Don't go Fandi, you're our only hope

Singapore football has been humiliated enough recently and can’t afford to be embarrassed again by the departure of its favourite son, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Fandi Ahmad must not cross the Causeway.

If Singapore’s national treasure is allowed to join a Malaysian club, then the local game is done. Stop all the clocks. Switch off the stopwatches. Remove the training cones and puncture the balls.

Fandi is our only hope, Singapore’s Luke Skywalker, the most prominent link to a lost world of football knights winning Malaysia Cups.

He attracts headlines. He’s the greatest salesman the local game has at its disposal

The 53-year-old is more than a coach. He’s a pop culture umbilical cord. He connects the present, dying game to a glorious, technicolour past of trophy triumphs. When Singaporeans lived and breathed local football. When we were kings.

He’s the only footballer who transcends the sport itself and, for that very reason, the flat-lining game has never needed him more.

The camera never lies. When the media turned up at Changi Airport recently to capture sorrowful Lions XII faces returning from Malaysia, Fandi remained the literal and physical figurehead. Singaporeans all greeted him. These were not regular fans waiting for the Lions XII. They were tourists who happened to be there, their knowledge of local football probably beginning with Fandi and ending with the 1994 Dream Team.

To be in the presence of Fandi, even now, is to be in awe of his eternal appeal. Tourists in the airport, shoppers in the mall, and drivers at the traffic lights all recognise that endearing grin. Madame Tussauds made him a waxwork figure, the first of any local athlete, for good reason. Fandi still sells tickets.

Rightly, and most certainly wrongly, he remains the face of Singapore football. His last appearance for his country was 18 years ago. He completed the last of his club cameos in 1999. And still, he stands alone.

Others got close. Noh Alam Shah, Indra Sahdan Daud, Aide Iskandar, Aleksandar Duric, Baihakki Khaizan and Safuwan Baharudin among others all had their moments, but none seeped into the national consciousness quite like Fandi.

And that umbilical cord just cannot be cut, not now, not after another annus horribilis for Singapore football, which came straight after the last annus horribilis for Singapore football. (The term crops up so often to define the state of play, it’s a wonder younger readers do not assume Annus Horribilis is the latest beneficiary of the Foreign Talent Scheme)

Under Bernd Stange, the senior Lions are making a 10-course banquet of finishing third in Group E of Asian Cup 2019 qualifying. The height of a nation’s football ambitions appears to be to finish above war-torn Afghanistan.

At S.League games last season, the brave, committed souls who continue to support the fractured clubs in their respective communities now enjoy two-for-one ticket specials; one for them and one for the tumbleweed beside them.

It all started so positively for Fandi and LionsXII

The S.League title was snagged by foreigners (Brunei DPMM), the Singapore Cup was picked up by foreigners (Albirex Niigata) and foreigners booted LionsXII –also known as 11 eggs thrown into one desperate basket – out of a foreign league. Singapore football couldn’t look any less local if foreigners ran the majority of its coaching academies. Oh, hang on …

But Fandi is as local as Katong laksa. His services must be retained. In a week when the relevant football authorities couldn’t even find national jerseys for Singapore’s cerebral palsy bronze medal winners, what would it say if a worthwhile job couldn’t be found for the sport’s only brand name?

Fandi has a year left on his existing contract with the Football Association of Singapore and discussions between interested parties are already taking place. But the coach, who won the Malaysia FA Cup with LionsXII in May, has confirmed that there are already two offers on the table from Malaysian clubs.

The Malaysia Super League (MSL) kicks out the club and then tries to poach the coach, which is akin to pushing a neighbour under the bus and then offering a job to the surgeon who operated on the corpse.

Fandi must do right by his family of course – there are plenty of mouths to feed in that bustling household – but Singapore football can ill-afford another psychological blow.  The dramatic fall of the LionsXII at least offers the S.League a final shot at survival and the senior national side needs to rebuild after the distracting MSL sideshow.

Fandi has a potential role to play in both. His presence guarantees at least a smidgeon of interest. His name remains a magnet for the media. He attracts headlines. He’s the greatest salesman the local game has at its disposal.

He has played and coached in Malaysia and Indonesia before of course, but Singapore wasn’t in such a perilous state back then.

If Fandi heads north once more, then his departure offers both a white flag and a cast-iron excuse to any kiasu parent looking for a get-out clause ... If Singapore’s most famous football son can’t find suitable employment in such an unstable climate, what chance does my son have?