Football: Hassan Sunny set to earn 100th cap in match against India

Singapore national team goalkeeper Hassan Sunny will become the second local custodian and 15th Lion to reach 100 caps. PHOTO: FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - Whenever Hassan Sunny trains at the Geylang Training Centre, he would pass by pictures of Singapore football centurions in the dressing room, including one of 105-cap David Lee, the only goalkeeper in the group.

He would say to himself: "One day I will be up on that wall too, and be an inspiration to future generations of national players and goalkeepers."

Hassan's wish is set to be realised during Saturday's international friendly against India in Vietnam, when he will become only the second local custodian and 15th Lion to reach 100 caps (see below).

The 38-year-old told The Straits Times: "It was something unimaginable at the start because only one goalkeeper starts for every game and I have also had so many setbacks - I was on the bench for four years, injured for two years and had almost another two years of international inactivity because of the pandemic.

"To finally earn my 100th cap will be a moment of great honour and meaning for everything I have put into this football career."

Hassan's career between the sticks is as unlikely as it was unimaginable. Growing up in Whampoa, he used to play basketball and participate in the long and high jump as a schoolboy. He started playing football only when he was 12.

Even then, he was a midfielder, whose claim to fame was scoring straight from kickoff in an inter-school match for May Primary School.

But frequent asthma attacks meant he was deployed as a centre-back, which required less running, with the Sembawang Rangers Under-14s.

His conversion into a custodian was just as accidental. Dropped during a trial with Tampines Rovers U-14s as an outfielder, he joined the goalkeeper queue, borrowed gloves from another boy and got selected, he presumed, because of his ability to kick the ball a long way.

Hassan then played in goal in a national street soccer competition and was spotted by then National Football Academy U-16s coach Robert Lim. It was at the NFA where his goalkeeping career took flight under the former Lion Lee Bee Seng.

"He really shaped me as a player and as a person," said Hassan, now a father of four. "He showed no mercy during training, and at least twice a week, I would finish the session crawling to the sidelines to get a drink. I used to think a goalkeeper's job was easier until I trained with him, but this made me a better player, and I learnt the values of hard work."

In 2003, he joined Geylang International and played 31 league games as the club kept 12 clean sheets and he earned a Young Player of the Year nomination as an 18-year-old.

The following year, he was drafted into the national team by Radojko Avramovic and made his senior debut coincidentally also against India.

Hassan would learn about the cruel realities of sport that year after a 7-0 loss to Oman.

"I remember the ball was like a plastic ball with weird trajectories and every shot from every angle and distance went in," he recounted. "The media was harsh, I cried, and for months I had trouble sleeping before I recovered from that misery."

He remained in Singapore's 2004 and 2007 Asean Football Federation Championship-winning squads as second choice to Lionel Lewis, but it was not all smooth-sailing even when he started in 2010, as the Lions crashed out at the group stage.

A serious knee injury ruled him out of the 2012 edition, where Izwan Mahbud rose to prominence as Singapore secured a fourth Asean crown. Hassan regained No. 1 status for the next four tournaments, but the Lions exited at the group stage each time until a semi-final appearance in 2021.

Philosophically, he said: "Every goalkeeper will tell you they experienced more failures than success, because one mistake will cost one point or three. It's a difficult job, but I love the challenge."

It is not like his long career has been devoid of achievements. He won the S-League with Warriors FC in 2014, when he also became the first, and to date only, goalkeeper to be named Player of the Year.

He then became the first local goalkeeper to play in Thailand's top tier when he spent the next two years with Army United. In 2016, he was ranked 18th by The Telegraph, a British newspaper, in its list of the world's top 20 goalies.

Hassan then won the Singapore Premier League title with Lion City Sailors in 2021.

Add to that his most memorable international match - the 4-2 defeat by Indonesia on Dec 25 in which he earned praise for making 10 saves to help the nine-man Lions force extra time before he was also sent off - and Hassan seems to be getting better with age.

He laughed as he said: "I don't think about my age when I play, but I definitely don't recover as quickly as I did when I was younger. Experience helps, but so does maintaining my training levels. If I can do 10 repetitions, I won't settle for four. To improve my recovery, I also switched to a vegan diet in 2019 and I feel clean and strong."

As Hassan hopes for more success in the upcoming SPL finale, Singapore Cup and AFF Championship, a by-product would be overtaking Lee as the most-capped Singapore goalkeeper. But that is not enough.

He added: "I want to play until I'm 40, and if I still feel I can contribute, I will continue.

"If not, I would be available to share my experiences on the pitch and continue to reply to young players asking me for advice on social media as it is an honour to be a role model for the next generation of local footballers."

Lions centurions

Daniel Bennett: 142

Baihakki Khaizan: 140

Shahril Ishak: 138

Khairul Amri: 132

Malek Awab: 121

Aide Iskandar: 120

S. Subramani: 115

Hariss Harun: 114

Indra Sahdan: 113

Safuwan Baharudin: 108

Samad Allapitchay: 105

David Lee: 105

Nazri Nasir: 104

Fandi Ahmad: 100

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