SINGAPORE — A year of anticipation bloomed into reality as Ilhan Fandi made his debut for KMSK Deinze in the Challenger Pro League on Jan 20. The 21-year-old’s European dream, once sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament, culminated in a triumphant 4-0 win over Lierse Kempenzonen.

Emotion flooded Ilhan’s eyes as he spoke, thanking those who were his anchors through the grueling rehab and the agonising wait for his league debut. The journey hadn’t been easy – months of sweat, doubt, relentless training and playing several matches with the club’s Under-21s since August. But in that moment, surrounded by his supportive team, the victory tasted like redemption, a testament to his unwavering spirit.

“Coming from a small country, Singapore, it is a dream of mine and many back home to play in Europe. I am very happy you all support me, even though it was hard for me. I thank you guys, and to the coaches and everyone here, I appreciate your help and this is just the start and I can’t wait to play with you guys more,” said Ilhan as the locker room erupted in applause, and his teammates leaped to their feet to embrace the Singaporean.

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The Singapore national footballer who donned the number 19 jersey, came on as a second-half substitute for hat-trick hero Lennert Mertens in the 85th minute. Midfielder Nicolas Mercier added his team’s fourth goal of the night in injury time to seal all three points for Dienze to cap off a memorable debut for Ilhan.

With the win, Deinze are currently in third place on the league standings with 32 points, one point away from leaders Beerschot and second-placed team Zulte Waregem. Deinze will next face bottom side Oostende on Monday, Jan 29 (3am, Singapore time).

Photo: Facebook screengrab / kmskdeinze

The former Young Lions player suffered the knee injury during Singapore’s goalless draw against Vietnam in their ASEAN Football Federation Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022 Group B encounter on Dec 30 2022. He then underwent a reconstructive surgery, following which he went through a rehabilitation programme for the next six to nine-months.

After a long-layoff, Ilhan returned to the Singapore national football team last October when he was included in head coach Takayuki Nishigaya’s 25-man squad for the two-legged FIFA World Cup and Asian Cup first-round qualifier against Guam. Ilhan played in both matches as Singapore won the first leg 2-1 at the Singapore Sports Hub, and the second leg 1-0 at Guam National Training Center.

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In the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Singapore were drawn in Group C alongside South Korea, China and Thailand. Ilhan featured in the Lions opening two matches in the qualifiers last November. Singapore opened their campaign with a 5-0 loss to South Korea on Nov 16, and went down 3-1 to Thailand five days later.