SINGAPORE – With his school bag chucked to the corner, a quick change of clothes, shoes optional, an eight-year-old Daniel Goh first realised what freedom and joy felt like 14 years ago when he stepped onto a Yishun street soccer court.
He was not playing with just older boys, but also “very rough” uncles. Yet, he would keep returning to try to get the better of them.
Today, that fearless boy is one of five footballers who are in line to receive their first caps in the Lions’ away friendlies against Hong Kong (on Thursday) and Macau (on Sunday).
The Balestier Khalsa attacker, 23, said: “The street soccer court was where I can take my mind off everything and be free to express myself, and I love the feeling of taking on an opponent 1-v-1.”
It helped that Goh was a serial 100m winner at sports meets during his school days and can complete the 2.4km run in under 8min 30sec.
But there were aspects of his game to fine-tune. As he came through the ranks of the Home United youth set-up, a coach once asked him to dribble a bag of balls after he hogged the ball during a game.
He said: “That taught me the importance of making the right decisions on the pitch and knowing when to dribble or pass or shoot because as a winger, I have to be a real threat to the opponents.”
Goh, who eventually earned several national under-22 call-ups, played a key role in helping the Young Lions win the 2019 Merlion Cup. But he was also criticised for a lack of end product during the 2022 Under-23 Asian Cup qualifiers.
Fortunately, the down-to-earth player has built a thick skin from his younger days, when his grandmother would frequently go to the street soccer courts with a slipper or cane to chase him home.
And his resilience was honed during national service when he had to wake up at 4.30am for duties, book out at 5pm, rush to the Geylang Field for Young Lions training and grab dinner before returning to Sungei Gedong Camp. By the time he was done with laundry and showering, it would be midnight.
Still, for 18 months, five days a week, he persisted because he just wanted to play football and was prepared to sacrifice.
“Of course, it was tiring and my form wasn’t great during that period,” he added. “But I’m okay with negative feedback, and it is up to me to learn and improve.”
His positive response to advice has seen him work on observations from experts such as former Singapore U-22 coach Fandi Ahmad.
The 1.72m, 60kg Goh said: “In an interview, coach Fandi said I needed to work on my physique and I agreed because I used to be very skinny at under 50kg, so I started hitting the gym.
“While I was with Albirex Niigata, I saw how the Japanese players went to training more than an hour before reporting time to do their own activation. I don’t want to lose out, so I started going in early to practise my juggling, dribbling and shooting, and also take an extra 30 minutes after training to do more of such drills.
“Now at Balestier, coach Peter de Roo has also been a big influence with his positive attacking philosophy and trust in me.”
Goh’s commitment has paid off. In his first 49 matches at senior club level, the wiry winger recorded just four goals and three assists. However, in his last 15 games, his tally improved to nine goals and four assists.
On Goh, national coach Takayuki Nishigaya said: “Daniel is able to beat opponents with his pace and dribbling skills, and can finish the attacking phase of play with good shots or crosses.
“He needs to find out for himself what he can or cannot do at the international level, but I want him to improve on his strengths rather than focus on his weaknesses.”
And Goh, who also wants to pay tribute to his late grandfather for being a pillar of support throughout his career, is determined to do what it takes to establish himself as a national team regular.
He said: “I don’t want to just get this call-up, or my first cap, and disappear. I want to continue working hard and performing for my club and be a key contributor for club and country.”