He might only be 18, but it’s fair to say Ilhan Fandi has experienced a great deal of football already. From futsal kickabouts in Indonesia, to training with his Fijian boarding buddy in the UK and finally making his Singapore Premier League debut back home, the teenager has definitely been around the block.
Currently juggling his responsibilities as a National Serviceman with playing professional football for the Young Lions, it’s been a whirlwind few years for the third son of Singapore’s greatest ever footballer, Fandi Ahmad.
But he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“When I was young, I just felt like football was already in my blood,” Ilhan revealed exclusively to Goal . “I saw my two older brothers playing and they were doing great and enjoying football. I’ve always loved football. My dad never actually forced me to play it, I just love the game and I love entertaining the crowd, putting on a show for them.”
With his mesmeric footwork and flashy skills, Ilhan has done just that in his career so far, thrilling onlookers and coaches alike. Indeed, some of his trickery wouldn’t look out of place on a street soccer court, which made it unsurprising to learn that Ilhan had spent the early parts of his footballing journey honing them on one of the smaller, netted-up pitches now common at futsal venues.
“I didn’t actually start with football, I started with futsal,” he chuckled. “I was in Indonesia, and we picked up futsal, all of my brothers. We were doing this thing called SuperSkills, which is like indoor futsal. It’s really good for your technique and ball control. I just got into the game, I loved it, and I carried on from there. I was around four or five years old, and already playing futsal with my big brothers. They were in the senior group; I was just playing on my own, kicking against the walls and things.”
With football having such a big influence in his life for such a long time, it might then come as a shock that Ilhan doesn’t actually watch the game - not willingly anyway.
“I actually don’t support any football team! I don’t really watch football. It might be a bit strange, but in my free time I try to get my mind off it,” he said.
It could be a symptom of too much football, with the game taking up much of his childhood and invariably becoming a prominent topic of conversation in the Fandi household, the youngster sees his free time as a chance to get away from it all.
“I watch other sports, but rarely football. If my friends watch it, I will too, but I won’t go out of my way to. Some people stay up till one or two AM to watch games, not me. I just try to stay away from football when I’m off the pitch!”
Despite that, Ilhan has still managed to identify a footballing role model for himself. Mesut Ozil, currently in a difficult position at Arsenal, but once Real Madrid's undisputed assist king, has certainly left his mark on Ilhan with his silky skills and elite technical ability.
“I like him (Ozil). He has the creativity, and I think I can work on that. I think I have a bit of creativity, too. He’s an attacking midfielder, and I play there as well. I’m not the quickest of players, so I tend to look up to players who are not that fast either, and see what I can compare.”
Having played primarily in local academies and age-group sides in his early teenage years, Ilhan’s football journey was set to take a huge turn in 2017, the year he turned 14. News broke that the youngster would be moving to England for a two-year period, where he would study and train at the i2i Football Academy, with a view to both completing his GCSE’s and developing his footballing abilities.
It was a big move to make, despite his parents making the trip there with him to help him settle in. They soon returned to Singapore, leaving Ilhan alone at his boarding school, a daunting prospect for most kids that young. Little matter for this one, though.
“Yeah, it was tough, I’m not going to lie. The first week I wanted to go home straight away. I was given a buddy at the boarding school, from Fiji, and I was alone. My brothers Irfan and Ikhsan went to Chile together (in 2013), so it wasn’t as bad, but I was alone,” he said of his early struggles.
“But I told myself, that was what I wanted, so I needed to suck it up and just deal with it. There’s no point moaning about wanting to go back if you want to become a professional footballer. My dad gave me the pathway, so why should I waste that chance when some people don’t even have the chance to go? I just tried to make full use of it.”
Having played in the UK for as long as he did, Ilhan was quick to identify some of the key differences between football in Singapore and England. For starters, the old cliché about the physical nature of the English game was more than true, as far as he was concerned.
“The biggest difference is physique-wise. Technically, I think a lot of Singaporeans who go there could adapt with their technical ability. But physically, that’s the tough part. It’s one of the reasons I went there! I wanted to get stronger, I wanted to get marked tightly, I wanted to be pressured fast. In Singapore, they don’t really press you much at youth level. In the UK, they come hard at you, so I learned to adapt,” he revealed.
He also mused that the reason behind the UK’s ability to constantly churn out fresh footballing talents, as opposed to Singapore, was in part due to the remarkable facilities they have, as well as a dedicated, well-curated sports programme for youngsters, which are lacking to an extent here.
“They have everything - nutrition, facilities, gyms, they all motivate the players. If you don’t have a field to train on, or a proper gym, you wouldn’t feel motivated," he explained.
“I think the culture plays a part too, but in the UK, they do focus on studies just as much. In Singapore, we just struggle to get the balance right. This is what we’re lacking, the balance of playing sports and studying. For them, even my school plan was two lessons and then football the whole day.”
When asked if he thought he would struggle with the off-field aspect of a footballing move abroad, should it ever come, there was no doubt in Ilhan’s mind.
“I’ll be fine. If you’re overseas with your team, you tend to bond with them, go out with them, learn their culture, and then everything just falls into place. I was in the UK alone for two years, and I’m quite independent, so I’ll be fine.”
Two people who have enjoyed moves abroad are Ilhan’s two older brothers, Irfan and Ikhsan. With Irfan currently playing in Thailand’s top flight with BG Pathum United, while Ikhsan is enjoying a loan stint at second-tier Norwegian side FK Jerv, Ilhan has credited their backyard kickabouts growing up for helping him develop as a player.
