Fandi Ahmad shares how a 'kampung boy' stunned Italian football giants Inter Milan

An ordinary man who did extraordinary things.

Syahindah Ishak | July 24, 2022, 11:37 AM

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It's August 31, 1983.

Singaporeans woke up that morning to the following headline: "The Fandi Mystery: Is our soccer super boy out in the cold in Groningen?"

Image via NewspaperSG.

Published in the now-defunct Singapore Monitor, the article by Kenneth Jalleh offered speculation on whether Singapore's golden boy Fandi Ahmad had what it took to make it in Holland's top football league.

For good reason too.

It had now been a month and a half since Fandi left home to play for Dutch club FC Groningen; the hopes and dreams of Singapore placed firmly on the shoulders of South East Asia's first representative in European football.

But three games into the season, Fandi had yet to make a single appearance.

In fact, the 21-year-old was stuck training and playing with Groningen's reserves.

The club, which had previously been saved from the brink of bankruptcy, was being accused of financial malfeasance — signing Fandi on his rumoured S$6,000 a month contract was beginning to look like a costly mistake.

His contract was reported to have a "homesick" clause, a stipulation that allowed Fandi to break his agreement with the club and return to Singapore if he so desired. No doubt whispers abounded as to whether he would call it quits.

"Frankly speaking, what are his chances of making the team?" asked Jalleh.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows

Before arriving at Groningen, Fandi wasn't training as often as he usually did.

It was the month of Ramadan, and the devout Muslim had been fasting.

"I lost a lot of weight and energy," the now 60-year-old told Mothership.

Eager to impress, Fandi pushed himself hard in his first months of training with his new team.

Understanding that European football was much more physically demanding than the game he was used to back home, the scrawny and small-built attacker wished to match his new teammates in physique and pace.

Coupled with his lack of fitness, the intensity and rate at which he was going inevitably took a toll on his body.

Serious injury

Two weeks before Groningen's opening league match, Fandi suffered a torn quadricep.

"I had around 40 injuries during my football career, but this one... I remember it clearly till today because of how significant it was."

Fandi couldn't train with the rest of the team and had to focus on his rehabilitation.

Training sessions are important to footballers, particularly newcomers to a club, as it allows them to get to know their teammates better on the field.

Unfortunately for Fandi, the injury had robbed him of the chance to make a favourable impression.

Tension within the team

Even after he had recovered, more obstacles stood in Fandi’s way to the first team.

There was some tension between him and Dutch player Erwin Koeman, who had returned the season before to Groningen — the club he'd started his career with — after three years with league powerhouse PSV Eindhoven.

They both played in the same position, and Koeman had the edge over Fandi as a player the club was familiar with.

"Koeman has been in the team for many years and he's a key player. And then I came along— this kampung boy trying to get his position," recalled Fandi candidly.

Koeman was a competitive player. There were times when he refused to pass the ball to Fandi.

When asked how this affected him, Fandi replied: "In Europe, you don't think about this kind of stuff a lot. It’ll just give you a headache."

"I just want to play. So when I get a chance to play, I will pass [the ball] to whoever is near me or has the best space to score a goal.

For me, I don’t have any grudge against him, nothing. I just enjoy. He is like that, he wants to be number one and that’s okay. It’s just who he is. But we are friends. He’s like that during the game, but outside of the field, we’re friends."

Life was different back home

Although Fandi took everything in stride, his experience at the start of his European stint was a stark contrast to his already established career back home.

Fandi was well-loved by Singaporeans from all walks of life, having been part of the team that won the Malaysian Cup in 1980.

While at FC Groningen, he vied with Koeman for the team's right-wing position. In the Singapore national team, Fandi was the undisputed star.

Describing the pride he felt each time he donned the Singapore jersey, Fandi said it was a different feeling playing for and in Singapore.

He loved to entertain the Singaporean fans and never wanted to disappoint those who had faith in the national team.

Fandi recalled his days playing in the old Kallang stadium as an arena that "had heart".

