AFF Suzuki Cup 2018

Football: Fandi comes full circle

Posing ahead of their AFF Suzuki Cup group-stage clash are (from far left) Indonesia captain Hansamu Yama, Indonesia national coach Bima Sakti, Lions interim national coach Fandi Ahmad and Lions captain Hariss Harun.
Posing ahead of their AFF Suzuki Cup group-stage clash are (from far left) Indonesia captain Hansamu Yama, Indonesia national coach Bima Sakti, Lions interim national coach Fandi Ahmad and Lions captain Hariss Harun.ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

His last cap was against Indonesia, he now faces them in competitive debut as coach

He was appointed six months ago but the wait had begun two decades earlier when he earned his coaching badges.

Tonight's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup Group B opener against Indonesia will be Fandi Ahmad's date with destiny.

A former star striker for Singapore feared by opponents, he finally got the job he coveted in May, when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) made him interim national coach and tasked him with guiding the Lions to the AFF championship semi-finals.

Tonight's game marks his bow as the Lion tamer in front of the National Stadium - its former version being the giant bowl of concrete along the Kallang River where the former Singapore captain had saved his team on many occasions with acrobatic volleys, cheeky lobs, tap-ins and diving headers.

The 56-year-old feels that this is the pinnacle of his career in a tracksuit, saying: "Even if it's for a short period, I am looking forward to it. Especially after a playing career, this is the highest level for coaches. I'm proud to be a Singaporean, I'm proud to be given a chance.

"Hopefully, the players will do well because I have known them for quite some time and the bonding and camaraderie will help us through this game."

The Lions, with four regional titles (1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012) come into the 12th edition of the AFF Cup with wounded pride, having tumbled out in the group stage in the last two editions in 2014 and 2016. Their world ranking is now 165th, five rungs below Indonesia, and they have gone three years without a competitive win.

But Fandi has worked to restore confidence since being appointed.

The FAS backed his preparations by sending the Lions on a two-week training camp in Osaka, Japan last month. It has also populated social media with picture and video posts and wants to rally fans using the hashtag #OneStrong.

Captain Hariss Harun believes his team-mates are ready and itching to go, saying: "Indonesia have very nippy and fast players. We respect them for what they are capable of but on the night of the game, anything can happen.

"It will depend on how psyched up we are and we are definitely excited, prepared and ready."

The tactician knows the limitations of the Lions. Even if they do not have the technical ability to outplay their Asean rivals, they will try to outlast and outfight them. His unbeaten record in four friendlies (1-1 against Mauritius, 2-0 against Fiji and Mongolia, and 2-0 against Cambodia) is evidence that the Lions are no longer flatlining.

  • Advisory for fans

  • The Football Association of Singapore and the Singapore Sports Hub advise match-goers to note the following:

     • Arrive at least 11/2 hours before kick-off

     • Security check points and gates will open at 6pm

     • Bring only what is needed to facilitate checks

     • There will be a "No bags lane" at each checkpoint for quicker entry

     • Prohibited items: Luggage bags, bags exceeding 35cm x 20cm x 30cm, air horns, loud hailers, large banners, and selfie sticks

     • No storage facilities will be provided

     • Anyone who does not comply with security check requests may be refused entry

     • Take public transport

     • Indonesia fans arriving by coach are advised to alight at OCBC Aquatic Centre

     • Tickets on sale at www.sportshub.com.sg

He knows the players intimately, having coached seniors Shahril Ishak and Khairul Amri in the Young Lions from 2003 to 2006, mainstays Izwan Mahbud and Gabriel Quak with the LionsXII from 2014 to 2015 and youngsters Ikhsan Fandi and Jacob Mahler in the current Young Lions squad.

He knows they respond to him. So rather than precision thrusts with a rapier, Fandi wants the Lions to play like they have a dagger between their teeth.

Indonesia coach Bima Sakti has kept an eye on Singapore's progress since Fandi's appointment. The 42-year-old said: "Now, the Singapore team are stronger. They have good players, especially the striker (Ikhsan). They have good organisation and they are good in the transition (from defence to attack). We are prepared for a tough game."

The two countries have met seven times in the AFF Cup, with the Lions winning thrice and the Garudas triumphant on two occasions. More crucially, Singapore have lost their last two AFF Cup meetings with Indonesia, 0-1 and 1-2 in the group stages of the 2012 and 2016 editions respectively.

"Indonesia are technically very strong," Fandi noted. "I enjoy watching their one-two touches. We envy that style of football but what we have, we make full use of it. Our motivation is very strong."

There is some symmetry to tonight's battle under the floodlights. In 1997, the Lions played Indonesia in the semi-finals of the SEA Games in Jakarta. The Garudas won 2-1. The scorers then? Indonesian midfielder Fachry Hussaini, Bima and Fandi.

"I scored and 100,000 fans (at Senayan Stadium) were silenced," Fandi recalled with a smile. "But to my disappointment, I was taken off after that and we lost."

That game was significant: It was his last in a Singapore shirt.

Tonight will be his first competitive game as the national coach. It is a chance for Fandi to close a loop that remained open for 21 years.

The answers will be revealed after 90 minutes.


SINGAPORE V INDONESIA

Mediacorp okto, 7.50pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2018, with the headline 'Fandi comes full circle'. Print Edition | Subscribe