Football: Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi eye trials with England's Leeds United

Irfan Fandi (right) and his brother Ikhsan say they are planning to head to Europe after they finish National Service, and may be attending trials with English club Leeds United.
Irfan Fandi (right) and his brother Ikhsan say they are planning to head to Europe after they finish National Service, and may be attending trials with English club Leeds United. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Despite keen interest from S-League and regional football clubs, Irfan Fandi, 20, and his 18-year-old brother Ikhsan, 18, are set to try their luck in Europe next year, after they complete their national service in February.

The Straits Times understands that the brothers, sons of local icon Fandi Ahmad, could attend trials with Leeds United in March.

Leeds are currently seventh in the Championship, the second tier of English football. They have been champions of the English top flight thrice (1969, 1974 and 1992).

Irfan, who has 11 caps and one international goal, told The Straits Times: "I feel confident about showing what I'm capable of as a defender, which I feel I have made a smooth conversion to from a forward.

"I didn't feel and look out of place in the AFC Cup games and international matches I've played in this year, and it's a form of recognition when a top Thai team like Bangkok Glass are interested to sign me.

"But my dream is to play in Europe, and while I think I can match the European players, I'm not going to sit back and I will be working hard to improve my strength before we go."

With the exception of England-born Daniel Bennett, who played for Wrexham in the English third and fourth tier in the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons respectively, no Singaporean footballer has plied his trade in the English leagues.

It is not difficult to see why, as England has one of the strictest work permit rules in Europe.

Former Fifa intermediary and ex-Singapore international R. Sasikumar told ST: "In the beginning, it will be almost impossible for our players like Irfan to sign for English clubs, and it is not because of the lack of ability.

"Players who want to play in England have to come from the top 50 national teams in the Fifa rankings, and even then they have to play a certain percentage of international games.

"And that's just one of many criteria. Those who don't satisfy these will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis."

Singapore's world ranking currently stands at 170.

India captain Sunil Chhetri saw a move to Queens Park Rangers collapse as his country was not ranked among Fifa's top 70 countries, according to regulations in 2009.

More recently, Aston Villa's appeal to sign Croatia goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic was rejected as he has played less than 45 per cent of his country's - ranked 18th then - matches in the preceding two years.

However, Sasi said "there's still hope" for the likes of Irfan.

"If English clubs see value in a player, they can still place him in a feeder team in Belgium or Scandinavia and if he proves himself there, they have a better case to apply for a work permit in England," he explained.

Oman goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was one such example. He successfully trialled at Bolton, but had to play for Norway's Lyn Oslo to get a work permit before qualifying to play in the English Premier League.

Fandi is well aware of the challenges and is already looking at various options to give his sons the best chance of making it abroad.

The national assistant coach said: "It will be tough because of the rulings, but we could still let the boys go for trials at Leeds.

"England has the strictest work permit rules, so if that doesn't work out, we may explore possibilities in other European leagues, like those in Scandinavia, with help from our contacts.

"I have also gotten in touch with my former Groningen team-mate Ron Jans, who is the technical director there now, so Holland is also a possibility.

"Both Irfan and Ikhsan already have offers from clubs in the region but we want to be fair to these teams and let them know they are trying to make it in Europe and could leave for trials any time from March to May.

"So, one plan is to sign them with the Young Lions so it would be easier for them to try out in Europe."

Sasikumar believes Fandi's boys are of the right age and have what it takes to shoot for the stars.

"Having brought them to Italy and Spain almost 10 years ago, and with them spending a few years in Chile, they can survive abroad," he said.

"But after coming back, they need to work on their fitness because it is a different level in England and Europe.

"I don't think they will be fazed, but sometimes you still need to be at the right place at the right time with the right connections to succeed.

"At their age, it is all about experiences and testing their limits. It is important they try to go as far as they can and not be demoralised even if it doesn't work out at first.

"There may be lucrative offers from neighbouring countries, and in those leagues, the Asean slots will remain for future seasons. But if Europe is where he wants to play, they have to go pit themselves against the best."