The day an entire nation was fooled and could dream

You can never believe what you hear on April Fools’ day, as many in Singapore found out in the year 1984...  

On April 1, 1984, Singapore's football fraternity bought a dummy that would have made Lionel Messi proud.

As many Singapore soccer stories did in the eighties, it involved Fandi Ahmad, the country’s biggest star.

It was simple but the four words --“Fandi to join United” -- sent the country into football heaven.

The striker was playing in Europe. In 1983, hundreds of fans camped just outside his uncle’s house as he prepared to depart to the Netherlands and Groningen. Once there, his every movement was reported to fans back home.

A Singapore player heading to Eredivisie these days would be a big deal. But back then, the Dutch league really was one of the big boys and if it was good enough for Johan Cruyff, it was good enough for anyone. The likes of Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord were European giants capable of winning continental trophies.

But Manchester United were different and there was excitement on April 1 when a local media firm woke up the nation with a headline that was hard to believe and even harder to miss. It was simple but the four words --“Fandi to join United” -- sent the country into football heaven.

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Fandi scored 10 goals in 29 games for Groningen

The story was like this:

The English giants were going to pay S$600,000 for his services and in the summer of that year, United would head to Singapore and play a friendly against Groningen. In a symbolic move, Fandi would play the first half for his former club and at half-time would switch sides.

He had been recommended to United coach Ron Atkinson by Jesper Olsen. The Danish winger was with Ajax and had seen Fandi in the flesh.

When I accepted the Groningen offer, my plan was for the Dutch stint to be a stepping stone to the rest of Europe. My plan has worked

Olsen had been due to head to Old Trafford but an injury had meant he was to stay in Amsterdam a little longer.

After the tip-off, United sent scouts to the Netherlands and were soon sending officials to Singapore with a contract after Fandi told them to deal with his family.

“I always dreamed about wearing a United jersey and soon my dream will come true,” Fandi was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “I would be a fool to turn down the United offer. “When I accepted the Groningen offer, my plan was for the Dutch stint to be a stepping stone to the rest of Europe. My plan has worked.”

Abu Sujak, Fandi's uncle, welcomed the move and said: “We are pleased with the contract. We have contacted Groningen about it and they are welling to let Fandi go.”

He refused to release details of the contract but added: “It is definitely better than the Groningen deal. Fandi should be joining United sometime in July.”

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Groningen was slated to play Manchester United

Singaporeans were happy with the news as Straits Times reporters hit the streets to get the reaction.

Dolly Seah said “I would not have been surprised if Fandi had really joined United because he's so good.”

Lee Seng Ghee wanted the address of Groningen so he could send a cable of congratulations to the player. This was a proud nation saluting one of its favourite sons.

By this time, the story didn’t just have legs but had taken off to fly to all corners of the city and beyond. It was being reported by the Singapore office of Malaysian state news agency Bernama as well as Radio TV Malaysia.

It appeared too good to be true,” said Teo. “And after going through the piece again, I knew it was an April Fools’ joke

Teo Chong Tee was the chairman of Football Association of Singapore and was, as he read his morning paper, thrilled at the prospect of one of his country’s internationals playing for one of the world’s biggest clubs.

“My first reaction was jubilation. The thought that a Singaporean footballer had broken into English soccer made me so happy,” Tee said.

But there were a few clues for the eagle-eyed or suspicious.

“It appeared too good to be true,” said Teo. “And after going through the piece again, I knew it was an April Fools’ joke.”

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Fandi saw the funny side of things then. Photo: Weixiang Lim/FFT

One was the date of Fandi’s first game for United. June 31, 1984 did not exist.

One caller to the local radio station had already spotted a flaw in the story.

“You know why?” She asked. "My birthday is on June 30 ...so I knew there was no June 31, the date the paper said Fandi would play his first game for United.”

It was hard to stop laughing though the joke was also on me. It was a great idea. I'm happy that it made a lot of people laugh

The lack of a byline on the article was another giveaway in such an important story.

It still took all day for some media outlets to realise. It wasn't until 9.28pm that day until Bernama contacted editors and asked them to destroy the story.

The next day, the newspaper came clean with the headline “It was a joke!”

Despite the disappointment felt at home, Fandi argued that it had been good fun.

“I found it all very amusing,” he said. “In fact, it was hard to stop laughing though the joke was also on me. It was a great idea. I'm happy that it made a lot of people laugh.

"I wasn't much of a Manchester United fan before this but since my name has been “linked” to theirs, I might as well become a full fan. And it would be really nice if United really made me an offer some day – even if they did so on April Fool's Day again.”

They never did but for a few hours, a country dreamed.

Photos: Groningen (Unless stated otherwise)