Football: I will stick to my guns, says Fandi

Football: I will stick to my guns, says Fandi
LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad celebrating with fans upon arriving at the Changi Airport on 24 May 2015. The Singapore team defeated Kelantan 3-1 in the final at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, becoming the first foreign football team to lift the Malaysian FA Cup. The Malaysian FA Cup was his first trophy since winning the S–League in 2002.

It was a short coach ride for the LionsXII from the hotel to Bukit Jalil Stadium but the streets were lined with thousands upon thousands of Kelantan supporters, whose preferred home colour is, coincidentally, red.

Some 79,000 of the estimated 85,000 crowd for Saturday's Malaysian FA Cup final cheered for the Red Warriors, making the occasion more daunting than usual for the Singaporean football side.

Fandi Ahmad gazed at the seemingly endless stream of Kelantan fans. But he wondered aloud, maybe he should just pretend that they were supporting his team.

For 90 gripping minutes, he blocked out the noise and the distraction to mastermind the LionsXII's 3-1 upset of Kelantan to become the first foreign side to win the trophy.

But when the final whistle went, it was clear he had gone through the wringer, his face looking exhausted yet impassioned, joyous yet poignant.

And to re-emphasise a point he made to The Straits Times before the final, Fandi said emphatically: "I was born for this. Since I was 18, I've had to win trophies for Singapore. I have been doing this for more than 30 years now.

"Singapore football has definitely been uplifted by this Cup win. We have been down for a while and I kept hoping I could lead the LionsXII to bring some joy back.

"I wanted this win so badly to help spur the SEA Games team, to make the fans happy.

"The SEA Games boys (Faris Ramli, Christopher van Huizen and Sahil Suhaimi) have benefited from coming back to play for the LionsXII. They now have experience playing in a big final and in a packed stadium.

"I hope this win will motivate kids, too. Let them see that if they train hard and be humble, they can one day play in a big final like this for Singapore and contribute to the country."

Fandi took charge of the team last year, but he inherited a squad significantly weakened by the departures of captain Shahril Ishak, first-choice centre-back Baihakki Khaizan and all-action midfielder Hariss Harun, who all signed lucrative contracts with the two Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) clubs.

Finishing eighth in the 12-team Malaysian Super League in his first campaign, a year after the team won the title, Fandi endured brickbats and there were even some quarters who doubted his coaching ability.

Now, with the FA Cup added to his collection 13 years after his last trophy, the 2002 S-League, Fandi was not in the mood to snipe at his detractors.

He said: "I take all criticism positively and the team and I have proved the critics wrong but there is nothing negative I want to say to those who say bad things about me.

"It is quite normal for me to hear criticism."

Instead, he preferred to lavish praise on the LionsXII, who have even moved his old employer from JDT, the Crown Prince of Johor, Tunku Ismail Idris, to note that the FA Cup win over Kelantan was "similar to a Scotland under-23 team defeating Manchester United".

"I think all will agree the boys gave the opponent a real fight," Fandi said.

"It has been a tough 11/2 years (since his appointment).

"There have been so many ups and downs but we deserve this Cup after a fantastic team effort.

"I want the team to play attacking football, I want to groom youngsters and I will stick to my guns."

And he was at pains to point out the scale of his players' achievement.

Fists clenched, arms pumping, Fandi gesticulated to ram home his point.

He said: "At the end of the day, we did it. We did it without any stars. We did it without any foreign signings.

"We came here to prove a point. We came here to prove we are Singaporeans and we don't go down without a fight."

Clearly overcome by emotion that had been pent up inside him, Fandi unexpectedly broke out into song at the end of the interview.

"We are Singapore, we are Singapore..." he sang.

And he sang all the way back to the team coach, flashing the thumbs-up.

This article was first published on May 25, 2015.
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