I want to reach a new level, says Ilhan Fandi as he joins Albirex Niigata, Latest Football News - The New Paper

I want to reach a new level, says Ilhan Fandi as he joins Albirex Niigata

Ilhan Fandi will take his dance moves - and attacking talents - to Albirex Niigata after signing his first professional contract with the four-time Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions until the end of the season.

The forward, 19, is nursing an ankle injury, which has ruled him out of next month's Hanoi SEA Games, but is raring to play for the White Swans.

He told The Straits Times: "I want to reach a new level and this is where it starts. I still have many areas to mature in, and learning from the Japanese will be good for me. After playing four seasons with the Young Lions, this is the right time to step out of my comfort zone and express myself in a different club.

"I'm looking forward to training and playing alongside players such as Tadanari Lee and Kodai Tanaka. I want to learn from them and fine-tune details like positioning and finishing and score as many goals as possible for my new club.

"I don't think language will be a barrier because football is a common language. And just like football, dancing is a form of expression for me and I would love to celebrate with the passionate Albirex fans as soon as possible."

Ilhan, the third son of Singapore great Fandi Ahmad, made his SPL debut in 2019 and scored on his first start, incidentally against Albirex, who eventually won 4-1.

Since then, he has grabbed 13 goals in 33 games, a better strike rate than his older brothers, striker-turned-defender Irfan (eight in 43) and forward Ikhsan (eight in 34), managed during their time in the SPL.

His siblings, now playing for Thai giants BG Pathum, are his source of motivation, but Ilhan recognises he needs to work his way up just like they did.

The Karim Benzema fan, who has two goals in three matches this term, said: "It's inspiring to see them play and do well in the AFC Champions League, which is the highest level of Asian club football. I want to follow in their footsteps and play overseas, but it is still not the right time now.

"At the moment, I'm not yet ready for a top regional club yet. I want to prove myself at Albirex, complete matches, and get to 10 goals.

"In the longer term, I could try to play at a lower level in Europe first like Ikhsan did. He did well in Norway and you can see the difference after he came back. I would like the same sort of exposure if the opportunity comes."

Hard work is something he is used to. He was 1.32m and 32kg when he was 10, but shot up to 1.77m and 63kg in six years thanks to a well-managed diet and gym regimen.

Even during his National Service - his operationally ready date was Wednesday (April 20) - he kept up his thrice-a-week, 75 minute-per-session routine, and grew further to 1.83m and 73kg.

"In NS, I ate a lot," he said with a laugh.

"Juggling football and NS wasn't easy, but it's about how you manage it with discipline. My camp was supportive and I'm grateful to grow stronger physically and mentally."

Ilhan Fandi is nursing an ankle injury, which has ruled him out of next month's Hanoi SEA Games. PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEO SHENGWEI/PLAYMAKER

His versatility - he can function as a striker or playmaker - will come in handy for Albirex, who are fourth and looking to close a six-point gap on leaders Lion City Sailors. Albirex's last league title was in 2020.

Their coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga said: "Ilhan has a lot of potential, I hope he can help make a difference for us in the attacking phase.

"We are offering him the chance to grow with us and hope he can play around the world later on. We have been exposed at the individual level at times, and as a team, we also have some unfinished business. We will work on these areas and improve."

Ilhan's competitiveness is apparent as he rattled off his extended to-do list - make the Lions squad for the June 8-14 Asian Cup qualifiers and add to his three caps, be fit and ready for this year's Asian Games and next year's SEA Games, and be the first among his brothers to win the SPL.

He added: "Irfan has already won the Thai league with BG, and Ikhsan helped Jerv win promotion to the Norwegian top division. Winning the SPL would be something special and crazy for me, and I can't wait to get started with Albirex."

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