The South Korean playmaker has become an absolute club legend and is determined to stay in Singapore beyond his playing career
For most South Korean kids, information about their neighbours up North is hazy at best. It’s not a subject regularly brought up in school, and it’s definitely not the most popular dinner conversation going.
With the two countries still officially at war, there have been little to no formal relations between them in decades. Only a couple thousand South Koreans actually made the trip up North in 2018 – one of which was Lion City Sailors (then Home United) playmaker-in-chief, Ui-young Song.
“I never, ever imagined to be there one day!” Song exclaimed.
“North Korea is an unknown place for us. For Europe and other Asian countries, we hear about them, but for North Korea, we have never heard any information about it and we couldn’t even hope to be there one day. So yeah, I never expected that.”
Now in his 10th year at the Bishan-based club, it’s fair to say Song’s been around the block a fair bit.
Starting off at a small academy near his hometown in Korea, the midfielder has enjoyed multiple successful domestic and continental campaigns during his time in Singapore, and has established himself as one of the best attacking midfielders in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, it really has been quite the career thus far for the Incheon-native.
“The 2002 World Cup was held by Japan and Korea together, so I watched the games and then I just told my mum ‘Hey, I want to join the football academy and learn how to play football!’ Then yeah, it started,” Song explained.
As the South Korean team captured the imagination of football fans worldwide, reaching the semi-finals, no one was better placed to soak it all in than eight-year-old Song.
“When I was in school, we didn’t really study. The teachers and the students, we just watched all the games. We just supported them, shouted and cheered for them. It was a really special memory for me.”
There was one player in particular who caught the youngster’s eye – 21-year-old Park Ji-Sung, then of Kyoto Sanga FC, whose stellar World Cup campaign was rewarded with a move to PSV in the Netherlands.
“When I was a teenager, before every game, I would watch his highlight videos and I tried to learn how he moves and how he plays football. He is a big inspiration for my football life,” Song elaborated.
Watching him strut his stuff for the Lion City Sailors these days, it’s clear the sort of imprint Park left on his style of play. With immense technical ability, lung bursting runs and endless stamina to match, it’s not difficult to see the similarities between the LCS maestro and the man they called “Three Lungs Park”.
Having excelled at youth level for his academy in Korea, it was actually a twist of fate which saw Song move to the Lion City aged just 19. Particularly so, because by his own admission, the player knew next to nothing about Singapore before he actually set foot in Changi Airport.
“My academy’s head coach recommended me to join the S.League and he recommended me to the coach here as well. At that time, it was Coach Lee – Lee Lim-saeng. He was working for Home United as head coach, and my academy’s coach knew him. Last time, Coach Lee used to work as an assistant coach in Suwon Samsung and my academy was under Suwon Samsung, like a youth team. So, the connection was there,” he explained.
Having been snapped up by the iconic Protectors boss, the Singapore journey was well and truly underway. Now, nine years on from his Home United debut, Song has seen it all.
Indeed, it’s extremely rare in the modern game for a player to stay so long at a foreign club – and to do so in Singapore is almost unheard of. As far as he’s concerned, however, renewing his contract has always been little more than a formality, such is his attachment to his adopted home.
“I have met good people in the team – my team-mates, my coaches, especially the management; the people – they make me feel at home. They gave me a stable life, stable feeling, that’s what I felt. That’s why I wanted to stay in Home United and Lion City Sailors for so long,” he explained.
Speaking about the transformation of the club from Home United into the newly-privatised Lion City Sailors outfit, Song stressed the importance of Chairman Forrest Li’s contribution, and underlined his aim of finally winning his first Singapore Premier League crown.
“I think everybody knows that that financially, we are getting good support from Sir Forrest Li, Lion City Sailors’ chairman. We get support from him; what the player needs and motivation as well. I think that is the biggest part,” he said.
“I have spoken to him. I can’t really share the details but I was really motivated and impressed by him. Honestly, it was an honour for me because he’s a hugely successful guy.
“We have the confidence to win the title and I believe we can take it – we’re only one point behind. This coming game in the SPL, we play against Albirex, we have to prepare well and win. I’ve never won the SPL title, so I really, really want to win it this year and we are in a good position to take the title. We are going to do our best,” he stated.
