Fandi: Why I shed tears of joy after semi-final triumph
LionsXII coach let it all out last Saturday and hopes for more tears of joy at Bukit Jalil this weekend
When Fandi Ahmad shed tears on a football pitch, he was just 17 and Singapore had lost 2-0 to Selangor in the 1979 Malaysia Cup final.
Then, it was tears of frustration. He had cleared a shot off the line, only for the referee to blow for a goal.
In 1993, 14 years later, he wept tears of joy after Singapore came back from 2-1 down to beat his former team, Pahang, 3-2 in the Malaysia Cup quarter-finals.
Twenty-two years on, the 52-year-old cried again - this time as a coach - after his LionsXII team defied the odds to make it through to the Malaysian FA Cup final on Saturday.
It was again tears of joy following the tense drama of a last-minute disallowed goal by semi-final opponents Terengganu last Saturday that would otherwise have knocked the LionsXII out of the tournament.
Instead, the Singaporeans held out for a 3-2 second-leg loss to Terengganu to advance to the final on away goals after an aggregate 4-4 score.
Seconds after the final whistle at the Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin Stadium in Kuala Terengganu last Saturday, Fandi sank to his knees in prayer, his face brimming with tears as he gave thanks for the hard-fought triumph.
The LionsXII leave for Kuala Lumpur today to play Kelantan at the Bukit Jalil Stadium on Saturday in their first cup final since Singapore's re-entry into Malaysian domestic football competitions in 2012.
On the sidelines of the team's training session on Tuesday, Fandi revealed to The New Paper why he was so overcome with emotion despite having seen it all in his long and cherished football career.
GAVE OUR ALL
"In the last seven minutes, our kitman Omar and I had a quick chat and we shared the same sentiment - we had given it our all. It was up to God then," the former star striker said.
"When the goal was disallowed in the last minute, we turned and looked at each other and knew that our prayers had been answered.
"I was emotional because of the significance of this win. It has been so long since Singapore won the 1994 Malaysia Cup final.
"Our boys have faced so many obstacles - injuries, the team being under strength, multiple reshuffling and so on.
"But they gave it their best, they fought very hard, they were determined and disciplined. I'm so proud of them."
This will be Fandi's second appearance in a cup final in Malaysia as a coach after his Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) side lost by a goal to Kelantan in 2013.
After his exploits as a player - he scored in Singapore's win in the 1980 Malaysia Cup final, played professionally with Dutch side Groningen and scored against European giants Inter Milan in a Uefa Cup match - Fandi will always have a special place in the hearts of local fans.
His career as a coach has been more of a roller-coaster ride.
There were the highs of winning the S.League twice with SAFFC, twice leading the Young Lions to third place in the same competition and helping Pelita Jaya win promotion to the top tier of Indonesian football.
But there were also the lows of failing in the Malaysian Super League (MSL) with moneybags JDT and then returning to coach the LionsXII to eighth place in the MSL last season.
"Yes, I did feel down and helpless at times last season," admitted Fandi.
"We didn't have the personnel to fight for the MSL title despite being defending champions.
"We lost certain players while some like Shahril (Ishak), Baihakki (Khaizan) and Hariss (Harun) were signed by JDT. We tried our best with what we had and finished in the bottom half.
"But I'm grateful for the encouragement and support of my family, ex-internationals and friends.
"There are too many to name and thank, but they know who they are and I really appreciate their support."
Fandi landed his first gig as a head coach in 2000 when he took over SAFFC and delivered two titles in his debut season and in 2002.
He also won the 2000 S.League Coach of the Year award.
If his forte is to help develop young talent, he believes he has matured as a coach over the last 16 years.
"In terms of team selection and tactics, I am not so gung-ho as before," he said.
"I study videos of the opponents and try to minimise their strengths.
"The coach sets a strategy and the players follow. It is important to have this trust.
"We work together closely and it's very important to have a happy team. Some players play more, some play less, but while they fight for a place in the team, we must get them to also fight for one another."
Fandi got his tactics spot-on against Terengganu in the second leg of the FA Cup semi-final.
Leading 2-1 after the first leg at Jalan Besar Stadium, he set up his team to hit their opponents with speedy counter-attacks.
They lost the match 3-2, but the two away goals proved priceless.
In terms of star power, Fandi knows there is no comparison between the 1994 double-winning side and his LionsXII.
He said: "There was more depth then but this also makes the achievement of this bunch of LionsXII so much greater.
"There are no stars and, at times, we are under strength but those who are called upon to take up the fight give it their all.
"We have made it to the final. God willing, we will all cry tears of joy again after the final whistle."
More than just a final
The first time I cried over football was when I was 17. It was my first Malaysia Cup final. I remember clearing the ball off the line, although I forgot what the score was then, but the referee allowed the goal to stand. I was so sad after the final whistle that I cried. But this time, they are tears of joy.
- Fandi Ahmad on the tears of joy he shed after the match against Terengganu last Saturday
Fandi: Our boys can go places
He has scored hundreds of goals in Europe and Asia. He has won seven league titles and eight cups in three countries over 22 years.
But in his 16 years as a head coach, Fandi Ahmad, 52, has yet to win a cup final.
Yet, the LionsXII coach said the thrill of winning the Malaysian FA Cup final against Kelantan on Saturday would not top the satisfaction he gets from developing young footballers.
"Winning trophies is important in football. Everybody is working so hard to win something but for me, being able to help footballers mature and improve feels more rewarding," he told The New Paper.
"To get into a cup final is a super effort, especially when you consider we have no foreigners. It also shows that with proper guidance, coaching and training, our boys can go places."
While Malaysian teams are allowed to field up to four imports, LionsXII have to field an all-local team in accordance with the memorandum of understanding signed by the football associations of Singapore and Malaysia.
On top of that, key players Shahril Ishak, Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss Harun left for moneybags Johor Darul Ta'zim after helping LionsXII win the 2013 Malaysian Super League (MSL) title.
THRIVED IN FA CUP
Fandi was left with a sizeable crop of young, inexperienced players who struggled to find their feet last season, finishing eighth in the MSL and faring poorly in the Malaysian FA Cup and Malaysia Cup.
While they remain inconsistent in the MSL this season - they are currently in eighth position in the 12-team league - they have thrived in the Malaysian FA Cup.
Fandi said: "Amri is working really hard as a senior player. Nizam came back from a long-term injury and has been superb so far.
"Players like Izwan (Mahbud) and Izzdin (Shafiq) have matured and are taking on more responsibilities.
"Others like Nazrul (Ahmad Nazari), Zulfahmi (Arifin), Madhu (Mohana) and Safuwan (Baharudin) are taking up roles that are different from what they are used to but they never complain. I know it's not easy, but they give their best.
"Many others in the team have also grown mentally. Not everyone gets to play in the first XI all the time, but they give it their all when they come off the bench."
While Fandi would not reveal his starting XI for this Saturday, he said: "The dramatic and controversial semi-final against Terengganu was a good dress rehearsal for the boys to prepare for the final.
"Our players should not be overawed and they will now know better to expect the unexpected. The boys must believe in themselves and carry out the strategy with trust and conviction. They must believe our strategy will work.
"They must enjoy the final and be confident enough to express themselves in the right moments."
He issued this mantra: "Run at defenders, tackle hard, shoot from distance, show passion. Be inspired by the fans, defend as a team and play the free-flowing football you are capable of.
"Leave everything you have got on the pitch, so we can leave the stadium with no regrets."
Our players should not be overawed and they will now know better to expect the unexpected. The boys must believe in themselves and carry out the strategy with trust and conviction. They must believe our strategy will work.
- LionsXII coach Fandi Ahmad