SINGAPORE - Struck by wanderlust, for a time Joshua Pereira - who was then studying for a hospitality and tourism diploma - flirted with the idea of becoming an air steward.
But he chose to focus on his football career instead. And now, after enduring years of turbulence, the 24-year-old on Monday boarded a plane with the world No. 159 Lions, with whom he hopes to go places with.
Pereira is one of three uncapped players in Takayuki Nishigaya's 23-man squad who are in Vietnam to play friendlies against the hosts on Wednesday and India on Saturday. The Geylang International midfielder is among the new faces in the team, who include 12 players with five caps or fewer.
While Pereira is "delighted beyond words", he knows there is stiff competition in what is essentially an audition for the Dec 20-Jan 16 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship.
But after a football journey he describes as "a hell of a ride", he is determined to nail down his Lions spot after a putting in impressive performances in midfield and defence with the Eagles this season.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and make it to the national team," said Pereira, who is also aiming to play in regional leagues in the near future.
Technically gifted, much was expected from a teenage Pereira. But by the time he was 15, the injury-prone player had already broken his right leg and left ankle. He eventually bounced back to win The New Paper Dollah Kassim Award at 18 and trained with French Ligue 1 side St Etienne for a week.
But more injury woes followed when he fractured a rib and punctured a lung even before he began the 2017 S-League season with the Young Lions. When he resumed training in June that year, he suffered a hairline fracture in his right foot which sidelined him for another four weeks.
Then he landed himself in trouble at the 2019 SEA Games, where he was one of nine Singapore players who broke curfew. He was fined $2,000 by the Singapore National Olympic Council after a disciplinary committee hearing.
The next two years were just as bleak as the Covid-19 pandemic and national service commitments limited him to just three league matches with the Eagles.
But with the support of friends and family, thoughts of retirement were quickly dismissed after a good run in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
He said: "It really wasn't easy, especially when I had not been playing in the SPL for so long. When I got back this year, I struggled with the pace of the game.
"This is where I'm so thankful for Geylang's coaches and teammates who really encouraged me and pushed me to become better. I'm not the finished article yet, and I have more work to do on my physique."
His versatility, calmness in possession and ability to pick out a pass helped him become a key player in the Geylang team who overcame a disastrous start of just one win in 12 matches to work their way into the top half of the SPL.
Pereira's performances, as well as those of other unheralded players, have caught Nishigaya's eye. He said: "We are always looking for players who can play a couple of positions according to different styles of play. Joshua is one of those who can be very useful to us.
"I would like to share with them how they can improve because they have to know what the national team standard is. And if they are able to reach this level through our training and matches, they will become better players and assets for the Lions."
With just three months left to prep the AFF Championship squad, good performances against world No. 97 Vietnam - the only South-east Asian team in the top 100 - and 104th-ranked India will be a much-needed boost.
Nishigaya said: "We need to keep improving our level, and we can do so only by playing better teams. These matches are very good opportunities to improve as a national team, and of course, we are here to try to win these games."
Players in Lions squad with five caps or fewer
Goalkeepers: Zaiful Nizam (3 caps), Mukundan Maran (0);
Defenders: Joshua Pereira (0), Ryaan Sanizal (1 ), Ryhan Stewart (1);
Midfielders: Hazzuwan Halim (4), Ho Wai Loon (2), Shah Shahiran (5), Syed Firdaus Hassan (0);
Forwards: Glenn Kweh (3), Ilhan Fandi (3), Taufik Suparno (3)