When it comes to renowned footballers, they are not merely athletes, but also brands. They are instantly recognisable faces who are able to influence the masses with every word uttered, or every product that they decide to promote and advertise, due to their immense connections and popularity.
On local shores, the most recognisable brand name in our footballing history is definitely Fandi Ahmad, affectionately known as “Captain Marvel” in his playing days.
Fandi Ahmad’s rise from a Kaki Bukit kampong boy to one of Asia’s most talented footballers during his time is well documented. At one point having to sell nasi lemak in his youth to support his family, he never looked back since being scouted by the Singapore FA whilst playing for his neighbourhood’s Kaki Bukit Football Club in 1978.
He most notably led the Lions (Ed: this was before the advent of the ill-fated S League and its subsequent iterations, which we’ll leave for another story) to the Malaysian league and cup double in 1994 as both the team’s captain and top scorer with 26 goals in 39 appearances.
In between his two stints with the national team, he also won the coveted
double with Kuala Lumpur and Pahang. On the national front, Fandi Ahmad remains the country’s top scorer with 55 goals in 101 matches, and also spearheaded the Lions’ hat trick of silver medals at the 1983, 1985 and 1989 Southeast Asian Games.
But most prominently, it was between the years 1983 to 1985 that he truly reached the pinnacle of his career. Having rejected the advances of Ajax Amsterdam (who, back then had just successfully defended their Eredivisie title and won the European Cup!) just a year prior following a successful trial, Fandi Ahmad decided to sign a two-year contract to play in Europe with Dutch outfit FC Groningen, being the first Singaporean to ever play professionally in Europe, and only one of four Asian players in the continent to do so at that time.
It was his performances in his first season that were most fondly remembered, firing in 10 goals to contribute to the side’s improved fifth placing in the league, while the goal securing FC Groningen’s victory over Inter Milan in the first leg of the UEFA Cup second round in 1983 was the cream of the crop.
As an affirmation of his talent as a footballer, what turned out to be an April Fool’s joke in The Sunday Times in 1984 was so believable that it was taken seriously by Malaysia’s national news agency across the causeway, who ran a report on Fandi Ahmad’s “Transfer to Manchester United”, at a time where he was at the peak of his footballing powers whilst donning FC Groningen’s jersey.
Furthermore, testament to the lasting impression made during his playing career in the Netherlands, Fandi’s sons Ihksan and Irfan confessed that whilst walking on the streets with their father during their trial with the Groningen U23 side, “two people cycled by and said hi … [having] recognised [our] dad just from the back”.
It had been over 30 years since Fandi Ahmad last played for the Dutch outfit. It is then, little wonder that Fandi Ahmad was named as Singapore’s sixth greatest athlete of the century in 1999, given how he put Singapore, an unknown footballing entity, on the map with his European foray while also being a leading figure presiding over the most illustrious period of our nation’s footballing history within the region.
Beyond his playing days, Fandi Ahmad has continued to make a career out of his love for football by delving into management, and has thus far played a huge role in paving the way for Singapore’s footballing future.
He coached the now disbanded LionsXII to their first and only Malaysian FA Cup victory in 2015, while as interim national coach during the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2018, Singapore managed a highly respectable third place in their group.
Crucially, Fandi managed to steady the ship following the national team’s free fall in FIFA Ranking previously, while also incorporating next generation players into the national team during the tournament.
Currently, he is the national U23’s head coach. Beyond coaching, he has also started his own academy to groom talented youths and offer them overseas opportunities to play against quality opposition.
On a community level, the establishment of the Fandi Ahmad Football Club is also designed to offer aids and programmes to children from low income groups and even those with special needs, giving them a chance to enjoy the sport.
It is now more than two decades from the heydays of Fandi Ahmad’s playing career and we are still waiting for the emergence of a local football hero to match or even surpass his achievements.
It is ironic that this long-awaited salvation may come in the form of his son Ikhsan Fandi, currently a 20-year-old prodigy playing in the Norwegian first division. Like his dad, Ikhsan displays a natural goal scoring prowess as a striker, but will he manage to bring Singapore football to another level like his dad did?
Only time will tell.
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