National Team - Lions ● Sep 25, 2022
Super Hassan Sunny is a Singapore centurion
Baihakki Khaizan and Hariss Harun present Hassan Sunny with a memento to mark his 100th Singapore cap, 24 September 2022
HO CHI MINH CITY, 25 SEPTEMBER 2022 – In February 2004, two months shy of turning 20, Hassan Sunny made his international debut for Singapore.
Last night, 18 years and 218 days on from that World Cup qualifier against India in Goa, he came full circle by earning his 100th cap against the same opponents.
With his appearance at Thong Nhat Stadium in a 1-1 draw, Hassan became the 15th Lion to hit the century mark after Daniel Bennett (142 caps), Baihakki Khaizan (140), Shahril Ishak (138), Khairul Amri (132), Malek Awab (121), Aide Iskandar (120), S. Subramani (115), Hariss Harun (115), Indra Sahdan (113), Safuwan Baharudin (108), David Lee (105), Samad Allapitchay (105), Nazri Nasir (104) and Fandi Ahmad (100). The 38-year-old also became only the second goalkeeper after Lee to achieve this landmark for Singapore, and the 58th internationally.
“It has been a long journey, man,” he reflected to FAS.org.sg. “I am thankful that I am still part of the National Team and I think it is all down to patience and hard work.”
Hassan has had to bide his time for much of the earlier part of his career, with plenty of time spent playing second and third fiddle in the national team and a nightmarish 14-month spell out on the side-lines due to two consecutive anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries.
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He was not even a goalkeeper to start with when he went for selection trials as a 14-year-old at Tampines Rovers. Having been cut from the outfielders, he noticed that the queue for goalkeepers consisted of three boys and figured he had a better shot. Borrowing the gloves of one of the boys, he ended up making it to the team as third-choice.
An athlete in the high jump, long jump and sprint disciplines during his days at May Primary School, he also played basketball. Football came into the picture at 12 and he started off as a striker. “I did not score, so I got pushed back into midfield,” he laughed. He retains fond memories of captaining the team and scoring from kick-off in one match. Later on, the discovery of childhood asthma necessitated a further shift to centre-back.
Hassan’s first big break came after winning a street football competition at 15, having formed a team to take part with his friends. As Singapore’s representative team for the grand finals in London, a coach was appointed to lead them. That turned out to be Robert Lim, who brought him into the National Football Academy (NFA) fold. Under the guidance of Lim, R Suriamurthi and goalkeeping coach Lee Bee Seng, Hassan flourished alongside the likes of Baihakki, Shahril and Amri as part of the pioneer NFA batch.
“I have a lot of memories of that time,” Baihakki recalled. “Before games, he would annoy us because he would keep watching videos of Peter Schmeichel in order to learn from him! He was known for doing the simplest things to the best of his ability – things that might look unnecessary to us, but which he would take seriously.
“His mindset and mentality is out of the world. Reaching 100 caps is well-deserved for him, because he went the extra mile; he has had many pitstops in his career but he always had the will to keep going. I am very proud of him.”
Those hurdles include having to compete with the likes of Rezal Hassan, Lionel Lewis, Shahril Jantan and Izwan Mahbud for the right to keep goal for Singapore. While his batchmates racked up the caps and hit the century mark way earlier, Hassan has had to be patient, even as he performed well at club level.
His maiden professional season at Geylang United in 2003 saw him make 31 appearances in the S.LEAGUE as they finished second, earning him a Young Player of the Year nomination along with eventual winner Baihakki. Impressed, Radojko Avramovic involved him in the Singapore side and gave him his debut the following year. “I was very nervous before the match and I went to the toilet many times,” he chuckled. “It was more of the fact that I was playing with senior players like Aide Iskandar and S. Subramani, but that helped to build my mental strength because they went hard on me.”
Strong competition meant that he was on the bench for the most part of the next three years, but Hassan never complained.
“You have to understand that only one goalkeeper will play and you have to accept that, that is the most important thing,” he asserted. “If you do not play, it is your chance to prove to the coaches that you deserve to play, and at the same time, you have to support the goalkeeper that is playing… That was something I realised and accepted early on.”
That mental fortitude is how Hassan has overcome challenges – not least the successive ACL injuries that he suffered on his right knee, first in May 2011 with Tampines Rovers during a match and then in March 2012 with Warriors FC in training.
“Every time I achieve something now, I will reflect on that period where I spent two years out,” he said. “Many people came to me and said ‘you will not make it, you will stop football after this’. I do not think anyone who told me that at that time would believe that I can reach 100 caps now.
“I was in the gym from eight to five every day for two years. When I had the second one, I knew what to do. After surgery, the next day I was in the gym at 7.30 am because I knew the work started now.”
2013 was Hassan’s comeback year and it was a difficult one, as he did not perform to his best and was out of shape. But he finally regained top form in 2014 and led Warriors, who finished seventh the year before, to the league title and became the first – and to date, only – goalkeeper to be named Player of the Year.
The region took notice and Hassan moved to Thailand for two seasons (2015 and 2016) with top-flight side Army United, becoming the first local goalkeeper to do so. He excelled, so much so that British newspaper The Telegraph placed him 18th in their list of top 20 goalkeepers worldwide in 2016.
Hassan notes that that stint “changed” his life, as he learned to become both a better player and person. The different football culture and environment taught him to adopt a more positive form of communication and to give credit to team-mates when they do something well.
The Lion City Sailors star added that it was around the same time that the role of goalkeepers started to evolve. He spends time daily watching video clips of top goalkeepers as well as analysis from the club so that he can improve. “Before, it was more about strength, like how far you can kick; now it is all about building up from the back,” said Hassan, who regards Manuel Neuer as the perfect example of the modern goalkeeper. “The pace is different now, it is faster and you have less time to think on the field. So, I had to make a lot of adjustments.”
The changes extended to his recovery routines too, as he got older. Much of it, such as yoga, was integrated into Hassan’s programmes during his rehabilitation period from his ACL injuries, where he consulted nutritionist, psychologists and physical conditioning coaches. In 2019, he switched to a vegan diet.
“I do regret that I did not live the life I am living now during my younger days,” he said. “Three years ago, I made a promise to myself that I will do whatever it takes to prolong my career. Hopefully with these changes, I can extend my career for a few more years.”
Lions captain Hariss Harun added: “He is in amazing shape and I believe he can go for a few more years… I rate Hassan as one of the best goalkeepers I have played with because of his longevity and how he carries himself, takes care of himself. When we have him on the pitch, he gives the team a lot of confidence and security, and I am really happy to see him achieve 100 caps.”
There is no end date in sight for Hassan, who hopes to be able to enjoy more moments like the “emotional” second-leg semi-final at last year’s ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup 2020 against Indonesia, where he put in a heroic performance despite eventual elimination and saw the Singapore crowd come together to acknowledge the Lions’ spirited display.
The father of four is still fueled by the “extra energy” from donning the Singapore jersey, as well as the unwavering support from his family – in particular his father, who has watched all of his matches, rain or shine.
“I will not let people tell me what to do,” Hassan mused. “As long as my body tells me that I can go on, I will give everything that I have. At this stage of my career now, it is all about taking good care of myself off the field and then on the field, to enjoy every minute as much as I can.”