Like most Singaporeans, I was surprised to learn that Irfan Fandi had rejected a contract offer from Portuguese Primeira Liga outfit Sporting Braga.
After all, it was a fantastic opportunity for one of Singapore’s brightest young talents – and the son of Fandi Ahmad, no less – to hone his skills and further develop as a player.
Playing in a more competitive environment with much better players – the Portuguese league was where the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe first cut their teeth in top-flight football – would have helped Irfan improve tremendously.
His development, in turn, would have benefited the Singapore national team. Goodness knows, the Lions could do with an improvement in their playing ranks.
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The fact that Irfan was offered a “two plus two”-year contract – this meant he would play for Braga for an initial two years, with the club then having the option of extending his contract by a further two years if they so desired – after just a two-week trial stint also indicated that Braga had seen his potential, and believed they could take him to the next level.
All in, it seemed like a no-brainer for Irfan to join Braga.
Nobody could have predicted that the 21-year-old would turn down the club’s offer.
The main sticking point for the latter reason centred on a clause in his contract which stated that he would have to pay a €15 million (S$23.5 million) penalty, should he decide to leave the club before completing the initial two years of his contract.
Predictably, netizens came out in force to criticise Irfan for rejecting Braga.
Some labelled him “unambitious”, while many others called into question the 1.88m-tall defender’s mental strength.
Even Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, who owns Spanish club Valencia CF, expressed his displeasure with Irfan’s decision. Lim had played a role in helping Irfan secure the initial two-week trial with Braga.
A spokesman from Lim’s office told The Straits Times: “We have been helping local footballers like Irfan look for such rare opportunities to play in Europe. However, we find that our footballers are mentally not ready for the challenge.
“Professional football is very tough and that’s why rewards are very high…there is no easy ride to the top and opportunities are extremely hard to come by. We are very disappointed.”
But, why should Irfan be vilified for rejecting Braga?
Of course, I would have liked for Irfan to join Braga – playing in Portugal would have been an invaluable experience for him, and I believe his subsequent development as a player would have helped improve the standard of the Singapore national team.
What we want, however, is completely different from what Irfan wants. And therein lies the crux of the matter.
This is Irfan’s career. Not ours.
And ultimately, in the cold light of day, all Irfan did was to reject a job offer that he felt wasn’t right for him. Now, how many of us have done that before?
Sure, he was probably offered a higher pay with better terms, and would have had better career prospects had he joined.
But, he would have had to relocate more than 11,000km away – a 14-hour flight – from his friends and family.
He would have been alone in a foreign land, in a quiet, serene city famous for its cathedrals and museums. He would have to adapt to a different culture, a different lifestyle, and even different cuisines. Essentially, he would be living in extremely different conditions from what he is used to in Singapore.
Irfan explained that with the majority of his team-mates at Braga being Portuguese, they would usually “be off with their families” after training, and as a result, he was left “really bored a lot of the time” during his trial.
Is it any wonder that Irfan felt homesick?
Yes, there are those out there who would have no qualms leaving their home country for a lucrative job overseas. But their priorities in life are perhaps different from Irfan, who appears to place a great emphasis on his family.
And, unlike Irfan, they would likely not need to pay S$23.5 million should they quit before the end of their contract, meaning they can leave the company any time they wanted. Can you imagine how it must feel to have the spectre of such a substantial penalty hanging over your head for two whole years?
In addition, the demands of top-flight football are brutal and unforgiving. Factors like injuries, poor form, and demanding fans can take a psychological toll on a player. Without a proper support system, off the pitch – which can be provided by their friends and family – it can be hard for players to perform to the best of their abilities, be it in training or during matches.
It is therefore hard to envisage Irfan fulfilling his full potential at Braga if he was perpetually unsettled and unhappy.
Irfan is also not the first professional footballer to feel unsettled in a different country. Some of the world’s top players, from Argentinian star and English Premier League winner Carlos Tevez, to former Manchester City winger Jesus Navas, to even Liverpool legend Ian Rush, have felt homesick while playing in a foreign land.
All three players eventually returned to play in their home country.
So, far from having a weak will and being a “mummy’s boy”, I daresay Irfan made a mature decision in rejecting Braga. It must have been hard for him to say no to such a tempting offer, but because he knew what exactly he was looking for in his life, and what was best for his career, he decided to take the unpopular choice.
Rejecting Braga does not mean the door to playing top-level football is completely closed off to Irfan. He says he already has two other offers from clubs in Chile – a country where he and his younger brother, Ikhsan, had previously trained and played in for close to three years – as well as several from the Asian region.
Irfan can also take heart from the example set by his national team-mate Hariss Harun, who, in 2013, turned down a move to another Portuguese outfit, Rio Ave, because he did not agree with certain terms being offered to him.
Hariss eventually joined Malaysian side Johor Darul Takzim, and has since gone on to win five consecutive league titles, as well as the prestigious AFC Cup in 2015.
Remember, Irfan is still only 21 years old. He is extremely young in footballing terms, and there will undoubtedly be more opportunities for him to play overseas in one of the top leagues one day.
But – and this is key – that day will only come when he is ready.
For now, let us, as Singapore football fans, continue to show our support for Irfan instead of berating him.
Irfan may have rejected Braga, but when it comes to his life and career, the ball remains firmly in his control.