Fandi roars back

In this exclusive interview, LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad shares with FFT on his return to where he truly belongs, his coaching endeavours abroad and the expectations for the current MSL season.

If you ask any Singaporean football fan on the street of the name ‘Fandi’, there are very few of them who do not know who this man is. What Pele is to Brazil, Maradona is to Argentina and George Best was to Northern Ireland, Fandi Ahmad is to Singapore. The man is the city-state’s first true footballing superstar.

Already representing the Singapore FA in the Malaysia Cup at the young age of 17 years old, he took only a year to make his mark by scoring the winning goal against Selangor in the 1980 Malaysia Cup Final.  Thereafter, it did not take him long for his undeniable potential and talent to be noticed, picking up the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) Footballer of the Year award and soon packing his bags for bigger challenges abroad.

Following a short spell at Indonesian club Niac Mitra, the biggest move of his career came when he signed for Dutch club FC Groningen on a two-year contract back in 1983. He was a real hit with the fans there thanks to his uncanny ability of popping up at the right place at the right time. The highlight of his time in the Netherlands was no doubt scoring against Italian giants Inter Milan in an UEFA Cup clash, something that no Singaporean footballer will likely to replicate again in the near future.

Receiving the AFC Century Club award in 2001 after making a century of appearances for his country

Thereafter he had spells at Greek club OFI Crete and Malaysian clubs Wilayah Persekutuan, Kuala Lumpur and Pahang before returning to Singapore once again in 1993. His presence immediately uplifted the team’s game as he helped them to gain promotion back into the Malaysian top tier in his first season. He followed the season up by hitting 26 goals to lead Singapore to the famed double of Malaysia Cup and Malaysian League titles. For those exploits, he was awarded a Public Service Medal by the state.

Fast forward to 2014, he has once again returned to Singapore to lift the fortunes of the footballing state in the country – this time as the head coach of the reigning MSL champions, the LionsXII. Ever since V. Sundramoorthy announced his intention to leave the LionsXII for the Negeri Sembilan coaching post, the local faithful had thrown all their support behind Fandi to be the successor in the hotseat – something that eventually came true to their delight. The 51-year-old is not oblivious to the majority of the fans’ clamouring for his return, but is keen to reiterate that he is no modern day football superhero and quickly refutes any comparisons to his return 21 years ago.

“This is definitely not the same,” Fandi explains. “When I was a player, I only had to think about my own performance, my condition, physical and mental aspects of the game. I just had to focus on what I had to do for the team.

“Now, I have to think for 24 boys. I have to think not just for the first team, but also as a group. You need to give roles to everyone; no matter whether they are goalkeepers, defenders or attackers, everyone has a role to play. For me, it is about how to maximise their potential and get the best out of them. That is the big challenge for me technically.”

When quizzed on the key motivation behind his decision to return to his homeland, Fandi is unabashed. “It is for my family,” says the married man with five kids. “They have been travelling too much in the past few years and it is time for them to settle down, especially for my wife. Now and then, she has to be at the hospital, so I want to be there for her.”

The health of Fandi’s beau, Wendy Jacobs deteriorated after a fall in the bathroom of their Jakarta house in 2008 when he was coaching with Pelita Jaya [now known as Pelita Bundung Raya]. She was reportedly bedridden and wheelchair-bound for more than a year before her road to recovery.

Nevertheless, to come back to where he belongs once again has brought an undeniable smile to his face. “It feels good to come home,” he says. “It is about time for me to come back and serve the country once again.”

Going into coaching

Fandi began his coaching career in 2000 with the Singapore Armed Forces, where he won the S. League twice in three seasons, before taking over at the Young Lions in 2003. Following a good run of years with the Young Lions, the Singaporean legend ventured abroad to broaden his coaching horizons. His first destination saw him landed at Indonesian club Pelita Jaya, where his excellence in youth development shone as they won promotion to the Indonesian top tier in his first season in 2007.

“I am happy that I did some good work for the youth football in Indonesia,” beams Fandi. “I also did the same for Young Lions previously and I am happy to see most of them in the national team now. When I took charge of Pelita Jaya with Kadir [Yahaya], about 90 per cent of the team were under-21 players. In our first season, we got promotion and also went into the semi-finals of the Indonesian Cup.”