Reflecting on what has been a stellar career with the club so far, Song highlighted the 2018 AFC Cup run as probably his brightest moment. With Home having seen off challenges from defending champions Ceres Negros as well as Indonesian giants Persija Jakarta to be crowned Asean Zonal Champions, they went as far as the Quarter-Final stage, where they were eventually eliminated by North Korean side April 25.
“It was a historic moment for Singaporean Football and for Home United. It was a very special moment and it was an honour to be there together,” revealed Song.
“Initially I was very nervous, honestly!” he admitted, speaking about the massive crowd in Jakarta. “But at the same time, I was very excited on the field. There were sixty thousand fans there showing support to their players – the land felt like it was shaking. When you shout at your teammates to give information to them on the field, they could not hear and when they talked or shouted to me, I couldn’t hear at all.”
However, if there is one memory that stands tall above the rest, it was the last-eight tie against Pyongyang-based April 25 FC. It ended in a heavy defeat – 11-1 on aggregate – but the experience of travelling to North Korea and scoring at their National Stadium was an unforgettable one.
“Yeah, actually I was worried!” he admitted. “I was afraid that any silly mistakes could possibly turn into a big mistake and affect my country or my life. I was really worried. That’s why I really had to control my actions and my words. Not to do anything actually. Just eat and just follow – I didn’t say much.”
Remarkably, North Korean officials had actually commissioned a soldier to follow the South Korean playmaker around – everywhere! Being stringently man-marked wasn’t something alien to Song, but it’s probably fair to say that off-pitch wise, it was a first.
“When I went through the immigration, the soldier just stayed right beside me all the way. Actually, not just at the immigration and airport, in the hotel, and when we followed the North Korean translator, one soldier would be following me all the time. I think if someone were to see that, they would think he was my bodyguard!” he chuckled.
In the days leading up to the match, preparation was far from ideal. With a majority Muslim squad, it was of prime importance that the hotel was able to provide halal food for their consumption. However, things didn’t go as smoothly as they’d have liked.
“All the players were struggling to prepare for the game in Pyongyang. There were many restrictions – the food and the free time to go out or go somewhere – we couldn’t do anything there. We had no freedom. Psychologically, we really struggled, and it was challenging for us to just stay there,” recounted Song.
“We have Muslim players, and they couldn’t take North Korean food – I was fine eating it, it’s quite similar (to South Korean food), but my team-mates really struggled with the food and I believe with sleeping too. Everything was so different, so they really struggled. That’s why we couldn’t perform. It sounds like an excuse but we couldn’t really do our preparations as usual,” he analysed.
The one small silver lining on the back of the 9-1 defeat was that Song did manage to find the net – he scored the opener, actually. However, he was philosophical about it, and insisted it wasn’t more significant to him than any other goal he’d ever scored. Winning was the only aim he had on the day.
“I didn’t feel anything special just because they are North Korean. We just went off on a football match and I really wanted to win the game. The first leg we lost 2-0 so we had to score more than two. So, I was really keen to score for us and win the game. But at the end of the day, we lost 9-1.”
Fast forward three years, the club has undergone widespread change. Following the complete rebranding in 2020, Forrest Li’s riches have given them the platform to secure multiple prominent signings – the likes of Faris Ramli, Gabriel Quak, Jorge Fellipe, and most notably, $3million-man Diego Lopes from Rio Ave.
Song was quick to express his delight at the influx of fresh talent, which he explained helped boost the quality and intensity of training sessions. However, the arrival of Lopes also meant he had to give up his number 10 shirt, which he had finally secured upon penning a contract extension in late 2018. Ever the professional, though, he was determined not to let it affect the harmony in the dressing room.
“Firstly, the management asked me (to give up the shirt number). At the end of the day, I said yes, because the three-million deal is very meaningful to Singaporean football. The amount is very special, it’s big money. So I felt yeah, it is good to pass the special number, the number 10, to the player,” he explained.
“My relationship with Diego? Yeah, it’s good. He is a nice person, and he is a great player. I like him. Between us, the relationship is good of course. I was never going to let that affect our relationship – he didn’t do anything!”
