THERE’S sparkling, sometimes controversial, debate over the appointment of Fandi Ahmad as Singapore’s new national football coach.
Will Singapore’s ‘Mr Nice Guy”, who takes over from V Sundramoorthy, face the same predicament with a bunch of young Turks who simply lack the fire-in-the-belly or the regional experience to compete within a new-changing Asean “bola” arena, where the Lions are sorely lagging behind, in FIFA ranking and recent performances just within South-east Asia.
Or has the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) thrown the 55-year-old “Golden Boy”, with an impeachable football character over the past three decades, into the deep end of the whirlpool, with the Sukuzi Cup just six months down the road and, on mere standards alone, the Lions may well struggle to qualify from the first-round fixtures.
For a four-time Asean Suzuki Cup champion, the Lions have fallen to be the whipping boys in recent months with barely any results to crow from age-group right to first-team and the FIFA No 172 ranking, offering the most significant report-book to the worst-ever football image. They are only the sixth-highest ranking team in Asean, behind Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia.
Even a schoolboy will say that Fandi’s Suzuki Cup assignment in November is close to suicidal as the Lions face Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and the winner of the qualification round, probably Brunei and Timor Leste. Only two teams qualify for the semifinals and on sheer playing form, the Lions face an Everest of a task to be sensible title-challengers.
What now for Fandi Ahmad?
Will he face the same predicament as Sundram as he banks on the SPL (former S-League) where there’s a horrible lack of complacency as the clubs do not face the struggle for survival that relegation creates in other leagues. Nor does the league have a real transfer market, in which players can be traded for profit, quickly raising their salaries, as well as motivation to push themselves to a higher level, while clubs are incentivised to develop talent quickly.
I genuinely wonder, too, why has FAS let Fandi wear so many caps as he remains as the Young Lions Head Coach in the Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League and continues to lead the Under-23 project, as well as next year’s Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and the 2020 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualification.
More family conflicts-of-interest are on the cards as his two eldest sons, Irfan and Ikhsan, are part of the senior national setup. Something no coach in the world has ever faced in an extraordinary family affair!
These have been some of the questions on the lips of football pundits as they ponder over the FAS announcement this week to daringly pin the “national coach” pin (mind you, not “caretaker coach” as what Sundram had earlier faced) on Fandi’s chest.
Former TODAY newspaper Editor-in-Chief P N Balji, who follows the football scene very closely, puts in straight-lipped: “Fandi is taking on a difficult job at a difficult time. Singapore football has hit rock bottom and the only way for it is to move up. Fandi can help but don’t expect miracles to happen.”
But he sees the prudency in the FAS in not rushing blind-foldedly to a new “big name” coach, possibly an “ang moh” as most Asean countries tend to do. He says: “It is better for FAS not to rush into appointing the right man. Since Suzuki Cup is round the corner it is more prudent to go with Fandi. Meanwhile, the hunt for a more astute and experienced person can go on.”
‘WEAR TOO MANY HATS’
A former national coach, who declined to be named, was also forthright in views as he says that Fandi Ahmad was “simply wearing too many hats”. He explained: “In the distant future he will be a strong candidate for sure. This moment perhaps he is wearing too many hats. Young Lions, Under-21, Under-23-Asian Games and with national job cannot receive his full attention it deserves.”
He rightly moans of the quality of the 40-odd players from the SPL (Singapore Professional League) to play in a “tactically-improving regional network”, He says: “They are not only inexperienced but lack badly in technical abilities. This shortcoming cannot be addressed by Fandi. It was our failure in youth development over the past decade. A foreign coach can in a short time create the hype and players are usually very motivated in trainings and want to try harder.
“But soon they lose the jest and the blame game, coffee shop talks, changing room atmosphere changes and results are not telling anymore.”
That’s precisely the sorrowful predicament Sundram faced as he suffered a disappointing 23-month stint that saw the Lions win just three games out of 23 “A” international matches played, with 15 defeats and five draws. The Lions were winless for the entire 2017.
Former Singapore defender-turned-coach John Fernandez of the late 1970s Trevor Hartley-era says: “Fandi is a great player full of knowledge but lacks the ability and communication skills to motivate the team and get the best out of them. He needs to put the players in a ‘hypo’ state to deliver with his team talk. I don’t see him doing this very effectively. But I’m not in favour of foreign coach as we have yet to see desired results from past foreign coaches.”
But Terry Pathmanathan, the former celebrated Lions skipper, reckons Fandi is the “best choice we have, a natural progression as being the Under 23 coach”. He says: “He should be allowed to select his players and should be bold enough to drop the so-called national players deemed not fitted to his plans. The young players under his charge who cut the national standard should be drafted in regardless of experience.”
With over 77 “A” international caps (playing for Lions from 1979 to 1992) under his belt, the former head coach for Young Lions from 2009 to 2010, and Tanjong Pagar United from 2011 to 2012. emphasises that “no player is born with experience”. He explains: “The first minute on the field is the beginning of their journey into being an experienced player.”
He urged the FAS to learn from past mistakes in hiring and firing a line of foreign-based coaches who never got the desired results for the Lions. He says: “We have to learn from past mistakes when one coach brings along a few with him. We have many good qualified home-grown coaches who should be assistants to one good foreign coach and grow in confidence and knowledge, ready to takeover in time of need like now.”
Ideally, Terry, the longest-serving former national skipper over 12 years, nicknamed “Captain Marvel”, for his exemplary leadership qualities, says there should be at least five coaches to assist Fandi and not interfere in his plans or decision.