"It is where many memories and dreams were made. It brought the nation together. You could hear the fans stomp the floors to cheer the teams! And of course, the Kallang Roar. It was so incredible to hear that.

You would also see newspapers on the seats, where people would chope their seats for the games."

Today, after everything he experienced in his career, the former National Stadium — where Fandi made a name for himself — still stood apart.

"I miss the atmosphere," he said.

"It was a place where everyone gathered to have fun and cheer the teams. I miss the camaraderie and the spirit of local football."

It was, after all, the stage where he'd displayed the talent to earn his first foray into European football — his 1982 three-week trial with legendary Dutch club AFC Ajax.

First foray into European football

At the time, Ajax boasted the likes of Johan Cruyff — who was at the tail end of his playing career but still an intelligent on-field presence — and emerging stars Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.

If that wasn't daunting enough, Fandi arrived in Holland barely speaking any Dutch.

He immediately felt out of place among the country’s people and culture and soon started to feel homesick.

"Back then, we didn't have the internet or computers," Fandi explained.

"I had to queue to make a phone call and it was so expensive. One call was like around S$7 or S$8 back then."

However, it wasn't long before the young man began to prove his worth.

A Straits Times report from Jul. 19, 1982, illustrated how Fandi's trepidation about life in Amsterdam faded when he was on the pitch.

In a pre-season friendly, the diminutive attacker provided two assists as Ajax ran out 3-1 winners against Naaltwick.

"Showing the form that first prompted Ajax to offer him a trial, Fandi played one of the best matches of his life," the report read.

"His initial nervousness disappeared as soon as he touched the ball."

Off the pitch, things were looking good for Fandi too.

Cruyff appeared to take the Singaporean under his wing, telling a ST reporter: "You tell [Fandi] he has nothing to worry about."

"Just as long as he continues to show that he can play football, he will not have problems with anyone in the team. And you can tell him that I'll always be around to look after him."

And take care of Fandi, he did.

"[Cruyff] was my idol and at Ajax, he was one of my mentors" said Fandi.

"I used to wear the same jersey number as him when I was in the Singapore national team — number 14. He talked to me every day after training [at Ajax]. He always motivated me and always told me to stay positive... he inspired me."

It seems that Cruyff's affinity with the Ajax fans rubbed off on Fandi too. The fans instantly took to the kampung boy and asked him for autographs at matches.

By the end of his three weeks, Fandi was dubbed the second most popular player at the club after Cruyff.

The Ajax offer

Fandi also managed to impress Ajax's coaches, and he was rewarded with the offer of a three-year contract.

However, he had another offer from Indonesian club Niac Mitra.

From an outsider's point of view, it might be obvious which offer Fandi should've gone for.

But he famously rejected Ajax's offer and went to Indonesia instead.

Fandi's decision was shocking to Singaporeans, even today.

No one truly understood why he rejected playing for a world-renowned European club.

There was speculation that Fandi's homesickness had played a role.

A compromise

Some 40 years removed from turning his back on Ajax, Fandi told Mothership that the decision was about far more than just missing Singapore.

"Actually the process was discussed by my whole family— my grandparents, my cousins, my uncle. Some said I must go to Holland because I was young and I had to try.

When it came to my grandmother, she said, 'Why do you want to go so far? Indonesia is nearer, the food is easier for you. If you go to Holland, you don't know what it's going to be like. You don't know the language, the food, the culture.'

The thing that made me sad was when she said, 'If you go to Holland, you might not see me anymore.' So I was very sad and down. Her statement really made me feel that I should go to Indonesia… for her. So the choice overall wasn't mine but I accepted it."

When asked if he regretted his decision, Fandi said:

"Looking back at the Ajax decision, it's hard because who doesn't want to play for — back then — the best team in the world?

But I never think of it as a regret. This was meant to be. It was fated. That’s what I think. When I was playing in Indonesia, I remember hoping I would get to play in Holland again. Then Groningen happened."

Second chance

FC Groningen was Fandi's second chance at European glory and he was determined to make the most out of it.