Another outcome of LCS’ newly bolstered squad is that for possibly the first time in his Singapore career, Song is actually fighting for minutes. For so long the virtually-undroppable talisman of the team, the 2021 season has presented a fresh challenge for the midfielder – to prove his worth all over again and secure his starting spot.
“Competition is very normal in professional football, and we have to face this in a very mature way. Honestly, it has been a tough time for me, but it makes me a stronger, and a better professional,” admitted Song of his reduction in playing time.
“It trained me a lot to be a better professional footballer and have a stronger mindset.
“I need to do my best and I need to show my strengths. At the end of the day, the coaches decide the starting line-up so every session and every match, if I get the chance, I need to show my strengths and what I have,” he concluded.
With LCS recently announcing the appointment of their new manager, South Korean Kim Do-hoon, Song has been presented with a fresh opportunity to force his way into contention under his compatriot.
“So far, I have only worked with him for a few days. So, it is difficult to say how he is. But he is one of the legendary players and coaches as well – he won the ACL; Champions League. For me this is a really good chance to be a better player under him,” he revealed.
For now though, Song has his sights set on some more long-term goals. He remains determined to secure Singapore citizenship, having spent close to a decade here, and maintains his dream of one day turning out for the Lions.
He obtained Permanent Residency eventually after his first two attempts were turned down, but application for citizenship has been unsuccessful thus far. However, similar to his attitude on the pitch, it’s a fight he’s not willing to give up.
“I’m still trying for citizenship and I’m hoping for a good result,” he said of his endeavours. “I feel at home here. When I go back to Korea, I just feel like I want to come back to Singapore. I’m happier staying in Singapore than in Korea. I don’t know why. The feeling just comes naturally to me. I’m very happy to be here. Once I retire as a football player, I want to continue to stay here.”
“I’ve been here for 10 years and I have spent a really long time in Singapore. So, I don’t know. It is quite difficult to pick the words but the feeling is just natural.”
So great is his commitment to the national cause that he once turned down a contract offer from Indonesian side Persija Jakarta, having been offered a reported US$20,000 per month deal following Home’s AFC Cup exploits three years ago. Knowing that leaving the country would put a lid on his citizenship hopes, Song doubled down, and signed a two-year contract extension instead.
“Yeah, that period I really struggled to make a decision whether to stay in Singapore or go to Indonesia. It was a tough decision, but I decided to stay. I was happy. I was very happy to stay in Singapore at that moment, and I was looking for naturalisation as well. So I just gave up that big offer and decided to stay here. After I made that decision, I got some messages on Instagram from the Indonesian fans – I was scared. They threatened me,” he revealed.
When quizzed on where he saw himself two years from now, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation.
“Hopefully wearing the red jersey! I really believe I can help the Singapore national team,” the gifted midfielder stressed. “In the last three years, I’ve scored nearly 50 goals as an attacking midfielder in the league and AFC Cup, and I’ve been the highest scorer among the midfielders in the SPL for the past few seasons too.”
Having previously expressed his desire to go into coaching after his playing career is over, Song was keen to end the interview with some words of advice for young players in Singapore looking to make it big. He’s extremely passionate about nurturing fresh talents, and having worked with some of LCS’ youth teams on the training ground, believes he has found another calling within the beautiful game.
“I want to say two things, which are actually quite similar. One is professionalism. Second is attitude. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I’ve seen so many young players with potential, that one day are just gone. If I were to think back as to why I no longer see them around, it is because they couldn’t continue their football life with discipline. As I said earlier, it matters how you spend time as a football player; how they spend their time off the pitch,” he explained.
“Young players have to be humble and learn to be better. If not, they are going to age and their body would be getting old as well. If they don’t have the professionalism and right attitude, they can’t manage their fitness well. The people who are making the decisions like the coaches and the management, they all watch that. One day they will make decisions on who is going to stay in the team and who is going to leave. Many talented players grow from the bottom and we have to compete with them. If we can’t be better every year and every day, one day they will take our places. This is what I have to say to the younger generation.
“I just want to say that they need to be humble. They need to have the right professionalism and attitude – like Hariss Harun and Hassan Sunny – for me, they really are a perfect example. They are playing in Singapore now, so young players should watch them and learn what is the professionalism and right attitude. It is a really good chance to see them and learn,” he elaborated, concluding the interview.