He urges: “Lend Fandi your best and honest support so that there is a high degree of trust and transparency in the team. All the players, I’m sure will reciprocate likewise and give their best for the team and coaches.”
Personally, as a sports journalist, I’ve known Fandi for close to four decades since he was a 16-year-old Kaki Bukit-born teenage prodigy who made his Malaysia Cup debut, under Trevor Hartley, in the late 1970s. He pragmatically knows that even making it to the Suzuki Cup semi-finals is not the only way for him to be considered a success.
His time as the new role-model leader of Singapore football will instead be judged with more nuance. Are there more consistent performances by the Singaporean junior national teams? Is there a more uniform coaching philosophy guiding the different programmes?
Can the Lions produce a single homegrown Made-in-Singapore superstar to carry the flag for the country on the sport’s biggest stages, the way Gareth Bale, say, does for tiny Wales at Real Madrid? These things, and more, really matter.
For the record, as a 1994 winner of the Pingkat Bakti Masyarakat (state medal), the first Singaporean footballer to play in Europe, the first Singaporean millionaire sportsperson and first Singaporean sportsperson to have a published biography, Fandi has been rightly hailed called a national “bola” legend. He has five children with his wife, South African model Wendy Jacobs, and his late father was Ahmad Wartam, a former national goalkeeper in the 1960s.
Backing Fandi, too, was Olympian swim-hero Ang Peng Siong who called for a “political will to change the current self-defeating mindset and landscape”. He says: “I don’t think it is the job of one man. It is the job of the whole nation to provide Fandi with the resources and support to make it happen. He can lead them into battle but are we prepared to give him the tools?
CULTURE OF WINNING
“Both Fandi and Sundramoorthy are passionate about giving back to Singapore football. It will help to bring in coaching experts and consultants to assist them. Identify the “Formula One” team and work towards success! There are no short-cut solutions. It has to be a four-to-eight year pathway to a high performance outcome.”
Hailed Asia’s “Flying Fish” who once held world No 1 ranking in the 50m freestyle and was former national swim coach, Ang emphasises that creating a “culture of winning starts with a believe”.
He adds: “We need to believe that our home-grown coaches can do the job. We have enough resources to engage expertise to help groom them. All this can only happen if there is a political will to change the current self-defeating mindset and landscape! Let’s help our local coaches be competent and be world beaters. We have done it in other fields. Why not in sports?”
Broadcast journalist and well-known sports commentator Shehzad Haque, a former international cricketer, understands the “quick fix solution” in picking on Fandi Ahmad but feels there’s a lack of pride among the younger generation to wear the Lions’ jersey.
He says: “It would be a real shame if the team’s performance lifts just because it’s Fandi now in charge. They are playing for their country and there is no greater honour for a sportsman so they should be putting in their 100 per cent, regardless of who is in charge.
“Because it’s just a few months down the line and because a quick fix was probably the best solution, picking a local who had the respect of the players was the logical choice. If the new permanent coach is getting announced in January 2019, presumably the field has already been narrowed and by November the choice would have been made. It would be good in that case if the new man was able to shadow Fandi during the AFF Cup and get a feel for the team and familiarise himself with things before he takes over in the new year.”
Former Lions coach and FIFA coaching instructor P.N. Sivaji, who recently finished a long-term coaching stint in Myanmar, hopes Fandi will use the recent weight of expertise as assistant national coach to make his mark as the head coach. He says: “Only time will tell. This is his first time as head coach and the responsibilities, decision-making and other overall coaching burdens are huge.
ABILITY TO WIN PLAYERS
“Yes, he has the ability to win the players over but he has to realise that the regional football demographics have dramatically changed with Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines clearly on another level. Public expectations need to be adjusted. If we can take some points off these teams and take full points off the others, then we have a chance for the semi-finals,” adds the one-time coach of the Singapore “Dream Team”.
Former Lions midfielder Rafi Ali, a former Tampines Rovers coach, feels the FAS must hire a “credible coach-mentor” to mould Fandi to be a regionally-experienced national coach, just like how Thailand did to hero-striker Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang (2014-2017).
“In my opinion Fandi has all the attributes to become the national team coach. He know the culture, the players and importantly his winning mentality is very infectious,” says Rafi. “I know most of the Under 23 players, they have the talent but simply lack the desire and pride to rise to the occasion, regionally.
“This is where I think Fandi has the edge to motivate the players. It would be good if he can have specialist coaches to work with him on defence, midfield and striker departments. Especially in midfield and attack because we lack serious creativity in attack. We don’t have a play-maker that can dictate the game, that can give penetrative passes and we definitely lack a deadly striker.”
Newly-minted Bollywood actor and former SAF Major Ricky Sapuran Singh gives Fandi the thumbs-up as he’s a “proven footballer who have contributed so much to Singapore…an icon who is much respected and idolised by most Singaporeans”.
Give him time, appeals the owner of popular North Indian dance-pub Moshi Moshi Bollywood: “He needs at least two years to build on the current inexperience and the recent below-par performances of the Lions have been close to a national disaster.
“We need to have complete faith in Fandi, who is a very worthy sports role-model. He will deliver if the FAS supports him the right way.”
Yes, the ball is in FAS court to provide the right bullets for Fandi to fire away if the Lions hope to win over the fans and come even a fraction close to the “Kallang Roar” fame of the 1970s..
Not like the way an obvious lack of guidance and direction led to the self-destruction of Sundramoorthy, another home-grown football-son of Singapore. – By SURESH NAIR
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has followed the exploits of Fandi Ahmad for over three decades.
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