SINGAPORE: When he first arrived in Singapore as a fresh-faced teenager a little over seven years ago, the sum of Song Ui-young’s English vocabulary totalled just two words.
“I couldn’t speak English – I only knew ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” said the South Korean footballer.
But the 18-year-old Yeouido High School student was nonetheless determined to at least do his talking on the pitch.
“My coach in Korea knew the then Home United coach, Lee Lim Saeng, and recommended me to him. Then coach Lee came down to watch my game and he just liked me,” said Song.
“After that we talked and he asked me to play in the (reserve) Prime League first. I thought if I could adjust in Singapore, then maybe I could step up and have the chance to play in the S.League (now Singapore Premier League).”
Fast forward to 2019, and the hard-running, straight-talking midfielder not only has cemented a starting role in his side, but has become one of the brightest stars on the local football scene.
Banging in 20 goals last season for Home United, the South Korean has transformed from an inexperienced newbie to a seasoned stalwart.
“In my first and second year, I just tried my best to survive,” he said.
“During my third and fourth year, I changed my thinking to be better and better. In 2018, I also changed my playing style to score more and attack more.”
Song’s eyes are also set on a new prize – the Lions jersey.
“This is my special country,” said the 25-year-old. “Singapore is the first country I’ve played professional football in and sometimes I really feel more comfortable here than in Korea.”
Having submitted his application for Permanent Residency (PR) last November, the South Korean now faces an anxious wait as he takes his first step to becoming a Singaporean.
“I’ve already learnt the national anthem,” Song added. “I heard that I need to prepare, that’s why I learnt already and remember it.
“I watched it on YouTube first and I tried to sing it. When my teammates sing it, I just follow them and they will say this is right and this is not.”
LIKE A “SMALL BOY”
His quest for a new nationality marks a major milestone for Song, who struggled with communication with teammates on the field and loneliness off it when he first arrived.
“I was like a small boy – I couldn’t shout to ask teammates to give me the ball,” Song said. “Even if somebody was shouting at me, I wouldn’t know what he was shouting for.
“I tried my best to produce good performances on the field, but I felt that my teammates weren’t that close to me.”
While the youngster stayed in an apartment with assistant coach and compatriot Baek Jong-seok, Song was finding the going tough.
“During my first year, the feeling of loneliness – I felt that way for the first time in my life,” he said. “I wanted to go out and enjoy fresh air off the field. But I didn’t have many friends here to begin with.
“I didn’t talk much to my family about my hardship because they would worry for sure. I didn’t want them to worry. So I would just share with my best friend in Korea.
“If I went back to Korea, maybe I wouldn’t need to feel this kind of thing. That’s why I wanted to give up. Sometimes I cried.”
But Song made the effort to press on – and the first step in assimilating was to pick up the language.
“I needed to speak English with people,” he said. “I learnt it online and I had tuition as well. My first year and second year I had online lessons every day. For the tuition, it was two times a week.
“It was very difficult to learn English in the first year, but then in the second and third year I felt that I was getting better at it and I got more confident.”
The South Korean was becoming fast friends with his teammates as well, with veteran defender Juma’at Jantan one of the players to take Song under his wing.
“JJ helped me a lot. He came to me and asked me how I was and whether everything was good,” said Song.
“He was always checking up on me. And if I had some problems then he would try to help.”
SWAPPING SOUTH KOREA FOR SINGAPORE
As the South Korean continued to impress, he caught the eye of then Lions coach Bernd Stange in 2016.
“He wanted me to play for Singapore and in his team, so after I heard that I was very interested,” said Song.
“It would be an honour to represent Singapore, an honour for my life. Some people really want that but can’t get that (opportunity).”
Having spent close to five years in Singapore, Song was eligible to be naturalised at the end of 2016, having met FIFA’s requirement of having lived continuously here for at least five years after reaching the age of 18.
A total of nine players have been naturalised for Singapore under the Foreign Talent Scheme, with Chinese striker Qiu Li the last to gain citizenship in 2010.
Song eventually applied for permanent residency in March 2018, but the application – his first – was rejected several months later.
“I was very disappointed,” he recalled. “I was confident of getting PR, then it suddenly fell through.”
A exit route out of Singapore was available for Song was well – top tier Indonesia side Persija Jakarta were interested in his services and willing to more than double his salary.
A monthly salary of “between US$15,000 to $20,000” was offered to Song, along with a sign-on fee and bonuses.
“I met the chairman and the teammates and they already prepared the contract for me,” he said. “I could’ve just signed it then and there. It was very difficult to arrive at a decision – but I chose not to.
“The biggest reason why I stayed on in Singapore was I met with the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) – they shared their plans for me and supported my PR application.
“I told my family and close friends I really like living here and if I could play for Singapore, then that would be a great opportunity – one that rarely comes around.”
Song, who has yet to serve compulsory national service in South Korea, says he is also “prepared” to serve in the military should he have to return to his homeland.
In a reply to media queries last October, the FAS confirmed that it was in discussions to put forth its support for Song’s application under the Foreign Talent Scheme.
A FAS spokesman said then: “As announced at the recent FAS Congress, the FAS is looking into utilising the Foreign Talent Scheme to further strengthen our national team for the future.”
He added: “Song Ui-young is a motivated individual with a strong desire to perform at the highest level, and has shown great commitment to local football since he came to Singapore in 2012 at the age of 18.
“Apart from his stellar performances at local and regional competitions in the past seasons, Song has also been actively involved in Home United FC’s grassroots outreach efforts.
“Despite overseas offers, Song has decided to remain with the Protectors, signalling his desire and intention to make Singapore his home.”
“I NEED TO SEE A DOCTOR”
Even when he returns to South Korea for holidays, Song’s heart remains in Singapore.
“I don’t know if you believe it or not but when I am in Korea during the off-season, I do want to come back to Singapore,” he said. “I want to start my work and stay here and have kopi and meet my friends.
“It’s very difficult sometimes; I think I need to see a doctor on why I feel this way,” he added with a laugh.
Song is clearly at home in Singapore – he considers Newton hawker centre and Clarke Quay among his favourite haunts.
And his beverage of choice whenever possible? Kopi.
“I really like the kopi. I have that more than Starbucks or Coffee Bean … When I take a flight, I request: ‘Do you have kopi? If you have, just let me have it?’ They don’t understand, they don’t know about kopi.”
For now, Song will have to be content with his daily cuppa, as he waits on what could be a life-changing turn of events.
And he has another another item to tick off the checklist in the meantime.
“I’m trying to learn Chinese as well,” he added with a laugh. “I’m making plans now.”
Not too shabby for the footballer whose main goal when he arrived in Singapore all those years ago, was to merely survive.