SINGAPORE - Since he began playing football at 10, Gabriel Quak has always been minded to make the most of every second. During the kickabouts at his Bishan estate's amphitheatre, he would keep an eye at his 12th floor unit as sunset approached.
He recalled with a laugh: "It's like checking the scoreboard to see how much time is left to play. That was about the time my mother would appear on the balcony and shout at me to go back home."
Two decades on, Quak is seizing his moment on the pitch. He was named Player of the Year at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Awards Night on Dec 7 after starring for Lion City Sailors, scoring five goals and contributing eight assists.
The club finished third in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) and qualified for next season's AFC Cup.
Quak, who turns 30 on Dec 22, told The Straits Times he knows he is at a stage where "every year takes me closer to finish line".
He said: "I cannot be wasting time when I still want to achieve so many things. Winning the award was a good validation, but what's next?
"I think I can play at least another five years on a good level and I still want to win trophies with club and country and be remembered for being a key contributor in successful teams."
His stock began rising from 2018, when he left his comfort zone to join Thai League 1 side Navy. The team were eventually relegated but Quak’s reputation was enhanced as he delivered strong performances and scored four goals in 15 games.
He joined Warriors FC last year and despite the club’s financial woes, he was their standout player and scored 11 times and led them to the Singapore Cup final, where they lost to Tampines Rovers.
Quak also took over the captaincy from an injured Khairul Nizam during that campaign, a sign of his growing maturity and influence.
He said: "Many feel the move to Thailand was my turning point, and I did learn a lot being out there on my own fending for myself as an import and excelling, but the season at Warriors was also important because I was entrusted with more responsibilities and I showed I could lead a team.
"Now, I'm really enjoying my football with the Sailors, who trust me with the freedom to express myself, and I can see my long-term future with this ambitious club."
It was not always smooth-sailing though. Coming through the ranks of the now-defunct National Football Academy (NFA) and then the Young Lions, Quak was known as a skilful winger but seen as an inconsistent player and rarely started matches for then-LionsXII coach V. Sundram Moorthy.
Another former LionsXII coach, Fandi Ahmad, praised Quak's evolution as a forward. He said: "We have seen Gabriel mature over the years, and now he understands better how to use his strengths to score and create for the team on a consistent basis."
Support from Quak's family has been pivotal. His mother Chow Juet May, 59, was initially hesitant but eventually won over by her son's passion and resolve. She said: "His father is the more sporting one, but I did not want Gabriel to play football when he was a boy because of the risk of injury, and I didn't want football to affect his studies.
"But his NFA coach Kadir Yahaya was a very good coach who would take time to communicate with his teachers, my husband and I to reassure us.
"I was worried when he wanted to make football his career, but in the end, I supported him because he was so determined and we are happy when our son is happy chasing his dreams. We are touched by the recognition he has gotten, and we are so proud of him."
Quak's wife Melissa Teo, 32, is another pillar. She remained in Singapore to look after their first child Gladys while Quak was in Thailand.
She said: "A footballer's partner has to be understanding about his schedule, which is different from a nine-to-five job and requires frequent travelling, and how physically and mentally draining his job can be.
"When he got the offer from Thailand, I was happy because it has always been his dream to play overseas. It was also difficult because Gladys was two then, but I wasn't alone as my parents and in-laws also helped out, which allowed to focus on doing well over there."
The couple welcomed their second child, Garrett, last year.
For Fandi, who is the FAS head of elite youth, Quak's achievements could hopefully sway future generations to follow his path. Tellingly, only 24 of the 217 footballers registered in last season's SPL are Chinese.
Fandi, 58, said: "There are talents from all races but the national team will be at a disadvantage if we are not able to tap on talent from the majority. There are many reasons for young players dropping out of the sport - studies, other better-paying jobs, or they don't have the strong mentality to endure or they lack a role model.
"I hope Gabriel's story shows if you are talented, willing to learn, work hard and persevere, you can reap the rewards."
Under-21 SPL players may start with making $800 per month but this can go beyond $10,000 for senior stars. Established internationals playing in Malaysia and Thailand can also earn five-figure salaries.
Quak, who is taking a real estate salesperson course, added: "There are examples like Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak who have long careers and are fruitful on and off the pitch because of their commitment and sacrifice.
"As footballers, we train and play a few hours and have so much time left in a day. Football is our priority, but look at how Hariss is also studying for a part-time degree now, while Bai and Shahril have their own businesses.
"A football career is short and unpredictable, but you can also be earning a good living while planning for life after football. More than that, it is so satisfying to turn your talent into a career and I have no regrets taking this path."
Born: Dec 22, 1990
International record: 35 caps, 5 goals
Clubs: Young Lions (2008-2011), LionsXII (2012-15), Geylang International (2016-17), Navy (2018), Warriors FC (2019), Lion City Sailors (present)
Achievements: SEA Games bronze (2009, 2013), Malaysian Super League 2013, Malaysian FA Cup (2015), SPL Player of the Year 2020