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Pressure is part of my life: Fandi

The Straits Times by DAVID LEE

He burst into prominence at the age of 16 and, 40 years on, Fandi Ahmad is still carrying the expectations of the nation.

This time, as national team head coach and Football Association of Singapore (FAS) head coach of youth - the two hottest seats in local sport.

His Lions will play Mauritius on Friday and Fiji on Tuesday at Bishan Stadium in preparation for the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Asean Football Federation tournament that starts in November.

They are without a competitive win in almost three years and have drawn the Cup's so-called "Group of Death" that includes Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Ahead of his first match as national head coach, Fandi, 56, insisted that he had no regrets, saying: "This is the toughest job anybody can get into. For me, it is another challenge. We may win, lose, or draw, but this is how I must give back to my country."

With his trademark boyish smile, he added: "Football and pressure have been part of my life. This is part and parcel of the game. I enjoy it. I use positive thinking, so it doesn't affect me.

"You live only once, so you have to do everything you can. The challenge is there, and for me, life without a challenge has no meaning."

Former national coach Barry Whitbread, who ended Fandi's international career in 1997 to bring in new faces who helped win the 1998 Tiger Cup and is in town for that squad's reunion, lauded his former player's courage and mental strength.

The 69-year-old, whom Fandi credits as the man who pointed him towards coaching, said: "Fandi loves football and has that knowledge that comes from playing for Groningen in Holland.

IT'S ALL IN THE HEAD

With lots of discipline, tactical work, determination and motivation, we can win matches because football is not only about the skill, it is also about the will. This is why I think we can do it.

FANDI AHMAD, on how Singapore can win football matches even without talented and skilful players.

  • Fandi's honours roll

  • • Won the Lion City Cup in 1976 and 1977.

    • Earned his first senior cap against Indonesia at the 1979 SEA Games and became Singapore's youngest debutant then at 17 years, three months and 23 days.

    • Scored the winner in the 2-1 Malaysia Cup final victory over Selangor in 1980.

    • Signed a two-year contract with Dutch club FC Groningen in 1983 and scored against Italian giants Inter Milan in the Uefa Cup that year.

    • Won three Malaysia Cups with Kuala Lumpur from 1987 to 1989, helped Pahang lift the league and Malaysia Cup double in 1992, before repeating the feat with Singapore in 1994.

    • Helped Geylang United win the inaugural S-League in 1996, before landing the title and Coach of the Year award with Singapore Armed Forces FC in 2000.

    • Passed the Asian Football Confederation professional diploma coaching course in 2003, appointed national team assistant to Radojko Avramovic the following year, and won the Tiger Cup in that role in 2005.

    • Joined Pelita Jaya on a three-year contract in 2006 and guided them to promotion into the Indonesian Super League the following year.

    • Signed a three-year deal to become Johor FA manager and technical adviser in 2012.

    • Appointed LionsXII coach in 2014 and won the Malaysian FA Cup the next year, became the Football Association of Singapore head coach of youth in 2016, and national team head coach this year.

"Even back then, I saw how he talked to players and counselled them. He has that intensity and commitment and it doesn't make sense for him not to become a coach."

Radojko Avramovic, who led the Lions to triumphs in 2005, 2007 and 2012, also backed his former assistant to do well with the Lions.

The Serb, 68, said: "Fandi is the type of coach who is positive and tries to win games. He will give more freedom to his players and this will suit them more than before.

"As we can see with the Young Lions, he is excellent with young players and has not just improved the team's attack and defence, but also led them to more wins and points than in previous seasons."

Former national coach Bernd Stange (2013-2016) had deemed players such as Khairul Amri, 33, Shahril Ishak and Baihakki Khaizan, both 34, to be past their prime, but Fandi has recalled all three, who have each won three Asean titles and a total of 386 caps.

There have also been call-ups for Jacob Mahler, 18, and brothers Zulfadhmi, 22, and Zulqarnaen Suzliman, 20, an intriguing move given the dearth of rising stars in recent years, with the various youth teams' wretched run of results a testament to this.

Fandi explained: "My way is to give everybody a chance. If I did not believe in the players, I would not be here. I took the job because I know we have players who are ready to perform and willing to die for the country."

Avramovic approved of the approach, saying: "Looking at his team, he made the right choice. The senior players are still playing at a reasonable level and like what we did before, there are also young players to learn from them and gradually adapt to the national team."

However, he called for Fandi to be given time and room to prove himself: "He needs trust and time to do what he wants with the team as he fine-tunes them for the Suzuki Cup. Don't judge or obstruct him based on only these friendly games."

Fandi believes he can plot a Cup fairy tale by blending youth with experience and encouraging healthy competition.

He said: "Frankly, the critics are not wrong. We don't have many more talented and skilful players. I'll tell you straight - we are not the best team in the region. Technically, others have overtaken us.

"But, with lots of discipline, tactical work, determination and motivation, we can win matches because football is not only about the skill, it is also about the will. This is why I think we can do it."

In a bid to bring back the fans, he promised entertaining football, a stark contrast to the pragmatic but defensive and dour brand of football favoured by his predecessor and former national team-mate, V. Sundram Moorthy.

"I have always played football as an attacker. You will see attacking football from our side, win, lose or draw. It is important that we win but we also want to win in style."

R. Sasikumar, the former footballer turned pundit, believes his former international team-mate has what it takes to be successful regionally, but feels Fandi needs to expand his horizons if he is to become a top international coach.

The 43-year-old, who sees Fandi as a future Singapore technical director, said: "He has stayed here for too long and has not geared himself to go international.

"If Fandi wants to be just a good coach in the region, then I think he is already good enough.

"But that's too myopic.

"I would love to see him understudy a top international coach like Serbian Bora Milutinovic, who led China to the 2002 World Cup, or Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who led Japan to the last 16 at the same edition - and learn from their leadership and skill sets because the environment here doesn't give him that high-level exposure.

"The FAS' management has to help him become the best coach he can be.

"If not, what chance do we have?"

While Fandi shared his desire to further his coaching education overseas, and admires former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's approach in developing youngsters, he has his sights firmly set on the task at hand.

"Of course, I want to learn more. For now, my job is to get this team to play well," he said.

"Our objective is to get past the first round, which we didn't do at the last two Suzuki Cups. But deep in our hearts, we know what we want - we want to win the Cup."