Hassan set to join centurions club

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.

He would say to himself: "One day I'll be up there 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 box).

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

His 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 when he was only 12.

Even then, he was a midfielder, before frequent asthma attacks meant switching to a centre-back, which required less running.

His conversion into a custodian was just as accidental. Dropped as an outfielder during a trial with Tampines Rovers Under-14s, he joined the goalkeeper queue, borrowed gloves from another boy and got selected, he presumed, because he could kick the ball far.

But it was at the National Football Academy where his goalkeeping career took flight under 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 United, played 31 league games as the club kept 12 clean sheets, and earned a Young Player of the Year nomination as an 18-year-old. In 2004, under Radojko Avramovic, he made his Lions debut, coincidentally also against India.

He then experienced the highs and lows of international football, winning the 2004 and 2007 Asean Football Federation Championships as second choice to Lionel Lewis, but crashing out at the group stage in 2010 as a starter.

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, the Lion City Sailors player 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."

Surprisingly, his most memorable international match was as recent as the last Christmas Day. In the 4-2 loss to Indonesia, he was praised for making 10 saves to help the nine-man Lions force extra time before he was also sent off.

He laughed when it was suggested that he is getting better with age, and said: "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. I feel clean and strong now."

His desire is also undiminished, as he added: "I want to play until I'm 40, and if I feel I can contribute, I will continue."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2022, with the headline Hassan set to join centurions club. Subscribe