Asian Football Interviews

Leading the Line, What it Means to be A Number 9

The number nine, a number synonymous with goals, excitement and above all responsibility. Vasileios Chua, better known as Zikos or Bill to the Singaporean football community, is a dying breed, a traditional number nine with proper striker instincts.

To Zikos, ‘leading the line’ is something that he’s had to grow into in his young career. Some fans might remember his blistering hot start to his SPL career a few years ago, but he is still only 20 years of age and is no longer the same player he was back then. He’s better. 

As a young starlet for Geylang between 2017 and 2021, his role was very different to the one he possesses now with Young Lions and the Singapore U23 National Team going into next week’s 31st Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi.

“I think in our system I have to contribute on both sides of the ball, leading our press to win the ball high up the pitch but also be ready to hold it up and bring more creative players into the game. Most importantly though, I need to be scoring goals.” And that he has, through the first round of SPL fixtures, he’s found himself with three goals and an assist to his name, seeing him sit joint top of the local goal-scorers table.

Finding the net is a hobby for Zikos, who rose to prominence in 2019 with Geylang, scoring five in eleven appearances, with fans earmarking him for a bright future. As he puts it, his time at Geylang was the “perfect place to start as a young striker.” He was afforded the opportunities to make mistakes, to play with freedom and to adjust to the men’s game, a chance that not many grasp firmly. His role back then, however, was also much different to the one he holds now, he noted. “It was a win-win situation for me when I played because I was mainly used as an impact sub and if I got a goal, great and if I didn’t it wasn’t the end of the world. I did well in that role and slowly earned the trust of Coach Noor and the other players to start and contribute more to the team. As a young player that’s all you really want, to be trusted by your teammates so that they’ll pass you the ball and you can contribute something.”

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

The number nine was on cloud nine, but it all came crashing down in August of that year. While on international duty with the U19s in Vietnam, Zikos suffered an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury that would rule him out for almost a year, similar to what current Young Lions and U23 Captain Jacob Mahler suffered. To add insult to injury, he found out that he was set for a senior training camp call-up for local-based players under Coach Tatsuma and would miss out on an opportunity to train with Matsumoto Yamaga FC (formerly a J1 side) at the end of the year.

“After the injury our U19 coach came up to me and told me that that was the plan once we returned after the tournament, I was distraught. You never know if an opportunity like that will come up again, but in hindsight it’s fine. It just cemented to me that I can do something in this league and that the onus was on me to rehab well, come back and do the same things if not be better.”

Image Credits: FAS

His ACL injury took a toll on him, watching his teammates and football continue while he was sat on the sidelines. To make matters worse, once fully recovered, the COVID-19 Pandemic struck, meaning Zikos had to wait till October of 2020 to make a competitive appearance, over a full year since his injury. It didn’t stop there, on top of the rustiness from being out for so long, Zikos had his A-Level exams at the end of the year to focus on, meaning he struggled to find any sort of form. He found himself in and out of the line-up, lacking confidence after such a lengthy lay-off and with the pressures of looming exams hanging over his head. He went goalless in six appearances.

2021 didn’t start off well either for Zikos, who enlisted into the Army after only two matches for the Eagles, again unable to find the back of the net in either appearance. Without much of a choice he put football on the back burner, focusing on his military commitments with a stint with the Young Lions as the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Recalling my first session with Zikos, I’d heard a bit about him from teammates and had come across bits on social media but didn’t really know what to expect. After a few training sessions though you could just see that he was a proper striker. How he played with his back to goal, linking up with midfielders and wingers before making a run into the box, finishing moves off with instinctual shots. It was something we were lacking in the squad in my opinion, and it seems that the coaching staff agreed. 

“Coach Phillipe actually pulled me to one side after a week or two with the team and told me I was going to be in the provisional squad for the U23 AFC tournament. I didn’t think I was ready and wouldn’t have picked myself if I’m being honest. I just knew regardless of what happened I’d give it my all and work as hard as I could.”

Image Credits: FAS

That anecdote is a testament to Zikos’ ability but also speaks alarmingly perhaps about the lack of proper number nines not just at underage level but across Singapore. Aside from Ikhsan and Ilhan Fandi, Singaporean teams have almost always looked to foreigners to fulfil their striking needs, leaving the national set-up with limited options. 

Despite Coach Phillipe’s vote of confidence, Zikos was unable to show his best, but demonstrated plenty of flashes of his value even when he’s not putting the ball into the back of the net. He cited the Phillipines game in particular, “When I came on it wasn’t so much about scoring, rather being an outlet for the team when we were under pressure, winning fouls and just being a nuisance for their defenders honestly.” All of these being traits essential to a striker leading the line, someone who’s selfless and able to help the team out when they need him most.

Having only played sporadically for two years, Zikos had high hopes going into 2022 with a full pre-season under his belt but also an increased role with Young Lions. Gone were the days where the only expectations on his shoulders were to be an impact substitute or to fulfil a U23 quota for 45 minutes. He had to lead the line and help set the tone for the team, and he’s done just that. As previously mentioned, he’s netted thrice and registered an assist in six appearances this season, statistically his hottest start to a season. 

Speaking about bagging his first competitive goal in over two and a half years he could only describe it as “a weight lifted. It was a scrappy goal, but a goal nonetheless, they all count. It was a huge relief and getting it out of the way put me at ease massively. Confidence is so important as a striker and it’s infectious. I want the confidence of my teammates that they know I’ll finish chances and that we can score goals as a team.” 

Image Credits: FAS

With exciting, creative players such as Joel Chew and Khairin Nadim playing alongside him, Zikos is enjoying his football, but he still knows there’s plenty of work to be done to improve and refine his game. He needs to be producing consistently and can’t ever be satisfied. There are always more goals to be scored, assists to be gotten and facets to improve. One of which being speed, an aspect of our games that Zikos and I consistently joke and laugh about in training. Neither of us are the quickest players (the stats don’t lie), but we know that it’s up to us to try and perfect our movement and touches so that we’re able to negate that. We’ll keep trying to get faster obviously, but in Zikos’ case traditional number nines usually aren’t the quickest either. He watches players like Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski and tries to analyse their effectiveness at bringing other players into the game as well as their movement in the box despite their limited speed.

Zikos is finally feeling like himself again, with next week’s SEA Games a perfect platform for him to show fans, critics and coaches what he brings to the table. With his name being thrown around in discussions for a senior call-up, a big tournament for him could see the rumours materialise. It’s undoubtedly a lot of pressure, but Zikos feels comfortable in the system and with his teammates.

“If I play my role I’m confident the goals will come, I just need to be ready.”

He’s ready to lead the line, Zikos Chua, our very own number nine.

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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