As he tells me about his childhood—which wasn’t all that long ago—Ilhan Fandi pauses to confirm his whereabouts with his manager, Uncle Adrian. Did he turn 11 living in Indonesia or Singapore? For a brief moment, the two consider Malaysia as well, but no, only his father went to live there, Ilhan refutes. Singapore, we settle upon.
A return to the homeland, in fact, following a four- (or maybe six) year-long stint in Jakarta, during which Ilhan discovered futsal—a variety of football involving smaller teams and a synthetic court. Too young to join the practices, he’d follow along from the sidelines, learning what he could from his elder brothers, Irfan and Ikhsan. It was one of the few times that all three of them shared the field. “I was way younger so I don’t remember too much,” says Ilhan. “[My brothers] would be doing their own training and I’d practise on the side.”
After returning to Singapore, Ilhan doesn’t see his brothers quite as often. By this point, they’re already flourishing in their youth careers. They soon leave for Spain and then a year after, Chile. His father Fandi has moved to Malaysia, following up his legendary career as a player—the first Singaporean to play in Europe—with a respectable one as a coach. Though he’s barely a teenager, Ilhan can already envision his life laid out in front of him. “My family never forced me to play football,” he recollects. “This is what I wanted to do. By the time I reached secondary school, my brothers were already playing overseas and they were doing quite well. I wanted to be just like them.”
At 14, Ilhan’s ambition finds him attending boarding school in the UK. “It was a place which provided a proper pathway for students who wanted to pursue sports,” he explains before he and Uncle Adrian begin reminiscing about the facilities at Queen Ethelburga’s College. They describe a boundless campus with four rugby pitches and half a dozen football fields.
“Didn’t they have the water things too?” asks Uncle Adrian.
“Oh, right. So they had the underwater treadmills, for people who are injured,” Ilhan tells me. “Even our national team doesn’t have those, and that school does. The level is just different.”
Apart from the facilities, the competition is another draw. Ilhan’s father wants him to train with the Europeans. He knows, from experience, the disparate level of skill and talent found in the West. The players there tend to be bigger and stronger. They play a more physical game—they press harder.
"I love the pressure. It motivates me to do better. Without pressure, everything would just be stagnant. It makes me a better player and a better person."
By all accounts then, Queen Ethelburga’s sounds like an ideal place for Ilhan to be, but the fact remains that he’s still quite young, and living by himself for the first time. As his parents head back home after dropping him off, he’s all but ready to go with them. After all, the UK leaves a lot to be desired. Warm weather, familiar food, friends—at this point, Ilhan’s brothers have returned to Singapore too. They’re both playing professionally in the country’s premier league. And his father’s no longer working in Malaysia either. He’s found himself a new position coaching Young Lions FC.
Ilhan’s desire to go home accompanies him throughout his two years abroad, but he comes to see it as a necessary sacrifice. “Not everyone gets the chance to go overseas, and I was fortunate enough that my dad put me in this position. It’d have been a waste if I came back,” he explains. “After a while, the school assigned me a buddy—this really nice Fijian guy—and I started getting used to things. Of course, whenever I came [to Singapore] for holidays, it was tough leaving again because I love it so much here. I kept going though. I knew that I would regret it if I didn’t make the most of this opportunity.”
A month before his seventeenth birthday, Ilhan’s lacing up for his professional debut. He graduated recently too, but that’s no more than an afterthought. Returning home to start as the youngest player on the Young Lions squad—that’s the real culmination of his time spent at Queen Ethelburga’s. Late in September, there are only a few games left in the season, and the team’s grasping at straws, two points away from the bottom of the table.
“I felt the pressure,” says Ilhan. “To ask a 16-year-old to get on the pitch and perform, it’s not easy.” Two minutes into the game, he finds the ball about a yard outside the box. A feint to the right and he sends his defender sliding. Then a roll-over to the left. A second away from being pressed on, Ilhan slots a shot into the top-right corner and leaves the goalie wishing for a ladder. “But I love the pressure,” he tells me after a moment spent in thought. “It motivates me to do better. Without pressure, everything would just be stagnant. It makes me a better player and a better person.”
Though his debut goal ends up being the ‘1’ in a disappointing 4-1 result, Ilhan walks off with his head held high. Coming into the game, he’d been aware of the expectations—those that came with training overseas, those that came with being a prodigy, those that came with being Fandi Ahmad’s son. Anyone watching would agree, he’d done well to rise up to them. “I know how big the [family] name is in Singapore,” Ilhan says. “I just try to carry myself well and do my best. Obviously, there are a lot of people watching so I want to put on a show, but at the same time I know football’s my job and I need to perform well as part of the team.”
Although the league dates are in flux courtesy of the pandemic, Ilhan’s preparing for his third season with the Young Lions now. At 18, he’s a far cry from his 5’8”, 58kg listing on Football Manager. He’s closer to 6’2”, 75, I find out upon meeting him.
It’s a Saturday morning, the start of the weekend — the time which he likes to spend recharging. “Nothing too hectic; I like to chill with some mates,” Ilhan says. Imagine my surprise then as I watch his Instagram stories the same evening, only to find him completing a high-intensity endurance test. Then, a video of him cooling off in an ice bath. I can’t tell if that’s what he meant by ‘relaxing at the pool’.
“I’d like to go abroad,” Ilhan says, as we speak about the predicament of being a footballer in Asia. Despite his love for Singapore, he knows his success relies on him leaving. “It’s [a] good [achievement] for a Singaporean to play in the region and I don’t want to rush into anything, but my dream’s to play in Europe. I’ll keep working hard and see where it goes.”
Alongside playing in Europe, there’s also the dream of playing with his brothers—a dream which might soon turn reality if Ilhan’s able to secure a spot on Singapore’s national team. “I can’t wait to join them,” he lets the confidence slip through his modesty.
Photographs byVanessa Caitlin
Styling byAsri Jasman
Grooming bySha Shamsi