Football: High praise for Ikhsan Fandi, as well as advice for young striker to develop overseas

Ikhsan Fandi attempting a shot at goal but goalkeeper Wan Zhenpeng gets to the ball. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

SINGAPORE - His international debut lasted only 19 minutes but Singapore national football coach V. Sundram Moorthy saw enough in Ikhsan Fandi to declare that he could very well be "our future international striker for the next 10 to 12 years".

The 18-year-old earned his first Singapore cap on Thursday, coming on for veteran Khairul Amri in the 71st minute in the 1-1 friendly draw against Hong Kong at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Though the Courts Young Lions forward did not score, the 1.83m youngster's touches and ability to hold the ball under pressure earned him high praise from the man in charge.

Yesterday, Sundram reiterated that view, telling The Straits Times: "Ikhsan has the physical presence to be the target man, and it has been some time since we had a striker like that. He has height, physique and is very mobile.

"But he needs more time and training. He's still only 18, he only started playing in the S-League last year. We have seen in the SEA Games what a rare talent he is. Once his national service is over, he should be sent overseas for attachments and come back as an even better player."

Over the past decades, the Lions have always had a forward who led the attack with aplomb. Each had a defining attribute - from the diving headers of Quah Kim Song to Fandi Ahmad's acrobatic volleys; from Indra Sahdan's speed to Noh Alam Shah's physical power and Amri's trickery.

Now, there could be an opening for the next frontman in line to take over from Amri, who is approaching the twilight of his career at the age of 32.

And Sundram needs a scoring solution quickly, given that in his 16 matches in charge since last May, Singapore have won only twice, scored just eight goals and never more than one per game.

Former national defender R. Sasikumar, a family friend of Ikhsan's who has witnessed the player's formative years, believes that Singapore have a gem on their hands.

The 42-year-old, who brought a nine-year-old Ikhsan and his elder brother Irfan to Europe for trials with AC Milan, Arsenal, Chelsea and Valencia, said: "It brought back lots of memories to see Ikhsan play in the SEA Games and for the Lions. His journey to the national team began at the age of nine and he was already a top-class player then.

"And I keep saying this, 'If he had been kept in Europe, he would have been world class by now.' Coming back to Singapore stunted his growth, the environment here is a step backwards for him."

In the 2015 Lion City Cup, the forward scored a perfect hat-trick against Liverpool's Under-15s, netting a goal each with his left and right foot, followed by a header, to earn a 3-3 draw before the Cubs lost 3-5 in the penalty shootout.

Ikhsan was the main striker in the Young Lions' SEA Games campaign last month, starting each of the four group games and scoring a penalty in the 2-0 win over Laos.

Sasikumar recalled: "After the Liverpool game, the Liverpool coach told me that had Ikhsan been English, he would have been labelled the next Robbie Fowler.

"Against Brunei (at the SEA Games), he produced this touch that took him away from the defender at the right time. I smiled at that because he already had this awareness when he was a boy.

"Ikhsan needs to get away from Singapore to make full use of his great talent. He is born to be a footballer, he's got everything a striker needs. It's rare to find a talent like him and if he's still here in a couple of years, we will be talking about a wasted talent."

Former national goalkeeper Lionel Lewis agrees that the young forward has talent but needs more experience to unlock his full potential.

The 34-year-old said: "Ikhsan is technically sound and he has many qualities but he needs more big-game exposure.

"Indra and Alam Shah have scored many goals against top teams. Ikhsan did well at the SEA Games but as the main striker, he needs to rise up even higher to see where he stands."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.