For Football Fever, Fandi deserves honour of lighting the cauldron
For giving us football fever, he has edge over Jos, Pat and rest of our stars for key cauldron-lighting assignment
I have watched badminton legend Wong Peng Soon in action a dozen or so times.
During the 1955 Thomas Cup at the Singapore Badminton Association Hall at Guillemard Road, the stroke maestro and courtcraft wizard showed me why he was a world champion.
Four All-England titles and the demolition of the dynamic Danes (including the great Finn Kobbero) and the rest of the world's shuttlers in the '50s bore testimony to his global greatness.
He did not play in the region's biggest multi-sport event which kicked off in 1959 in Bangkok. But, after his glorious service to the country, Wong, who died in 1996, would easily qualify to be in any elite field of torchbearers, or even as the primary figure to light the cauldron, for any South-east Asia (SEA) Games in Singapore.
I have seen weightlifter Tan Howe Liang (above) perform - later coach - and can fathom why he was head and shoulders above everyone else, except a Russian behemoth at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
I enjoyed watching sprinter C Kunalan's (cauldron lighter in 1973, above) burst of speed, especially his high knee-lifts and turbo-thrusts, as he gobbled up the metres on the cinder, bitumen, tartan and mondo tracks in Singapore and the region.
Our original "Golden Girl" Patricia Chan was the reason for my first sports byline way back in November 1969, as she made waves at the Chinese Swimming Club under the watchful eyes of her dad and super coach Dr Chan Ah Kow.
Pat, as she is popularly known, was preparing for the 1969 South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in Rangoon, and eventually amassed a whopping 39 gold medals in the biennial event.
I was overwhelmed with euphoria as I wrote the story for The Straits Times when the awesome Ang Peng Siong (above) made global headlines with his world-best swim for the 50 metres freestyle in Indianapolis in 1982.
Two years later, I immersed myself in his ecstatic swim at the Los Angeles Olympics, where he won the 100m freestyle 'B' final.
I didn't mind lugging a suitcase of swimming attire for water-wonder Joscelin Yeo when she was studying and swimming in Melbourne in the early '90s, for I considered it "national service". Our swimming pride went on to win a record 40 SEA Games gold medals.
Multiple-medalled bowler Grace Young (cauldron lighter in 1993) is a close friend and sailor Benedict Tan (above), the 1994 Asian Games champion, is a buddy, both of whom I have enjoyed waxing lyrical about.
I have offered congratulatory handshakes to paddlers Jing Junhong, Li Jiawei and Feng Tianwei (above) many times and admire what they have done for Singapore at multiple Games collectively over the last 20 years.
And I've been "uncle" to torpedo Joseph Schooling (above), whom I first wrote about when, as a five-year-old kid, he was frolicking at the Tanah Merah Country Club's swimming pool.
For their distinguished services to Singapore sport, any of the above names could fit the bill as a torchbearer or cauldron-lighter for the 28th SEA Games, which will be held here from June 5 to 16.
Whether the Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games or SEA Games, tradition has ensured that the torchbearers at the opening ceremony always are star athletes and officials both past and present.
The biggest honour of all is reserved for the lighting of the Games' cauldron and it is always one of the biggest secrets as organisers bid to stoke the excitement among the public right up to the very moment the celebrated individual appears.
Since The New Paper broke the story on May 7 over who could light the SEA Games cauldron when the event opens on June 5 at the new National Stadium, I have engaged in many dialogues and debates about the ideal candidate.
After organisers revealed their strategy of using inter-generational pairs as torchbearers, this paper reported that football icon Fandi Ahmad and his son, Irfan, were the leading candidates to be bestowed this major honour.
Speculation has been rife ever since TNP's initial report, and the likes of Bernard Chan and Nur Marina Chan (swimming), Wong Shoon Keat and Derek (badminton), Kunalan and Mona (athletics) and Siew Shaw Her and Savannah (sailing) have been some of the other names bandied about.
I could even add to the list Tan Eng Bock/Matthew (water polo), as the former was captain (below) of the 1965 team that sparked our invincible gold-medal record, and the latter won 10 gold medals, skippering Singapore on four occasions.
