On the 1st of November 1983, Kim Pan-keun made history for the football-mad nation of South Korea by attaining a National Cap at the young age of 17 years and 241 days.
The record still stands today.
Nicknamed the ‘Ground Fox’, he won the K-League twice while racking up a reputation for being one of Korea’s premiere full-backs.
Almost four decades later, his son Danny Kim steps foot on the shores of Singapore, carrying the Kim family name on the back of his shirt, and a certain weight on his shoulders.
Which begs the question – how does one live up to these extraordinary expectations?
Throughout my hour-long interview with Geylang International’s new star signing Danny Kim, I’ve learnt not only about his indomitable will to overcome all adversity, but also his ice-cool composure.
Two traits possessed by many great footballers, which definitely convinced me that he’s well on his way to carving a name for himself among the snow-storm that is the footballing world. Read on to find out more about who I dub The ‘Arctic Fox’, Danny Kim.
Growing up in a footballing family, one would think that Danny had an obvious path into football, but that was not necessarily the case.
“Obviously, I grew up hearing about his career, so I guess I was around it, but he never pushed football onto me. Of course, we enjoyed it, watching it together and talking about the game, but playing-wise, he never forced me into anything” the midfielder revealed.
But as he would find out, he would have a natural affinity towards the game of football.
“I actually started playing football just for fun, at school mostly.”
Whereas his friends would play video games at home, a young Danny Kim would find himself out in the park, kicking the ball and practicing his keepy-uppies. And when he was home, he would find himself watching football games whenever they were on TV. He was drawn to the midfield role – a role that, I thought, perfectly fit his chill nature.
It was at this starting point where his father started noticing his love for the game, and helped him out with his skills – also sharing with him some words that would prove true, time and time again throughout Danny’s career.
“Football is not easy, but if you love it, go for it with all your heart.”
Equipped with these words, the fledgling midfielder would find himself playing with his friends more seriously for the local team, all while admiring and emulating both players that came on the television screen, as well as the players that came through his father’s football academy based in Brisbane.
His first small break? Getting picked for the local district side when he was 12.
Frozen In Time
Things started to look up for Danny, as, itching for a higher level of football, he found himself playing for Rochedale Rovers FC in the third-tier of Australian football – his first taste of life in a football club. It was here where he developed his passion into a true lifestyle of week-in, week-out training sessions, and a devout commitment to improvement.
His dedication to hard work paid off, as it was there that he started traversing the pathway of elite Australian football – being picked for the state team, selected to train at the Queensland Academy Of Sport (QAS), and then selected for the Nationals, where the best 13-14 year olds gather. Whereas this breakneck progression would cast doubt into some players, Danny tackled it all with his usual cool, steely demeanour.
It was then, no wonder that he impressed at that stage too, getting his first big break – a selection to the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). A fully paid scholarship awaited, as he was bound to train with Australia’s cream of the crop for two years, and with fittingly first-class facilities as well, as the Institute seeks to assemble a team for the U-17 World Cup.
However, this was when his father’s words rang truer than ever, ‘Football is not easy’, and his meteoric rise would soon come to an abrupt halt. His coach at the AIS moved him from his natural role in central midfield to centre-back, a move that put him in direct competition with the other, more experienced defenders in the academy.
“Football-wise, it was really quite difficult for me actually, and I’d say it was my first stumbling block in my career. I don’t like to regret anything, but I really felt that it stopped my growth a little bit”, Danny reflected.
The uncertainty in this new position, along with him trying to find himself as a growing teenager proved an arduous task. He found himself going through the motions – though he was still keeping up with his devotion to training, he wasn’t in the best place mentally as he also missed his family.
Eventually, despite his best efforts, Danny wasn’t selected for the U-17 squad.
In the Australian football elite pathway, this represented a chasm where players who didn’t make it fall into, one where he was, as such, frozen in time.
But he wouldn’t be still for long.
The Great Unknown
Going home to Brisbane, a fired-up Danny sought to melt away the pain of this small defeat. He moved rapidly into the jungle of Australian club football, trialing for the youth team of the aptly named Brisbane Roar. Though he succeeded in the trial, he was quickly put in the cut-throat environment that is elite club football.
