Van Huizen: From FirstXI to LionsXII

Deepan Raj charts the upward path of the fledgling winger who first appeared on our television screens in 2013, and who is now making more than just the ladies’ heads turn.

Christopher van Huizen is completing his transition from a reality TV series heart throb to a full-fledged professional player ruling the wings in the competitive Malaysian Super League.

A standout contestant on the second season of FirstXI, Singapore’s football reality TV series, the 22-year-old has achieved what most of his fellow contestants have failed to do - carve out a professional football career for himself.

In mid-January of the 2014 season, his fellow contestant, former Admiralty FC defender Faliq Sudir, joined the LionsXII but did not manage a single appearance. Van Huizen is out to prove that his rise to prominence is no false dawn however, after already making waves in the Prime League and then in the big step to the S.League with Tampines Rovers.

A father’s wish fulfilled

Van Huizen was an avid runner in his younger days. With the wealth of speed he possessed, athletics was naturally his first love. He showed plenty of promise as one of Singapore’s five fastest runners in the 110 metre hurdles category while growing up in St Michael’s School, now Saint Joseph’s Institution Junior, too.

But Van Huizen was to find himself racing away from defenders on a football pitch instead of other athletes on the track when his father encouraged him to pick up football at the age of eight.  

“I owe it to my dad for getting me to play football because, to be honest, I never really liked football,” he admitted.

“I was seeking the individual aspects of sports more, so I started off with athletics. Then one day, my dad told me to try playing football with my cousins. So since he told me to, I tried it and fell in love with it.”

With the motivation that his dad provided, Van Huizen tucked away his running spikes and laced up his boots up for trials, being duly selected to play for Geylang United’s (now known as Geylang International) Under-16 squad.

Prime League football beckoned with Tampines Rovers at 17. But like every teenager in Singapore, National Service threatened to derail his football journey as he was not given permission to continue playing while serving his two-year stint in the navy.

Despite being given the opportunity to play football for SAFSA, Van Huizen turned down the offer for personal reasons. It began to feel as if it was back to square one for the winger, who had harboured hopes of playing competitive football abroad, notably in Australia, where he wanted to study for a degree.

A second coming via a TV Series

After his successful appearance on FirstXI, Van Huizen was called upon by then-Tampines Rovers assistant coach Rafi Ali to play again for the Tampines Rovers Prime League squad, a chance he grabbed with both hands. A series of impressive displays convinced Rafi to promote him to the senior squad after Salim Moin was sacked midway through the season.

It was while first training with his older team-mates that Van Huizen - who models himself upon favourite footballers Gareth Bale and David Beckham - feels he really learnt about the discipline and professionalism it takes to succeed in football.

“Playing at Tampines with the senior squad was pressurising at times, yes. But there were experienced players like [Aleksander] Duric and Mustafic [Fahrudin] so they taught me a lot. Duric especially, because he taught me a lot about having confidence in myself, and I want to be able to show that part of my game in the future with the LionsXII,” he said.

Van Huizen’s fine performances with the Stags during the 2014 S.League season did not go unnoticed, as he was called up to be part of Singapore Under-21 coach Richard Bok’s squad that competed in the Newspaper Cup in Vietnam.

Now a player who seized any opportunity that came along his way, Van Huizen’s standout displays there ultimately saw him poached by Fandi Ahmad as one of LionsXII’s four new signings alongside Sahil Suhaimi, Wahyudi Wayid and Izzdin Shafiq.

All set to roar for the Lions

Stepping into a squad that boasts a majority of attacking players who already have at least one season of experience in the Malaysian Super league, Van Huizen will have his work cut out if he is to usurp any of them to be in the starting XI.

Faris Ramli’s trickery and direct style of play, Gabriel Quak’s left-footed wizardry and Nazrul Nazari’s lightning quick pace certainly presents Fandi with a wealth of options, and the wide-man plenty of competition, this season.

But the precocious youngster, affectionately known to his team-mates as ‘Hui’, hopes he can bring a sense of unpredictability to the side and catch opposing full-backs unaware with his devastating use of both feet.

As always, Van Huizen’s desire to constantly improve should ensure he holds his own, though the talent does not necessarily see his more experienced team-mates as obstacles.

“I know my defensive work rate has to improve and I’ll have to work hard to get a chance to play, but it is something I am prepared to do. I will seek advice from Gabriel [Quak] and Nazrul [Nazari] because they have experience in the Malaysian league,” he said.

“To be honest, it’s a privilege to be in this team, and to get into the starting XI. Making it here to the LionsXII squad was my first step - getting into the first team will be step two.”

A step he is sure to make, judging by the rave reviews he has been receiving on the local front.

Voice of approval

It appears the rigorous FirstXI training sessions Van Huizen was put through under the watchful eyes of Liverpool legend Steve McMahon and former Singapore national team defender R.Sasikumar is paying off.

The former defender, famous for his winning goal in the 1998 Tiger Cup final, is not short of praise for his ex-protege, and feels the winger is primed for bigger things.

“You should ask him what my exact words were to him. I told him that if he doesn’t become a national team player, he only has himself to blame. That right or left flank with the national team is his for the taking, and his pace and skills make him an asset to any team,” said Sasikumar, matter-of-factly.

“Not many players in Singapore have the skill set he has. Chris needs a good coach to work with him and hopefully, Fandi might be able to bring his best.”

“He will play for the national team. Period. It’s only a matter of time.”

With his natural good looks and explosive touch near the byline, it is easy to spot Van Huizen on the pitch. His first two friendly matches with the LionsXII has yielded two goals - the first being a deft lob over the goalkeeper from outside the penalty area.

The nifty winger has shown plenty of promise over 2014, and it seems sooner rather than later that the “boy from the reality series” makes his dream to be a national footballer a reality, starting in 2015. Watch this space.

All images: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo