Footballer Zikos Chua aims to make his mark, after stars finally align
At the last edition of the SEA Games in 2019, Zikos Chua had been tipped to be a breakout star for the Republic. The 1.82m forward had found himself in the headlines before the Philippine Games when he became the youngest debutant, youngest match winner and youngest player to reach five goals in the Singapore Premier League.
But his hopes of making his Games debut were crushed when he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury before the tournament.
Chua, 20, will finally get to take centre stage on Saturday (May 7) when the Singapore Under-23 side kick off their SEA Games Group B campaign against Laos at the Thien Truong Stadium in Nam Dinh, Vietnam.
This time, the stars have aligned for Chua and he is expected to lead the line for the Young Lions in the absence of Ilhan and Ikhsan Fandi.
Ilhan will miss the tournament due to an ankle injury. Ikhsan and elder brother Irfan have not been released by their Thai club BG Pathum United as the Games fall outside of the official Fifa window.
After missing February's Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-23 Championship because he was ill with Covid, Chua cannot wait to make his Games debut.
Speaking to The Straits Times from Vietnam, he said: "This is going to be a proud moment for my family and I. It feels so good to be here and being part of the squad. Of course, we would have loved for Ikhsan and Ilhan to be here but this a good chance for me to prove my worth."
Does he feel the pressure to fill the void left by Ikhsan, who has 13 goals in 27 appearances for the senior national team?
Chua, who has a Singaporean father and Greek mother, said: "The pressure comes from myself, not others. I always expect the best from myself and I am self-critical. I always tell myself that I need to be in good positions to score for my team."
In 2018, Chua made his first professional appearance at 16 years and 80 days when he came on as a substitute in Geylang International's 3-1 win over the Young Lions.
At that time, he was the youngest to do so although that record has since been broken by Young Lions pair Raoul Suhaimi (15 years 239 days) and Khairin Nadim (15 years 298 days).
He is still the youngest match winner in SPL history, which he achieved in April 2019, when he scored for Geylang in a 1-0 win over the Young Lions. In four seasons for the Eagles, he scored 21 goals.
In six matches this season in his debut campaign for the Young Lions, he has three goals and one assist.
Chua, who is undergoing national service, feels readier for matches these days.
The forward, who models his game after Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, said: "Three years ago, after my injury, I felt it was a bit stop-start for me because I was not having consistent game time and did not quite have the best of preparations for my matches. This year has been better because I have played a lot more and the style of play at the Young Lions suits me better."
Coach Nazri Nasir said Chua brings a different dimension to his team and lavished praise on his young forward for his determination.
Said Nazri, 51: "He worked really hard after his injury and his determination is there for all of us to see. He makes an impact when he plays and if he get gets an opportunity (at the Games), he will deliver. I am confident that he and the other forwards (Nicky Melvin Singh, Khairin and Glenn Kweh) will be able to help the team with goals.
"Zikos is different from the rest because he is able to hold up the ball well and makes good runs into spaces."
Nazri has marked the game against Laos as a must-win especially since there are tougher matches against Thailand and Malaysia that await his team.
While Laos have yet to win in nine attempts against Singapore at the Games in previous editions, they are not expected to be pushovers here. At the AFF U-23 championships, they beat Malaysia twice before being eliminated by Thailand in the semi-finals after a 2-0 defeat.
Said Nazri: "It is a very important game but we are aware that Laos have improved over the years. But I am confident of our chances. We know the pressure is on us but we want to have a good start."