Almost 20 years ago, my father met the legendary Singaporean football player Fandi bin Ahmad. He was a spokesperson for the company my dad worked for and was invited to their annual event after being the star of their high-budget commercial. Of course, my father (who passed on the same kiasu [afraid to lose out] genes to me) jumped at the chance to take a photo with such a prominent figure.
Fandi made history when he signed with Holland’s FC Groningen in 1983, becoming the first Singaporean ever to play professionally for a European team. He caused ripples of frenzy back home when he scored the second goal in his team’s 2-0 win against Italian giants Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup: a sweetly struck volley from the edge of the penalty area that left keeper Walter Zenga weeping. We had produced a footballing genius wanted by international clubs including AFC Ajax, and things were looking bright for the little red dot.
(My father met Fandi Ahmad at a corporate dinner in 1995.)
Two decades on, the footballing scene here is completely different. Our stadiums are mostly empty, the S-League clubs are struggling to find sponsors and local football players are no longer revered like the superstars people like Fandi once were. The only time the nation gets together is when we play our neighbours across the Causeway. Even then, we send our best players to play in their league. Will we ever reach the same heights as we did in the 80s? My answer: There is hope.
Have a little heart
I never had the privilege to watch Fandi play live but I had the chance to meet his eldest son Irfan Fandi Ahmad, at CIMB’s Junior Soccer Clinic at ITE College Central on 14 March. Alongside his younger brother Ikhsan, 16, Irfan was playing with and offering tips to lucky kids who got to watch the duo strut their stuff with the ball. The striker recently signed with S-League club Courts Young Lions until 30 Jun this year, and will be heading back to Chile to continue training with Universidad Catolica afterwards.
Standing at 1.86m tall, with muscles thrice the size of mine despite being barely 18, Irfan is not quite the character I had expected. He was somewhat shy and subdued with his responses, displaying just a shade of the confidence that you may expect from viewing his shirtless selfies on Instagram (which, ladies, can be found @irfanfandi17).
We asked him about the difference between the football played here and in Chile. “I think the big difference is probably the heart [the Chilean players] give to play football,” said Irfan. “Some of them come up from really unlucky conditions and they have to fight really hard to play football.”
Ikhsan, a slightly shorter but no less suave version of his big brother who will also be training in Chile, reiterated: “Like Irfan said, they give their 100% in training and they all want to fight for a spot in the first 11 and to represent their nation.” Interestingly, Ikhsan shared a point that may just give us a clue as to why Singaporean football isn’t what it used to be.
“I wouldn’t say that [there is no passion in Singapore] but in Chile, they just have more heart to play. Maybe in Singapore, people they think football is not a long career so they’d rather study and have another job.” Unfortunately, this is what is holding Singapore back from being anywhere close to a footballing force.
… And have a little faith
As a boy who grew up playing football (illegally) at the void deck of my HDB block, I once dreamt of playing for the football club I adore and representing my country on the world stage. Many friends shared the same sentiment and I’m sure we can’t be the only ones. Yet, this hope is dashed the moment we show too much love for the Beautiful Game. Statements like “You won’t make a living out of football” echo from adults around us. Soon, many of us accepted that as fact.
It is a cycle that Singapore will not break out of unless we choose to change the way we think about football and sports in general. It is not about the lack of talent; it is about our mind-set.
During our Under-22’s match against Syria’s Under-23’s on 18 Feb, we conceded 6 goals before Tajeli Selamat scored a consolation. He celebrated by pointing to the back of his shirt, usually signifying something along the lines of “I’m the man”. This led fans to voice their discontent on the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Facebook page. Fan Nicholas Tan, who was not impressed by the swaggy display despite the humiliating 6-1 score, commented: “In my days… We would have been killed celebrating.”
I can’t say I disagree with Nicholas though. Surely we must aim higher than scoring just 1 goal against an average Syrian team?
If we are to be a truly great footballing nation, building a world-class 55,000-seater stadium is not enough. The new National Stadium is big enough to put some of Europe’s top clubs to shame. And yet, we chose to hold concerts here that barely fill half the stadium right before we played host to Brazil last October, arguably the biggest footballing nation in the world, making the pitch a mess and ‘unplayable’, according their head coach Dunga.
If we are to be a truly great footballing nation, we need to grow a pair and start believing that our sons and daughters are capable of the athletic feats you marvel at on television. Even the most passionate of people can be knocked down by the incessant pressure we face that getting a ‘proper job’ is the most important responsibility a child has to fulfil.
We only have to look back at the not-too-distant past to figure out how we can regain some of that glory. We need to bring back the kind of gut that Fandi had when he flew over the Indian Ocean to play in a country where he couldn’t even speak the language.
The grass is greener on the other side
I believe the first step forward for Singapore football is for a select few of our talented countrymen to be recognised in leagues overseas, just like how Fandi was.
If or when Irfan is ready to play for the National Team, he will bring to the plate something that very few Singaporeans have: Years of experience training internationally. There is no doubt learning the sport from a country that’s been to the World Cup finals 9 times will be beneficial to the teenager, and it’s simply no pain no gain when it comes to being great.
“It can [get as cold as] 5 degrees Celsius at night (in Chile) and I train in 10 degrees or 9 degrees, so everyone is covered up. So when I come back to Singapore, even now, it’s hot for me. I sweat while walking,” he lamented. “At one point, I had a burnout and I just didn’t want to play anymore… But during that burnout period, I still did other sports like swimming, playing basketball, but nothing to do with football for that week.”
Having to cope with the pressures of adapting to a new climate, learning a new language, as well as the expectations that come with having a cult hero father, especially at such a young age, can only be invaluable training for a tough and unpredictable career as a footballer. The honour of representing the nation does not come easy.
Apart from Irfan, there recently have been more Singaporeans daring enough to go overseas in search for opportunities and better paychecks; notably Hariss Harun to Malaysia’s Johor Darul Takzim, and Melbourne City’s Safuwan Baharudin, whom Neil Humphreys described as Singapore’s first “social media footballer”. Irfan admires Safuwan a lot: “I look up to him [for] playing in the A League, I wish him all the best and hopefully he gets a bigger contract.”
With local players venturing abroad and rubbing shoulders with more established and talented professionals, perhaps young boys in Singapore will start viewing them as role models and as a beacon of hope that they may one day follow in their footsteps to play on the world stage.
So there is hope, to me at least. Let’s bring back some of that passion and belief, and let’s have a little faith in our own ability and start supporting the ambitions of our young. (Someone bring this guy to Singapore to motivate our kids, if that’s what it takes.) Do us proud Irfan, and rest assured this writer will be singing your name when you score the goal to take us to the World Cup…
Well okay, let’s start with beating Malaysia first.
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