Malaysian FA Cup Final: Lions' pride boosted by Fandi

Malaysian FA Cup Final: Lions' pride boosted by Fandi
LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad (left), who has a history of success on Malaysian soil, directing the LionsXII during a training session at Bukit Jalil Stadium yesterday. In 1980, 18-year-old Fandi scored the winner against Selangor and 14 years later, he captained the Dream Team to the Malaysia Cup.

He remains Singapore's highest-profile footballer, a striker who made his mark in Europe but whose name is inextricably linked to his forays across the Causeway to raid Malaysian silverware.

Intertwined by geography and history but divided by sports for 90 minutes and perhaps more tonight at Bukit Jalil Stadium, it may not be a direct battle between lions and tigers but a club and a state representing the big cats - and certainly an occasion that calls for Fandi Ahmad's expertise.

Tonight, in front of an estimated crowd of 80,000, the former national captain will reprise his treasure-hunting role and in his own words, the responsibility was entrusted to him in his teens.

Sounding pensive and reflective, Fandi told The Straits Times: "I was a very young player still learning the trade but I was given the responsibility of leading the attack in the Malaysia Cup final.

"I scored to take the Cup back. Years later, I captained the team that won it back again and more than 30 years later after my first Cup win, I am still carrying that burden."

In 1980, an 18-year-old Fandi scored the winner in the 2-1 final victory over Selangor but what followed was a 14-year drought that he helped to end in emphatic style when he skippered the Dream Team to a 4-0 hammering of Pahang, a result still cherished by many local fans to this day.

Tonight, the circle can be completed when he sits in the dugout to command his troops from the LionsXII in the Malaysian FA Cup final against Kelantan.

The showdown in Bukit Jalil may not be the centrepiece Malaysia Cup nor the culmination of the long grind that is the Malaysian Super League (MSL), but Fandi believes the battle against the Red Warriors will be no less ferocious.

"It has always been this way. We are a small country, a small team. Even though (the LionsXII) are a club, everybody over there still wants to beat us," he explained.

"After we pulled out (in 1994), there was nothing to talk about for almost 20 years (the LionsXII joined the MSL in 2012).

"This is all about history. Our matches have always been very competitive and exciting. And at the end of the day, there is no animosity."

While history, folklore, memories of the "good old Malaysia Cup days" provide the backdrop to tonight's final, Fandi wants to isolate his players from the hype and chatter.

With most of his squad younger than 25 and many playing in their first major final, team spirit was obvious as the players trained with smiles on their faces.

Fandi revealed: "Most importantly, they (the players) don't read the newspapers on game day. They will only be able to read after the match.

"They have to focus and work as a team. We may not have any strong players but with our team spirit, hopefully, we can do it."

And even Kelantan's formidable record of six wins in seven previous encounters against the LionsXII did not faze the 52-year-old.

Flashing a wide smile and giving the thumbs-up, he said emphatically: "The record is not so good but we will make it happen."

After all, he does have over 30 years of experience when it comes to making things happen for Singapore in Malaysia.

This article was first published on May 23, 2015.
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