Ken Ilso targets 20 goals for Kedah, ready for latest Asian chapter
He will miss his monthly trips to eat Hot Pot with his Chinese friends at Hai Di Lao, but Danish import Ken Ilso says that he is excited about joining reigning Malaysia Cup champions, Kedah.
The former Bundesliga striker's switch from Singapore's S.League to the Malaysia Super League was confirmed this week ahead after impressing coach Tan Cheng Hoe.
Ilso, who spent the last two seasons with Home United, will effectively fill the shoes of New Zealand forward Shane Smeltz, who made a big impact during his four-month stay with the Canaries, scoring 11 goals in all competitions.
"Kedah is a team with good ball possession, and a huge fan base. That along, with the interest shown in me since July, made me want to try out the MSL," Ilso told ESPN FC.
"It was very difficult to leave Singapore because I have so many friends there and it really felt like home. But I was thinking for quite a while that it might be time to change path."
Ilso's footballing path began in his hometown of Copenhagen, but his talent was spotted by the age of 17 when he was signed by Dutch club, Heerenveen.
The highlight of his career was three years with Fortuna Dusseldorf, including the 2012-13 season in the Bundesliga. Playing up front for a lower-table German club can be a thankless task, but Ilso says he grew enormously, as he faced up to the likes of Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski and Marco Reus.
He scored 13 goals in 71 matches for Fortuna, including seven in 16 games in the 2010-11 campaign.
Ilso's pathway to Asia was through Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League. But after only 10 games and two goals in the 2014 season, he was cut by the CSL club and found himself at Home United in the S.League. Ilso knew Dirk Schauenberg, Home United's German-born head of sports performance, from their time together at Fortuna Dusseldorf.
"I had a feeling inside, a feeling telling me to get out of Europe. Try something new. Learn something new. Experience a whole new world. And so I did," he said.
"In my earlier years, I found the history and culture of China interesting and was studying Chinese culture and history at a university in Denmark. I thought: 'Why not experience other cultures while playing football?' This is something I will never regret."
When Ilso played his first matches for Home in the 2015 S.League season, it was clear that he was a cut above most of the other imports. Not just a box striker, he dropped deep to be involved, and have play go through him.
His best assets are that he is quicker with the ball than without, can take on defenders one-on-one, and is able to shoot powerfully with both feet.
In 52 appearances in all competitions for Home United, he scored an impressive 36 goals, and was nominated for 2015 Player of the Year.
Some fans wondered why a player of Ilso's calibre would be plying his trade in Singapore where the wages are known to be modest. Malaysian salaries are better, but nothing like China, Japan, or even Thailand, where Ilso considered moving two years ago.
But the former Denmark youth star bucks the stereotype by saying that professional footballers care more than just about the money.
"The cost of living here is less than many other places, but this trip to Asia has not been a trip about finances. This is still a trip about adventure, exploring and learning from different cultures," he said.
After living in slick Singapore, adjusting to his new home of Alor Setar in the far northwest of Malaysia, near the border of Thailand, may take some time. Known as the rice bowl of the nation, the state of Kedah is a long way off the normal Southeast Asian tourist trail.
But as Kedah look to build on last season's Cup success and third-placed finish, Ilso is targeting an ambitious return of 20 goals, a trophy and a place in the MSL top two -- for his latest Asian adventure.
"I had a longing for the kind of life in Asia where often there is some kind of order in chaos. I'm not done with Asia yet."
Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.