Singapore football legend and father of 5 Fandi Ahmad talks to Sassy Mama about parenting active kids (and keeping his own successful kids humble)
There are very few people in Singapore who can get away with going by just one name, but Fandi – the first Singaporean footballer to play in Europe, the three-time captain of Singapore’s National Football Team, and the current coach of the Young Lions – is definitely one of them.
A superstar with humble beginnings – he grew up in his family’s HDB and sold nasi lemak to earn money to buy a soccer ball and cleats – Fandi played in Holland’s premiere soccer league in the 1980s and also earned 101 caps for the Singapore National team between 1979 and 1997.
Along the way, he married South African model Wendy Jacobs, and together they’ve raised five children who are all making waves of their own: their two oldest sons, Irfan and Ikhsan, are promising professional footballers themselves, and daughter Iman is a university student with a burgeoning modeling career. Fandi says even their youngest son Iryan (12) aspires to play professional rugby in his mother’s native South Africa.
By all accounts the Fandi kids are kind, humble, and hard-working (just like their papa!), despite growing up as the closest thing Singapore has to the Beckhams. We recently caught up with Fandi, who’s serving as a spokesperson for Singapore Tourism Board’s new Action Seekers campaign, to get his tips on getting your kids into sports, instilling a strong work ethic and – most importantly – ensuring they have fun playing sports. Read on for his proven wisdom!
Growing up here in Singapore, what lessons did you learn that helped you develop a love for sports?
Back in the 60s and 70s, we were always free to go anywhere – to kick any ball anywhere. There’s a bit more restriction now, but I think in our days, football brought us together – as a family, as friends. I lived in a village where my dad [who also played on Singapore’s National Football Team] would gather all the kids and train them, and run them around. It wasn’t easy like it is now – we had to work really hard for everything. We’d pool every 5 cents, 10 cents just to go buy a plastic ball. I used to sell nasi lemak and fruit just to buy a ball and boots.
My dad worked in a hospital, so my sister and I spent a lot of time on our own. We were very independent at a young age, but also learned a lot from our family about how to lead a low-key, humble lifestyle.
My father and uncles were all footballers, I definitely grew up in a football family and always wanted to play. When I was 11, I told my parents, I want to be a professional footballer. Back in those days we had no idea how that could happen. But when I was 16, I was in training, and suddenly the doors opened: this Ang Moh Dutch guy came to the training and asked, Do you want to go to Holland to play football for Ajax?
I thought it was a joke! I thought he must be kidding. I had to turn it down at the time because of school and National Service, but growing up in Singapore was wonderful. [And Fandi did make it to Holland, when he was 21!]
How do you think the sports scene in Singapore has changed?
Kids now love to jump; we climbed coconut and rambutan trees. In school we played basketball, we played athletics like high jump. Everything! In Singapore at that time, everybody loved sports, but today, there are so many different kinds of sports! Look at this guy [Singaporean esports champion Ho Kun Xian] – how famous he is! It’s amazing to see how things have changed.
Your kids have been raised in such a different environment; Singapore has changed and modernised, and of course they’ve grown up traveling the world with their famous parents. How do you keep them humble, and focused on their love of sports?
The #1 piece advice I’ve always given them is, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, there will always be someone else who is better than you. But just remember – and this is what I tell all the kids I meet in my coaching – If you’re humble, you won’t stumble.
Because even if you do stumble, there will always be someone there to believe in you and lift you up. I mean today, I’m 56 years old and people still recognise me around Singapore and the region. I’m very, very blessed, due to God-given talent and discipline. I think life is about “The 3 D’s”: Discipline, Determination, and Dedication.
And then the small ‘s’ which is almost as important: sacrifice.
I always remind my kids: be humble, respect teachers and coaches, your elders. Whatever you can do, there is always more to learn, especially if you stay humble.
How do you share your love of sports with kids?
I used to coach kids at my own academy, and there’d be lots of parents there who loved sports, who loved watching Singapore Football in the 70s and 80s when we had a lot of success. So I knew about my own action and talent, but also told them, we had to work hard to make it better. When I go into the field, my job is to play well for the team. And my job is to entertain, because they paid good money to watch! And I want the fans to remember the one or two moments that will stay with them: that bicycle kick or scissor kick that will keep them up at night with a smile!
I would always visualise the night before a game; the field, and the goal. This is one I always tell my kids: you must have that vision, you must play with a lot of passion, and lots of creativity.
What’s harder for you: coaching your own kids, or watching someone else coach your kids?
Coaching your own kids is really tough, because they might have different sensitivities. Like last season, I coached two of my sons on the Under-23 team. Because I know their character, I knew I could not shout. The older one, I cannot shout at him. The younger one, I can shout at him! But you have to be very disciplined; at home I can be their dad and praise them or give them a hard time, but on the field I don’t want to embarrass them.
I always tell them: When you are on the field, you are my players, not my kids. So it’s not easy to coach your kids!
Kids today are so lucky to grow up in such a dynamic and exciting environment. They love sports, they know it will keep them strong and healthy. It will keep them from going astray. They can just have fun with it!
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Fandi. We can’t wait to see what glory your kids bring to Singapore!