“We would always have fun. We’re so competitive that when someone makes a mistake it’s like 'come on man!' We take it seriously when we play two-touch and stuff, obviously we’re just having fun but we also want to see who’s the best. They’ve definitely been important, they’ve taught me so much,” he affirmed.
“I can take a lot from both of them. Irfan’s a centre-back and Ikhsan plays more in the attacking third, so I feel that I can take more from Ikhsan than Irfan, from Irfan I can just take the physical side. He also marks the strikers, so he can tell me where to turn, what the defender’s going to do.”
The downside of having two professional footballers playing abroad as your brothers though, is how difficult it becomes for the family to get together again. But it’s a sacrifice that all three brothers understand they have to make.
“All of us getting together is very rare, we sometimes don’t even meet. Maybe only when the boys come back for international week. Now with Covid, I haven’t seen Ikhsan for almost a year. Irfan’s in Thailand, so I can see him more. But as a family it’s tough. I don’t even know the last time we were all here together. It’s what we love to do though.”
Another family member who has been crucial in Ilhan’s development as a footballer is, inevitably, his father Fandi Ahmad. With the former Singapore international having reached unprecedented highs for a local footballer in his career - including Uefa Cup ties against Atletico Madrid and Inter - his experience has become invaluable for Ilhan.
“When I was 16, I wasn’t the biggest player on the pitch, and I’m not the fastest, so my dad always said 'Ilhan, you have to think faster than the other players. You’re not as strong, so you have to move the ball quick, and learn to play with your body well," Ilhan stated. "He told me to play faster than the rest. I was playing school football in the UK, and to come here and play men’s football, the intensity was higher. My dad played a big part in helping me be confident in myself and express what I can do.”
“Both my parents have been very important. You come back and you have someone to speak to. Like for me, I’m always talking a lot, making jokes. If I don’t make a lot of noise, they’ll ask what’s up.They helped keep me motivated, and I always take the positives out of it. I just try to bounce back as soon as possible,” he continued.
Now playing professionally for the Young Lions, Ilhan registered two goals and two assists in eight league appearances this year, despite his training time being extremely limited due to NS commitments.
“It’s been really good. I have some good players who can guide me. I’m not really a striker, but I try and do my best up top. I try and link up play, and give options when I play up front. I try get on the scoresheet, which I have done, and I try do my best for the team,” he said.
He's had some big moments already, important goals, great performances and experience beyond his years. When asked about his brightest moment yet, he had no second thoughts.
“My favourite moment was when I started my first game against Albirex and scored. It was a very good goal, and I was only 16 at the time. It’s really tough for a 16-year-old to know you’re starting a game against a Japanese side, so I think I did pretty well,” he revealed.
“We didn’t get the result, but performance-wise, I didn’t do that badly, and that was probably the best moment for me now. I followed it up with a goal against Home United, so those two games, that week, I can say.”
However, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the youngster. Vocationalised as a storeman in the army, it’s been a great difficulty for Ilhan to train regularly with the Young Lions squad. Often having to shuttle back and forth between the team’s East-side training base and his newfound home at Sembawang Camp, it’s been an incredibly tiring past eight months for the player-cum-serviceman.
“When I can make it for training, I go. When I can’t, I can’t. I have an 8-5 job, but I tend to stay in so I can get more rest. Usually at 5pm I’ll go off for training then come back. It’s really tiring, but we have to deal with it. It’s just two years, so do it, get it over and done with,” he admitted.
“I’m still progressing, but quite slowly. Sometimes I’m not able to train with the team, they train five times a week and I can train maybe twice or three times. I have to be disciplined enough to go on my own runs, go to the gym myself. Football-wise, it’s tough for those who go to NS, but you just have to suck it up. Try do your best and stop complaining. Once NS is over, I won’t be on top in terms of fitness, but I’ll be up there.”
“Before I enlisted, I told myself I’d be rusty when I came out, so I can’t really be frustrated with myself. Now I’m back, I was actually frustrated with myself and all the coaches knew, but they gave me a lot of confidence and I played a few games. From the third game onwards, I felt as though my form was coming back, and thankfully I scored and helped the team. If the coaches didn’t motivate me, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. It’s hard to come back after seven months of not playing,” he concluded.
With Ilhan set to complete his service term in April 2022, the future ahead looks bright for the youngster, particularly given his lofty ambitions and steely determination to succeed. He’s made no secret of his aim to play in Europe, and it’s a goal he will not relinquish without a fight.
“After NS, I want to get my form back and play in the National Team, but I don’t want to rush into anything because I know everything will take place once I focus and do well. I just want to take it step by step and see how it goes, but I hope I can go overseas and get the experience like my brothers,” he said.
“Honestly, I want to go to Europe and try it out. I want to see how the standard is and see if I can get any clubs there and make Singapore and my family proud. With the help of the people around me, my family and friends, I can do it, it’s just about how bad I want it.”
Ilhan was also keen to offer a few words of advice for young, aspiring local footballers - many of whom struggle to maintain their fitness and get their careers back on track after NS:
“Work hard, train hard and study hard. One day, when you finish football, you’ll need to do something else, so you’ll need to study, but football-wise, work hard, stay disciplined and be prepared to make sacrifices. Nowadays, there are a lot of distractions, so we have to learn to sacrifice and to really work for what we want,” he said, concluding the interview.