Despite enjoying his time overseeing the development of youth footballers in Indonesia, he left the club in March 2010, citing personal reasons. However he was not out of the scene for long, as he was appointed team manager of Johor FC [now Johor Darul Takzim II] in early 2012. His man management qualities shone once again, prompting club president Tunku Ismail Idris [TMJ] to promote him to helm the main JDT project the following year. Things were also looking rosy at the club, as JDT splashed the cash to bring in the likes of former Italy U21 international Simone Del Nero and Euro 2008 winner Dani Guiza.

Fandi was in charge of JDT in 2013

The team was hotly tipped for the 2013 Malaysian Super League title, but as the ‘money cannot buy everything’ phrase goes, their form dipped towards the end of the season and they could only finish in a disappointing third place. Fandi was soon removed from coaching duties in the club and being assigned the role of team manager. Not relishing a managerial role, the legend chose to tender his resignation to TMJ. In his lengthy resignation letter, he expressed his desire to pursue his happiness – coaching.

“The letter to TMJ was published in all Malaysian papers [so I have nothing to hide]. I did not want to just leave because he treated me very well. But I did not want to be a manager either because my passion is in coaching. Even though the money was good, it was all about the passion,” shares Fandi, who owns the F-17 Fandi Ahmad’s Academy of Football Excellence to coach youngsters.

Regardless of what transpired during his time with JDT, he was glad to have coached the team and, most importantly, picked up the art of managing bigger egos within a team. “No matter they are big-name or small-time players, I have learned to treat them all the same,” he explains, without mentioning any specific names. “There were very good Malaysian players at JDT, but some of them did not like to follow instructions.

That is why you did not see some of them play all the time.” Having gone through many harsh lessons during his time coaching in Indonesia and Malaysia, Fandi feels that the tactical aspect of the game is the hardest point to ramp home for players in these two countries. “I think that the boys in Singapore are much more disciplined,” he assesses. “It is slightly easier here because they are exposed to the NFA [National Football Academy] system from young, thus they are more systematic and better in tactical awareness.”

A brand new start at the LionsXII

Despite the changing of the LionsXII’s guard, the mood at the Jalan Besar Stadium remains upbeat. Sharp observers at the LionsXII’s training sessions have already noticed the stark difference of Fandi’s coaching methods from his predecessor, Sundramoorthy. While Sundram tends to focus on organising and analysing the team’s strategies, Fandi is always seen in the thick of the action, participating in the drills and showing demonstrations of how certain moves should be executed.

The boys who beat the men last year

“I am a very hands-on person,” admits the ever-jovial man on his coaching philosophy. “I always want to show and demonstrate to the players on how things should be done to make sure they understand the team’s strategy.”

“I am someone who likes to attack and entertain,” he elaborates. “I always encourage the defence, midfield and attack to play free-flowing football because at the end of the day, the fans pay to watch us and we have to entertain.”

Despite losing last season’s three first choice captains in Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss Harun to their Rebrau neighbour, Fandi is unfazed by their departures. “I don’t want to talk about players who have left, as I prefer to focus on the players I have now,” he says. “We must support the new boys in the team and think about what we can do for them because they are the future.”

When asked on his team’s objectives for the season, Fandi’s answer comes as a surprise. Defending the MSL crown will be the ultimate dream for him, but it is not the utmost concern at the back of the legend’s mind. According to him, his main targets at the LionsXII are to help the nation to progress beyond the ASEAN level and leaving a legacy behind for the future to blaze the trail.

“I am not thinking about that [winning trophies],” he insists. “Of course, in my heart, I would like the team to defend their Super League title again, but my mind is focused on how to develop the team into good national players. The aim of the nation is to go beyond ASEAN level, but so far we are still unable to find those players [that can achieve that].

“It is important that we have a proper build-up at the youth level because the talent pool is very small in Singapore. We have many players right now, but we may be lacking in terms of high-level players.”

“I spent a few years with the Young Lions and the success came after I left [where the players went on to play for the national team]. Maybe after I leave the LionsXII in the future, someone else will reap the reward again. That is my goal,” Fandi concludes. If the legend is able to achieve that target, he will surely write himself into another chapter of the Singaporean football history.

From the March 2014 issue of FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore.