The Lion City Cup and Fandi’s shadow

Posted on June 25, 2011

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Fandi Ahmad at the 1978 Lion City Cup

His hands held aloft the Lion City Cup more than 30 years ago. For would-be inheritors of Fandi Ahmad’s throne however, his shadow still holds sway over this tournament. Fandi will always be associated with the Lion City Cup – after all, his was the name on the lips of 30,000 fans at the National Stadium in December 1977. They had just witnessed a 16-year-old Fandi orchestrate Singapore’s 5-0 win over Malaysian state Pahang, in the final of the first Lion City Cup.

This Singapore side’s main goal-getters were strikers Leon Williams and Omar Salleh, but Fandi was the outstanding player in the tournament and within seven months, had graduated to the senior national team. A true star born in the first edition of the Lion City Cup – fans and Football Association of Singapore officials of an optimistic bent must have harboured heady visions of a steady conveyor belt of Fandis coming through in future years.

The following year, Fandi scored eight goals including two in the final (a 3-0 win over Selangor) and Singapore lifted the trophy again. By 1980, Fandi had scored the winner in a Malaysia Cup final and set off on the road that would make him Singapore’s first millionaire footballer. He had set the example – but those who followed in Fandi’s Lion City Cup trail would not live up to his standards.

With Fandi having made such an impression in the first tournament, the media were keen to crown new princes in his mould. Before he turned 18, there was already a ‘new Fandi’ – Rahman Nongchik in the 1979 Lion City Cup. The following year, it was Ahmad Paijan. The search for a new Fandi took a break from 1982, as the Lion City Cup went on an extended hiatus.

When the tournament resumed in 1990, Singapore were triumphant – and the next Fandi’s name was Zainal Abideen Ahmad. Like Fandi, he recorded eight goals in the tournament, including hattricks against Kedah and in the final against Trengganu.

Zainal Abideen Ahmad

Zainal Abideen hurdles a challenge against Hong Kong in the 1991 Lion City Cup

Like Fandi, he was voted the Lion City Cup’s most outstanding player. And like Fandi, Zainal was nominated for the Sportsboy of the Year award. The Straits Times declared 15-year-old Zainal a “strong possibility to follow in the boot-steps of his idol Fandi Ahmad”. The 1.72m tall schoolboy said: “I want to be a professional like Fandi. There is nothing else I want to do.”

Zainal also shone in the 1991 Lion City Cup, scoring three as Singapore reached the final. There they went down 2-0 to Myanmar, but Zainal’s star was on the rise. He was selected from a list of 67 young players for the Goh Chok Tong/City Developments talent search project. In January 1991, Zainal left for Czech club Nitra FC for a 10-week training stint, together with Rudy Khairon, Lee Man Hon, Imran Jumahat and Azman Mohammad.

Things seemed to be building up nicely for the new Fandi Ahmad – he played for Tiong Bahru before signing for Police in the inaugural S.League season in 1996. From there, the Fandi trail goes cold however. At an age where he should have been shining in the S.League, Zainal made just a handful of substitute appearances for Police and was released at the end of the season. He never made his mark as a professional footballer.

Singapore did not taste success in the Lion City Cup again until 1995, and that year there were a pair of ‘new Fandis’. Indra Sahdan and Ahmad Latiff each registered four goals as Singapore beat Darwin, Hong Kong, Brunei and AIK Stockholm on route to the final. The duo would go on to feature prominently in Singapore’s national team over the next decade, with Indra going on to amass more than 100 caps and 26 goals.

For all that though, there remains a sense that Indra never quite fulfilled his potential. He was less than focused in developing his talents after the Lion City Cup, and was dropped from the national team early on for skipping training. Making his way back into the national team and establishing himself as a reliable goalscorer in the S.League, Indra might have pushed on and headed for foreign shores the way Fandi had done. Instead, he opted for the seeming security of a job with the police force and a contract with Home United. There were plenty of goals in the S.League and memorable strikes against Japan and Manchester United, but Indra largely stagnated in Singapore. By the time he looked abroad, Indra was on the wane and trials with MLS side Real Salt Lake and in Vietnam turned out anti-climatic squibs.

As for Ahmad Latiff…ah, Latiff. No other player has divided Singapore’s football community in the present as much as Latiff has. More exciting and creative than Indra, Latiff had all the tools to become a top name in Asian football. His well-documented disciplinary issues however turned his career into a tumble of time lost in military detention barracks, a series of sackings from the national team and a nomadic existence, never quite hitting the heights everybody thought he was capable of. There are a multitude of views on Latiff, but on one point everybody can agree: he could’ve been a contender. Could’ve been.

Hanafi Akbar

Hanafi Akbar at the 2011 Lion City Cup

In the following decade, the likes of Shahril Ishak (he took Fandi’s number 17 jersey on his national team debut) and Khairul Amri were saddled with the burden of living up to Fandi’s standards.

Both have sparkled in fits and starts, and both moved in Fandi’s footsteps to the Indonesian league. But it’s fair to say they haven’t written themselves into the firmament of Singapore football yet.

As the latest bunch of schoolboy stars lap up the adulation of their peers packed into Jalan Besar Stadium, the likes of Hanafi Akbar, Adam Swandi and Muhaimin Suhaimi might well keep in mind the lessons of their predecessors in the Lion City Cup. So many have fallen by the wayside, and they were all talented. They were all the next big thing.

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