Laced with that is the fact that Eng Bock's uncle Hwee Hock, brother Eng Liang and second son Mark were also national water polo players.
Swimmer Pat, surprisingly, missed out on lighting the cauldron at the three Games Singapore have staged.
With that in mind, she could be the one this time, buoyed by her brothers Alex, Roy and Mark (all SEAP Games gold medallists) and with her niece Nur in the Singapore swimming team for these Games.
However, the favourites are Fandi and Irfan, a father-son pairing that fits the inter-generational aspect and the Games' theme "Celebrate the Extraordinary".
Theirs is a unique story to tell.
That story can be embellished with Fandi's other three sons also creating a buzz on football fields and daughter Iman relishing competing in athletics at the Singapore Sports School.
The Fandi clan also epitomise the organisers' other consideration - the ones who light the cauldron are a pair "who the people would know, recognise and connect with".
In this context, I disagree with my colleague Rohit Brijnath's commentary in The Straits Times last Tuesday, where he said that a footballer would not fit the bill for this honour.
I know Rohit well, we have enjoyed much banter over the years and battled each other in golf, he is an eloquent writer, but in this case, he is off the mark.
Despite all the major individual successes of names like Pat Chan, Joscelin, Ben Tan and the rest mentioned above, none can match the sports fever, buzz and patriotism Fandi inspired in a glittering career spanning 18 years.
Were you there when Fandi made his big breakthrough by donning national colours at age 16, and then started tearing down defences in Singapore and beyond?
I was present when fans flocked by the hundreds to his Kaki Bukit kampung home, just to get his autograph or pose for pictures days before he left for a professional stint at Dutch club Groningen in 1983.
So I know how he moved a nation of sporting fans in our Malaysia Cup heyday.
Were you there when the kampung-boy-made-good scored the winner against Selangor in Singapore's Malaysia Cup triumph of 1980?
I could only watch in awe and admiration at the mastery and wizardry of this god-given talent on that humid day at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
Were you there when Captain Fantastic led Singapore to the historic triumph over star-studded Pahang at the Shah Alam Stadium in the Malaysia Cup final in 1994?
I was sucked into the electrifying atmosphere and celebrated with about 50,000 Singapore fans who made up 70 per cent of the total attendance in the away match.
In Fandi, we are talking about a sports - not just football - icon who had the distinction of scoring a Uefa Cup goal against Italian giants Inter Milan.
And a superstar who was a major reason for the Kallang Roar at our National Stadium for 15 years.
Countless times while playing for foreign teams, he has answered the nation's call to return and boost our sides in major tournaments.
Now he is contributing further to Singapore sports as the coach of the LionsXII in the Malaysian Super League.
I am gloating about a football legend whose father, Ahmad Wartam, played for the national team, whose uncle, Abu Sujad, also donned national colours, and whose eldest son, only 17, is set to make his SEA Games debut for the Singapore Under-23 team.
Here, I am also revelling in the story of a Singaporean who used to sell nasi-lemak as a kid to help his parents make ends meet, and later became the nation's first millionaire footballer.
Fandi has not won a SEA Games gold, neither have our football teams.
Negatives? Nah. For football is a team sport, where one individual can only do so much.
Fandi's SEA Games record reads: Nine appearances, scorer in all three semi-finals that Singapore won (including the winner over Indonesia in 1989), banging home the equaliser in the 1989 final before they went down 3-1 to Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, and winning three silvers and three bronzes.
Not convinced? Then savour this: For almost two decades, he was the nation's pride, our No. 1 sportsman.
Give him the honour of lighting the cauldron on June 5, it will be all the more sweeter with Irfan alongside him.
Fandi deserves this highest accolade.
- The writer is Consulting Editor of The New Paper, who has covered the SEA Games "live" on five occasions and 18 other times as a writer/columnist.
"For almost two decades, he was the nation’s pride, our No. 1 sportsman. Give him the honour of lighting the cauldron on June 5, it will be all the more sweeter with Irfan alongside him. Fandi deserves this highest accolade."
- Godfrey Robert, on Fandi Ahmad