If you’ve always thought that Fandi Ahmad lives, eats and breathes football, think again.

“If I’m at home, I don’t talk football,” says Singapore’s most famous footballer when I ask if his mind is always on the game.

He hardly watches football on TV, too. He might catch a crucial match, but even then, don’t expect him to stay up for 3am games. “I’m not that type. I’ve been asked a few times to go for a night game and I said, ‘No, no, night I cannot because I will sleep’.”

What he does watch a lot on TV is basketball. “I’m a big fan,” he says, smiling. “I love basketball so much because I learn how they defend. Even though it’s a small area, it’s very tough.”

We’re having lunch and the place is bustling. It’s a hot day and even though a fan is blowing at us, I’m sweating buckets. Fandi, though, is looking cool as a cucumber as he holds court.

Holding court, I think, is an accurate way to describe lunch with him. We’re joined by Dominic Leong, a media officer from the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). When the photographer arrives, Fandi urges him to join us, and so there we are, four pairs of eyes trained on him as he talks. And talk he does.

When I go back and listen to the recording of the interview, I’m struck by how lengthy his answers are – some running up to three minutes – and the range of topics each answer traverses.

A reply to a question on why he’s so obliging with his fans segues into an anecdote about a friend, then to how he has fans in prison, his coaching days, his childhood growing up in Kaki Bukit in Singapore, giving talks to prisoners and, finally, how he visualises goals before a match. The answers are animatedly and charmingly stitched together, although I find myself struggling to follow his train of thought sometimes. In between, he’s distracted by a phone call, people coming up to greet him, as well as people he recognises and shouts out a greeting to.

It’s fair to say Fandi is Singapore’s most famous footballer, if not sportsman.

He joined the national team in 1979 when he was 17. The next year, he scored the winning goal in the Malaysia Cup final where Singapore beat Selangor 2-1. He’s never been out of the limelight since, whether as a footballer – from 1979 to 1997, he made 101 appearances for Singapore and scored 55 goals – businessman, coach, husband or father.

Last October, Fandi, who was then national assistant football coach, was named the FAS’ head coach of youth, a new position. He oversees the development of the youth teams bound for the 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 SEA Games.

He and Leong are already at the restaurant when I arrive, and he greets me with a smile and firm handshake. He’s dressed sportily in a dark blue shirt, black pants and shoes. Time has been kind to him. He’s trim and, save for a smattering of crow’s feet and some white in his goatee, looks younger than his 54 years.

I leave him to order and he gets us a delicious spread of sotong, fish and chicken dishes which arrive in quick succession. He’s in an expansive mood. “Makan first,” he says. “Don’t worry. Anything you can ask. I talk, you all eat. Don’t worry I can talk. Please,” he gestures at the dishes.

He has chosen the restaurant because he has good memories of the area. He used to hang out in nearby Bussorah Street with friends to “makan, talk, talk, talk together, relax”. They were a mix of footballers, artists, politicians and even an Internal Security Department officer.

I ask what it’s like living a life in the public eye. He laughs and says he sometimes feels bad when he’s with friends because they have to wait for him while he talks to his fans. There was a recent match where it took half an hour before he could untangle himself.

There are two reasons he is so obliging with his fans – one has to do with God, and the other with Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona.

“I believe we are born with a purpose,” he says. “He gave me that special talent, I use it, if not I waste it. After that, He gave me this fame, and I try to give to people.”

He goes on to recount how, when he was in his late teens, his team was invited to play in Selangor in Malaysia. Maradona, just two years older than him but already famous, was staying at the same hotel, Federal Hotel.

“We asked for signature, he refused. I was disappointed. Our group, all youngsters, were all disappointed. We worshipped him,” he says. “So I told myself, I cannot do this because, you know, you are born to make people happy. I believe in that. When people see me, they talk to me, even the nonya, the aachi, the makcik, everybody, take photo.

“For me, I (feel) proud not because I take photo but because I know they are happy because they see me. I always try to make people happy. That’s very important for me.”

It’s a belief he tries to pass on to his children and young players. “Don’t walk away when people ask you (for an autograph). Try to do your best, to at least acknowledge,” he says. “They love you because you serve the country, you play, not because you got money or what, but because they are proud of you.”

He continues: “Until today, God willing, so far still busy with signing autographs.” He smiles and repeats: “I believe I was born to make people happy.”

