SINGAPORE - Fresh from helping his club BG Pathum win the Thai League 1 title, Irfan Fandi hopes his performances in Thailand will lead to a big move to Europe, Japan or South Korea.
The 23-year-old centre back, who won promotion with the same side last season, is the first Singaporean to win the Thai top division, widely recognised as South-east Asia's strongest league, after his team beat Sukhothai 2-0 on Thursday (March 4).
The Pathum Thani-based outfit are unbeaten this season, winning 21 and drawing three games. They have 66 points and are 19 clear of second-placed Buriram United with six games left.
The eldest son of Fandi Ahmad told The Straits Times: "I've learnt to keep my head down and just work hard, and I'm thankful and honoured to represent Singapore, create this slice of history and also uphold our family name.
"BG Pathum are a big club and we should not be in the second division in the first place. After the promotion, the club made significant investments and we were determined to win something.
"As a defender, of course I would say the defence was key to winning the league, but our team spirit has been crazy high and everyone played a part in this."
He is tied down to BG Pathum until 2024 on a six-figure annual salary but has a clause that allows him to consider offers by clubs from stronger leagues.
He said: "I'm focused on doing well with BG Pathum domestically and at the AFC Champions League to see where we stand against the biggest teams in Asia.
"I'm very happy at the club, but of course, I want to go as far as I can in my football career. If the right league and club come along, I may go for it even if it means taking a pay cut."
While BG Pathum cruised to the title, it was not all smooth sailing for the 1.88m Irfan, who suffered a separated collarbone last October and underwent surgery.
The coronavirus-enforced league suspension meant he only missed a few games but had to rush himself back to training, squeezing in double recovery sessions to reduce his absence from three to two months. Eventually, he played 17 games and contributed to 11 clean sheets.
He said: "I learnt so much from the foreign defenders Victor Cardozo and Andrez Tunez and I feel so confident on the pitch now. It is not easy being sidelined through injury and being away from my family for a year. I'm very happy to be able to bring something home."
Beyond a winner's medal, his achievements are a boost for Singapore football, proving the country can produce talented local players.
Former Lions defender R. Sasikumar, who had taken Irfan and his younger brother Ikhsan Fandi for training stints in Spain and Italy when they were 10 and eight respectively, said: "Irfan's success will open doors and increase opportunities for other local boys to go abroad as regional teams will now be more inclined to believe there are other Singaporean talents."
The founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global also backed Irfan to make a name for himself in Asia but noted that the road to Europe may be tougher.
Sasikumar added: "There is a strong link between the Thai and Japanese leagues, and the J-League also has an Asean quota, so that's a real possibility for him.
"Even if he does not move to Europe, I think he can still continue to develop in a strong Asian league in Japan, South Korea or the Middle East, face strong competition and make a good living for himself."