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Different countries, one team

DIVERSE: (From far left) Ben Ogilvie, Shota Hirano and Daniel Kustantomo are members of the Ulu Pandas, the children's football club under Ulu Pandan Community Sports Club.

He is Japanese, but he can pull off a fluent British, Indian and even Singaporean accent.

It is not because Shota Hirano, 11, has been attending language lessons.

He simply goes for PACF training sessions organised by Ulu Pandan CSC, where one in six members of its children's football club is a foreigner.

The 60-member-strong club's weekly Sunday training sessions resemble a mini World Cup too, with countries ranging from South Korea to Northern Ireland represented.

Mr Sukardi Sukami, 51, coach of the club affectionately known as the "Ulu Pandas", said: "It's a good thing to have so many foreigners as they bring different strengths to the team."

Thanks to PACF, Shota, a Grade Six student at Overseas Family School, found a new best friend - Ben Ogilvie.

The pair, who play for the Ulu Pandas, live in the same condominium and their families regularly invite each other over for meals.

Ben, 11, whose family moved here from Northern Ireland in 2013, said: "I didn't eat much Japanese food before meeting Shota. Now, I love it.

While Ben is learning to appreciate Shota's native cuisine, Shota is trying to learn Ben's Irish accent.

Ben said: "He's improving, but it's still so funny every time I hear it."

Shota is also picking up Singlish from local kids at the club.

"They are teaching me how to use 'lah' and 'lor' properly," he said.

Ben's mother, Mrs Gail Ogilvie, 40, is glad her son has found the Ulu Pandas,

"He's met so many people of different cultures and it's completely different from the countryside that we come from."

Although the number of foreigners playing for the Ulu Pandas is increasing, Coach Sukami welcomes more to join.

He said: "At first, the boys were all separated by their nationalities and not mixing around, but now, they all identify themselves as the Ulu Pandas."

PARTNERSHIP

The PA's efforts to bridge the gap between local and international football culminated on Sunday, with the announcement of its partnership with Chelsea FC Soccer School Singapore to kick off the SG50: Play and Learn as One project.

The project will reach out to 2,500 children islandwide. They will be able to attend free football training sessions conducted by Chelsea FC-certified coaches at 50 locations.

Mr Ryz Martein Yacob, managing director of Chelsea FC Soccer School Singapore, said: "This partnership is the perfect platform to bring football back to its roots - to the heartlands and the community."

Children from voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and schools will be invited to join the training sessions, which are designed to teach them values like resilience and teamwork, said Mr Melvin Koh, 32, manager of PA's Community Sports Division.

He added: "We want to be inclusive and that's why we're reaching out to VWOs and children with special needs.

"We just want to bring football to more children."