The surface seemed promising, a first taste of proper elite club football, training with the Brisbane Roar first-team and having the opportunity to reunite with a few of his old friends. However, in the story of coaches, his lack of faith in the young midfielder meant multiple stints on the bench, and you couldn’t tie Danny’s voracious hunger to prove himself in first-team football for long.
Enter Hume City FC, a team playing in the Melbourne NPL, arguably the strongest in Australia – which would be a substantial test of his skills. However, it also meant once again moving away from his family and into a certain uncertainty.
Danny explained, “I wanted to try, and I was still hungry – I just really wanted to play, so I decided (that) I’ll take a gamble.”
Catching up on lost time, the midfielder took these adversities in his stride, bypassing parties with friends in favour of football. With his experiences in the AIS, he wasn’t going to let himself get put down by the mental side of the game, but such is the realities and rigours of professional football that he learnt that possessing a strong mind was not enough – one must need the heart as well.
A certain quote proves to carry weight once again, “Football is not easy, but if you love it, go for it with all your heart.” And you can bet – there certainly wasn’t much love out in the great unknown.
On Thin Ice
Having gone through the dizzying experiences that would be overwhelming to any young adult, Danny then found himself in a pickle – he still wanted to play every game he could to prove that he can make it as a professional footballer, but, as all Singaporeans would know all too well, one must account for a back-up plan.
Because of that, he was on thin ice as went back to Brisbane, juggling between his education, as well as unsuccessfully trialing at clubs. In any good novel, this would be the perfect time for a stroke of luck, and, after several bad coaches that halted his footballing development, he would finally meet the coach that would reverse his fortunes – Warren Moon.
The coach of Lions FC at the time, he gave Danny the chance that he was dying for. And boy, did he grab it with both of his hands.
“I had to juggle my first real full season of senior men’s football with studying, but you know what? It was the best time. It was unbelievable. I was back home, I was happy, I was playing in my position again – I just started really enjoying football again.” Danny explained, recounting his 3 year stint with the club.
In Lions FC, he tasted winning for the first time, as he won trophy after trophy. Playing the best football of his career thus far, he was integral to the success of the club, contributing to a period of winning at least 2 trophies per season for 3 consecutive years.
Highlighting the importance of finding the right coach to develop as a player, Coach Warren was then picked up by the Brisbane Roar – a very rare instance of an NPL coach going straight to the A-League, and one of his first phone calls? Bringing his midfielder with him.
“Moon always told me that he sees a future with me in the A-League, and he always wanted me to try my best in the NPL.” Danny reflected, “True to his word, as soon as he went to Brisbane he said ‘I want you to come on trial’. I played my heart out (on that trial), and you know, the day he rang me up and said ‘Look, we’re gonna sign you’, that was amazing.”
At 21-years old, this was how Danny found himself dunked into the deep end of playing in the A-League, including a Finals game against Western United. After all that he’d been through, nothing would faze him, as he thrived in his now familiar midfield role.
And, perhaps most importantly, he found his love for football again.
Ice in his veins.
This love for playing football brings him to Singapore, where he is currently playing as in the centre of the park at Geylang International. Citing his trust in Coach Noor Ali (an important aspect when we take into account his previous experiences with coaches), he felt that the club had the right vision, and liked the footballing philosophy implemented.
“I had a good chat with Coach Noor Ali before I came, and he told me he wanted to play a possession-based game, which is my thing. And I was hungry. I just wanted to play football and I thought – bring it on, man.” the midfielder explained.
The rest, as they say, is history. Danny’s path to professional football wasn’t easy, but he loved it, and certainly went for it with all his heart.
The player who modelled his game after childhood hero Yaya Toure, and taught to play clean, tidy football like Sergio Busquets has now blossomed into one of Singapore’s most exciting players, playing at the heart of the Geylang midfield.
At the time of the interview, he had yet to score a goal in the Singapore Premier League. Asking him about a goal celebration, he replied ‘Not really! I don’t score too much, and on the rare times that I do score, I just go crazy man. Maybe if I score in the next couple of games, I could bring a new one out.’
Perhaps after this interview, I thought, The Arctic Fox might just have one new icey celebration in his arsenal.
All other photos are courtesy of Danny Kim.
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