Three months after he'd signed for the club, Fandi finally made his league debut for Groningen against the Go Ahead Eagles on Oct. 16, 1983; an injury to Koeman had forced coach Han Berger's hand.

With his rehabilitated quadricep slathered in Tiger Balm to help with the lingering muscle pain, Fandi scored both goals in a 2-0 victory.

"Fandi has arrived!" read a headline in ST.

Image via NewspaperSG.

He was just getting started.

An unforgettable goal

On Oct. 19, 1983, Groningen was up against Italian heavyweights Internazionale — Inter Milan — in the second round of the UEFA Cup.

It was the first time the Dutch team had ever qualified for the competition, and they were considered the underdogs in the tie.

An early goal to Groningen coupled with some swashbuckling counterattacking football showed that the occasion didn't overawe the relative minnows.

However, the precarious 1-0 scoreline meant that they could still leave the game with nothing to show for it.

Then in the 89th minute, Groningen defender Adri Van Tiggelen sent a searching lobbed pass into the Inter penalty box.

The ball appeared to bounce off Inter defender Fulvio Collovati's head and to the left of the penalty box.

Fandi was the fastest to react.

The 21-year-old put his left foot to the ball and the rest, as they say, was history.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I’m scoring'. And then I ran [around the stadium] to celebrate," said Fandi when I asked him about the goal, his eyes still sparkled as he relived the moment.

"The whole stadium erupted. And the noise… oh my God. I couldn't understand what [the fans] were shouting but the atmosphere was just... oh my God. I was so happy. The team left the stadium nearly three hours after the game. We were signing autographs and celebrating."

The goal sealed one of the most famous victories in the club's history.

Most importantly, Fandi's goal was a moment of glory for Singaporeans as they saw themselves represented and recognised on a stage far bigger than they could ever imagine.

Peak of his career?

Looking back on the scenes that followed Fandi's goal — the young Singaporean striker deliriously wheeling away as the Groningen players celebrated wildly; Inter's players standing around shell-shocked — it's hard not to feel a sense of wistfulness.

What should have been the start of an illustrious career in Europe instead became the high point of a two-year stint that ended with Fandi returning to ply his trade in Asia in 1985.

Yet, Fandi told Mothership:

"That was the best moment of my career but it wasn’t the pinnacle or the peak of my career because I was a very young man. I was 21 years old. To mature as a footballer, it takes a while."

Looking past the "what if's"

It's easy to look back at Fandi's career and become preoccupied with the "what ifs", as his talent and skills rightfully demand.

But if we concentrate on the what-ifs, we'll miss his extraordinary life for what it is.

This was a sentiment that Durga Poonambalam, the author of Fandi's latest biography, also stressed.

She told Mothership:

"In Holland, it wasn’t easy because [Fandi] couldn't call or talk to his family every day unlike what we can do now but he survived and beyond that, he excelled. Surviving is one thing but he excelled in his time there and he did his country proud. I think that’s the most important thing. Wherever he went, whichever team he played for, he flew the Singapore flag and that makes me very proud

We must honour those who have sacrificed to fly our flag overseas. The most important thing, at least for me, is that life is full of challenges and Fandi loves challenges. He was never afraid of it. To have played football in Europe in the 80s, back when the world wasn't as open, and as a young Asian player, it takes a lot of courage. I hope that when people read Fandi's story, they will be courageous and take the challenges and pursue their dreams because there's so much you can learn from."

Because for one night in 1983, under the bright lights of a European stadium, a 21-year-old skinny Malay boy had humbled a giant of Italian football and allowed Singaporeans to dream the impossible.

"As a player, I always like to entertain fans," said Fandi.

"They come, they pay for the tickets. So in my mind, I always tell myself, 'I want to do something special for the fans'."

Fandi's latest biography, "Fandi: Honour & Sacrifice", is available for purchase at Popular, Kinokuniya, and Times. Alternatively, you can order it online here.

Top images via Fandi Ahmad/FB.