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'I like the pressure': 21-year-old Ilhan Fandi kickstarts football career in Europe, opens up about living up to his father's name

'I like the pressure': 21-year-old Ilhan Fandi kickstarts football career in Europe, opens up about living up to his father's name
PHOTO: Instagram/Ilhanfa

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

In 1983, a certain Fandi Ahmad was plying his trade in the Netherlands with FC Groningen.

Fast forward a few decades, and his son, Ilhan Fandi, has stepped foot on Belgian soil, ready to test himself on the European stage.

Ilhan made his debut for KMSK Deinze, a second-tier Belgian club, in a substitute appearance last Saturday (Jan 20).

But this was much more than just a five-minute cameo, it's what he has been working towards since he was a young boy.

The 21-year-old shared an Instagram post after the match, mentioning how happy he was to play his first game with a European club.

"A dream come true, Alhamdulillah (translates to praise be to God)," the post read.

AsiaOne sat down with Ilhan recently to find out more about why he became a professional footballer and what it's like living up to his father's name.

Formative years

He tells AsiaOne that he's always had a football with him from a very young age.

After all, his dad is Fandi Ahmad, arguably Singapore's most well-known and successful footballer.

Ilhan assures that his family didn't force him or any of his siblings to pursue a football career. Growing up in an environment where he was often exposed to football made Ilhan love the sport even more.

While his peers in secondary school might not have locked down one particular dream career at such a young age, Ilhan is cut from a different cloth.

"This is what I want to do. I enjoy it, and I know if I put my hard work and dedication into it, I can go far," Ilhan said.

Mind you, this wasn't just a case of a young boy being confident of his abilities.

Ilhan shared that back then, coaches would tell him that he had what it takes to go professional. And they would remind him not to let that potential go to waste.

"So that's when I knew that, maybe, I have a little extra and this is something that I could improve on," he shared.

His goal was not simply about going professional, as Ilhan had his eyes set on Europe. He was going to do "everything possible" to make this dream a reality.

"It's only up to me, nobody can decide that but me," the 21-year-old insisted.

Making adult decisions at 20

Ilhan began his professional career a few months short of his 17th birthday with Singapore Premier League club Young Lions FC.

His performance earned him a move to Albirex Niigata (Singapore) in April 2022 where he excelled, helping the team clinch the 2022 Singapore Premier League title.

This resulted in interest from KMSK Deinze.

Upon learning of the Belgian club's interest, the young forward did not jump the gun. Instead, he took his time before choosing his next career move.

After all, he had other offers to consider.


"There was interest from many clubs, in the US and Thailand, among others," Ilhan shared.

Making career moves, in whatever industry, can sometimes be distressing. There is a sense of risk, and nobody enjoys the feeling of regret.

Ilhan's case felt rather unique, given the magnitude of the decision on his young shoulders.

So having a father who's been through a similar life journey was to his benefit.

Ilhan shared that his father, Fandi, had advised him that such an opportunity to play in Europe doesn't come by often. 

"I was only 20 that year. Why not take that risk? You never know, right?" Ilhan asked rhetorically.

Responding to setbacks

Despite signing for Deinze in December 2022, he waited more than a year to make his debut.

Ilhan sustained a complete tear to his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) less than a month after securing his dream move to a European club.

It takes at least nine months to recover after ACL reconstruction surgery, according to Healthline.

"I was really stressed. It was one of the toughest times of my life," Ilhan recalled.

There was a tinge of worry that his transfer might be in jeopardy. Thankfully, he received a call from the future boss, wishing him a speedy recovery.

Ilhan was relieved and grateful to find out that they had no plans to terminate his contract.

In April 2023, he finally arrived in Belgium, but not everything was smooth sailing.

Living alone and not training with the team became a mental struggle.

Ilhan felt like he wasn't really part of the team, given that he could not contribute on the field.

"I was very lonely, but I try and keep myself around positive people," he admitted.

Furthermore, Ilhan reminded himself why he decided on this move to Belgium. 

"I always told myself I'm here to do one job: to try and make it in Europe. So, I have to just suck it up," he said.

@kmsk.deinze 𝗜𝗹𝗵𝗮𝗻 𝗙𝗮𝗻𝗱𝗶'𝘀 𝗘𝘂𝗿𝗼𝗽𝗲𝗮𝗻 𝗱𝗲𝗯𝘂𝘁𝗲 🧡🖤 After a long injury and comeback, our Ilhan debuted his first game for KMSK Deinze last friday night. 🤩 An emotional rollercoaster. Congrats @Ilhan Fandi ♬ original sound - kmskdeinze

Proving the haters wrong

Being a professional footballer in Belgium means that Ilhan's work day is rather short.

He is up at eight in the morning before heading to the training ground an hour later for breakfast.

"Breakfasts and lunches are prepared by the club. They watch what we eat, and whatever is cooked for us is healthy," he said.

Training includes a session in the gym and another conducted out on the field. 

This cycle would repeat for months before Ilhan's debut.

Once he had completed his rehabilitation period, the big moment arrived.

"When he [the coach] called me, I was like 'oh my god, I'm making my debut'," Ilhan recalled.


He was all smiles after the game as Deinze celebrated a 4-0 victory.

In the dressing room, he even gave an emotional speech to thank his teammates and coaches for their support over the last few months.

"I appreciate your help, and this is just the start. I can't wait to play with you guys more," Ilhan said, his voice shaking.

While doubters might play down the significance of his achievements, Ilhan isn't going to let them rain on his parade.

"To get to this point is hard, and I'm really grateful to everyone who has been through this journey [with me]," he said.

Also, it helps that he enjoys proving the haters wrong.

Having the weight of being Fandi's son often comes with disparaging comments from the public.

"You are only good because you are Fandi Ahmad's son."

"You are in the national team just because you are Fandi Ahmad's son."

Ilhan has heard them all and he isn't bothered by the noise. In fact, this has become a form of motivation for him.

"I like the pressure. Soon, my haters will be my lovers," he cheekily quipped.

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