Fandi showing off his Golden Boot trophy for being the Malaysia Cup’s top scorer in 1989.

Does football in Singapore have a future, I ask. After all, we are a football-mad country whose national team ranks a dismal 159 in the world and whose home league has failed to attract audiences.

“At the end of the day, it depends on our organisation of football,” he says, picking his words carefully. “For me, there’s still hope.”

But how can the sport grow? From his rather meandering answers, I distil at least four ways. One, get the right people to run football. “The structure must be strong. The people running it must have that passion and love for the sport and want to provide support for the teams and to lift football up.”

Two, more facilities. He laments how, other than Jalan Besar, there are no stadiums or training centres devoted to football, and that footballers have to share the grounds with other users.

Three, more support for players such as making it easier for them to travel to and from training sessions.

Fandi and Wendy with their children (from left): Ikhsan (then six), Ilhan (then two), Irfan (then eight) and Iman (then five) in 2005. Photo: Filepic

Four, footballers must get exposure overseas. He’s a firm believer that players will learn mental toughness when pitted against better players. When they come back to Singapore, their new attitude will rub off on the rest. “It takes one to help the others, so we need to send a few out.”

We move on to young footballers, a topic he has strong views on. In terms of physical qualities like fitness and strength, they are getting fitter and stronger because of today’s scientific ways of training, he says. But compared with footballers in the past, they lag in technical skills.

“Last time, we don’t need the coach to tell us how to play. They see you cannot play, out straightaway. No chance. But now, we don’t have many skilful, talented players. We have many players, but we don’t have that intelligence.”

Footballers seem to have “lost a lot of creativity”, and he puts it down to how, in the past, 15 to 20 children would be chasing and fighting for one football or basketball, whether in school, the kampungs or HDB void decks. “That’s where you learn your skill automatically.”

In that sense, he says, coaches of earlier years had an easier time. In fact, he believes that if players of that era had the sort of training footballers today get, Singapore would have been one of the top footballing teams in Asia.

He is also perplexed by why there are so many cases of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries among youth players in the last 15 years and wonders if it could be due to the use of synthetic grass on pitches.

“In our day, we never heard of ACL. In the 1980s, 1990s, we got worse tackles, got punched, and the boys, because they played on the street, they learnt all the hard way. But now, I don’t know why so many ACL. It’s a career-threatening injury which no players like, no coaches like.”

I ask about his coaching style and he guffaws: “Me? Not fatherly, definitely not, but a flexible coach. Time to screw them, I will screw. Time to be good to them, I joke with them.”

Fandi going through the religious akad nikah (marriage solemnisation) ceremony with Wendy Jacobs(now known as Nur Sarah Abdullah)in 1996. He praises Jacobs for being very, very understanding and very responsible. Photo: Filepic

Does he think Singapore will ever produce a world-class team? He thinks it is easier to develop a world-class player than a team. “Everywhere there is one. But whether he will make it, outshine others, I don’t know. Even if you bring world-class coaches, you might not succeed. What is important is the player himself, whether he wants to achieve.”

Fandi Ahmad, the family man

His four sons have inherited his football skills. Irfan, 19, and Ikhsan, 17, are now in national service and have done stints in Chile. Ilhan, 14, and Iryan, 10, play for their school. Daughter Iman, 16, was an athlete.

He praises his wife, former model Wendy Jacobs, 42, for being “very, very understanding and very responsible”. She has had health issues following a fall in 2009 when they were based in Indonesia. “Besides loving me, she is very thorough about helping the kids. She makes sure everything happens.”

His day starts early with sending his younger children to school from their home. He’s in the office by about 9.30am for meetings, and there’s training with the youth team from the late afternoon. He reaches home after 10pm most weeknights, and also does training on Saturday mornings. His own exercise of choice is gym work and he reveals that he recently lost 3kg by controlling his meals and is down to about 80kg.

“When I was playing, I was only 74kg. Now much older, very hard, food also nice.” But he has barely eaten at our lunch, and there’s quite a bit of food left.

“All finished?” he asks as the meal winds to a close. When we nod, he says of the remaining food: “I pack, give people.” I wonder what he does with the food and find out later that he gives it to a homeless man.

Is it any wonder, really, that Fandi Ahmad remains Singapore’s favourite football star? – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Sumiko Tan

*This article has been edited for length and clarity.