopping short of definitively pledging his footballing allegiance to Singapore, he was quick to confirm his intention to complete Singapore National Service, and hinted at a footballing career with the Lions as well.
“I’d say there’s definitely a side I’m leaning more to, which is the Singaporean side. I’m staying here, and I’ve gotten used to the life here, and I’ve been through the youth system and everything. There’s not much more to it, because it’s quite complicated,” he mused.
“I see myself next five years, unless I get an offer from overseas, probably staying here, which will only be possible if I remain a Singaporean. As I said, things in Greece are a bit tough, and since I’ve been here for so long, and in my more mature years, I think I’m more inclined to choose Singapore. But yeah, the door is still open to Greece of course, if something drastic happens,” he concluded.
In the longer term, Zikos’ ambitions are as lofty as they come- with a burning desire to move to one of football’s top leagues, he is determined to keep improving, and to secure a move abroad upon the completion of his service term in 2023.
“I think all young players would have the same ambition, to go to Europe, and that’s of course mine. I want to play at as high a level as possible. I think the J-League is a really good target. Of course, I’d want to make it big in Europe, whether that’s in the Championship or the Greek League, who knows. But I definitely want to make it in a higher league, whether that’s the J-League, the A-League, or the K-League. Geylang also has an affiliation with Matsumoto Yamaga, I was supposed to go there for a training stint, but because of the injury I missed it,” he revealed.
For now, though, the striker has other targets to aim for, aside from the goalposts at Our Tampines Hub. With A-Levels around the corner, the youngster has been trying to make the best of the new home-based learning system, as he prepares for one of the biggest tests of his life so far.
“I’d say it’s alright. It could be better!” he said of his exam preparation. “With this pandemic you can’t go outside and I feel that I’m the type of person who studies better outside and in groups. I think online learning is a bit hard, and you definitely have to be more independent and self-directed. I prefer going to school, it helps me to be better focused, away from the distractions at home.”
As he continues to expertly balance his JC work with the demands of professional football, Zikos revealed that his daily routine prior to the Circuit Breaker was an incredibly hectic one, but one he was happy to juggle nonetheless.
“I think one good thing about NY(JC) is that we start a bit later than the other JC’s, our first lesson was at nine. So I’d wake up at about 7am, which is decent for a schoolboy. We would end at say around three, so whether I had school training or Geylang training, which was usually at seven I think, I’d have the hours in between to catch up with my work and do some homework. Then I’d make my way from school to where we’re training. We’d end at nine, and I’d reach home about 10 minutes later. I’d just wash up, have dinner, then study a bit more. It was very tiring, but I enjoyed my football, so it wasn’t that bad,” he elaborated.
“It’s important to have balance in your life, you can’t just be very good at football and neglect your studies as a whole, or vice versa. If your studies are good, and you can manage your time, you should encourage your child to pursue whatever interest they have,” he said of parents who actively discouraged their children pursuing careers in sports.
“Have trust that despite heavy commitments in their other interests, they’ll be able to keep up in their work, get good grades and be consistent. It takes a lot of trust, and at the same time teaches the child to be more independent.”
Advising young, local players to take advantage of the abundance of quality coaches across the island, Zikos was quick to reiterate his belief that there are many opportunities for young players to excel in football here.
“Honestly, I think it’s a really good time to be a young footballer here,” he claimed, concluding the interview.