A Chat With Hassan Sunny - Mr. Unbreakable

Photo: Christina Seah-Rodrigues
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

Chris Peng
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

Voices From The Ground: Our writer caught up with Home United and Singapore international goalkeeper, Hassan Sunny, recently. Here were the big man's thoughts.

Chris (C): You've played 14 seasons in the S.League. Compared with the earlier days, how do you feel about the current state of the league?

Hassan Sunny (H): The reduction of the fan base is the biggest change. Back then, when we played in the likes of Woodlands Stadium or Tampines Stadium, we would see crowds of 5,000 and full houses. The interest has definitely dropped. The shrinking of the fan base was a gradual but persistent process. It’s not a see-saw situation. Back then, i definitely enjoyed the S.League. It’s sad to see the fans’ interest fade away but we cannot blame them, everyone plays a big part in the whole situation.
Other than that, i believe that in the past, there were more involvement from the likes of the media as well as the marketing and communications people. For example, there were the likes of S.League related trading cards and stickers being sold at 7-11 stores. Banners were all over the MRT stations as well, now we no longer have that. (Writer's Note: Posters and even video replays still feature at MRT Stations. Just that they are not that common or prominent.)

Now that the new FAS team has settled in, hopefully they can do something about this situation. Our league’s flourish 10 to 14 years ago mirrors what is happening in the Thai League today. Many local Thai Companies and players are doing marketing related work. We need that.

C: I am a Sembawang Rangers fan from the beginning to the end, they featured a host of Thai National players such as Tawan Sripan and Niweat Siriwong. Back then their best players play in the S.League. The tide has turned now.

H: I remember the ‘Tawan is God!’ banner, that kind of thing is not really present nowadays. (Writer's Note: The Hougang HOOLs and Ultras Eagles still do such good work.) We had such die hard supporters!

C: You saw that in Thailand while you were there!

H: I see it everyday.

C: Geylang, Home United and finally Tampines. Of these three big clubs in the league, how do you feel about the fact that all of them rated you at one point or another?

H: We do not have a big pool of clubs in Singapore, we just have to take the best offer on the table. We are not Thailand. They have 18 clubs in the Premier League, 18 more in Division 1. They also have good lower divisions and Regional Leagues. If you can’t play in one club, you can head to another. That’s not possible in Singapore. That being said, i am definitely grateful to have played for all these big clubs.

C: You started playing football competitively since you were 10. What other sports appealed to you?
H: I had many Chinese and Indian friends while basketball was my number 1 sport. I was also part of the Athletics squad but I subsequently focused on football.

C: Basketball and Athletics both involve elements that are in sync with goalkeeping!

H: I represented my school for the high jump event. Ii definitely gained something from that phase of training where it was all about jumping and dynamic movements.

C: Since your happiest football memory was the goal from the halfway line in 1999 and you started off as a midfielder, would you say that your switch to a goalkeeper was in a way unfortunate? Or was it a blessing in disguise?

H: It’s a norm worldwide for goalkeepers to start off as an outfield player, then moving into goal. Germany’s Neuer also played as a midfielder / striker!

C: This question may be of interest to other asthma patients or anyone with a condition. How did you fight it?

H: This has been with me for the past few years, my childhood asthma. I am not reliant on the inhaler, it’s purely preventive. I only take it during cheat days. Let’s say if i took ice cream or had a cold drink, at night i will experience the whizzing sound associated with asthma. I try my best to avoid such situations when i am training or playing matches. I can take good care of myself, rather than to depend on the inhaler to survive.

C: 2014 was a great year for you, winning the S.League and the S.League Player of the year. Was it hard moving to Thailand?

H: On that topic, i was supposed to stay there this year as well, unfortunately, things happened and became messy. Honestly i found it unfair. My contract was supposed to run for another year and i was enjoying my football. That being said, i believe that i have what it takes to play overseas. I am in talks with people in Thailand. Hopefully they can bring me back and we’ll see how it goes.

C: Okay, what about your situation three years ago? Was the initial adjustment difficult?

H: Indeed it was, everything required adaptation. Aspects such as food, environment and culture were all different. I took three months to get used to it. I was away from my family as well. It was a bit tough learning how to cook and how to do my own laundry. I am glad to have went through this phase, it’s through such exploration that we learn a lot of things and grow as a person.

C: On the topic about your wish to return to Thailand, is it okay that I share this with our readers?

H: I am just letting people there know that i am interested to go back. As a former player there, it’s easier for me. There’s nothing concrete at the moment and I'm just waiting for a good offer. I am under a 1 year contract with Home United and i do respect the club. However, i must take care of my own future. It’s the same situation for the other local players. Like i mentioned, there are 40 teams in Thailand but only 5-6 possibilities in Singapore. We are taking care of our rice bowl and fans will understand if they are in our situation.

C: You had a great two years in the 'Land of the Smiles'. Was it hard to get used to the different conditions and standards? Any culture shocks to share?

H: The Thais are staunch Buddhists and are very spiritual. Buddhism is a big part of their lives. I definitely see this among the players at all times, be it before or after training or games.

C: Singapore always produced a good number of top goalkeepers. David Lee, Rezal Hassan, Sharil Jantan, Lionel Lewis and yourself just to name a few. Why do you think this is so?

H: Yes, we had many good goalkeepers. Fandi’s late father Ahmad Wartam comes to mind too. As it is, we have a few good keepers as well, it’s an area on the field where there is nothing to worry about. When i retire, we have Izwan Mahmad and Zaiful Nizam, when they hang up their gloves, we have Syazwan Buhari. The likes of Zarfan Rohaizad is up and coming as well. We can’t say the same for the other positions, we don’t have any strikers other than Fazrul Nawaz and Khairul Amri, it’s a bit disappointing.

C: So why is there such a disparity?

H: I am not sure but back then, we had a good youth system. Plenty of goalkeeping Coaches came to our shores from Europe and shared many good ideas with us. The local Coaches also learnt from them and strengthened our fundamentals. Even now , there is plenty of experience in the goalkeeping department. For example our current coach Frederic (de Boever), it’s something very valuable to us. It’s fortunate for us to have someone like him bringing back plenty of experience from Europe.

C: What was it like, understudying Lionel Lewis and Rezal Hassan?

H: They are completely different people, that much is clear. When i first joined the national team, I was the 5th choice behind Rezal Hassan, Lionel Lewis, Yazid Yasin and (current Home United goalkeeping Coach) Adi Salleh.

Rezel is good with his feet and commanding of his 18 yard box while Lionel is a big game player, he had saved the team from many possible losses. I had the opportunity to learn from these two good keepers. Let’s not forget Sharil Jantan as well, i think i grew up well, learning from these experienced goalkeepers.

Our writer interviewing Hassan at the recent Hyundai roadshow.

C: With midfielder Shahril Ishak, defender Baihakki Khaizan and winger Muhammad Ridhuan, you are part of the 'NFA Gang of Four'. Is this relationship something you hold dear?

H: We grew up together as 15 year olds. Unfortunately we were always split between different clubs and countries. Sharil and Bai went to Indonesia, Ridhuan followed suit while i stayed in Singapore. When I went to Thailand, Sharil and Bai went to Malaysia. While it’s good that we had international experience, it’s sad that we are approaching the end of our careers. Hopefully we will get something nice at the end of it.

C: What made you the player you are today? Is it more of your innate talent or sheer hard work?

H: If we are talking about talent, i had it since i was young, so i think that it’s about sheer hard work. When i was out with 2 years of knee and ACL injuries, people told me that my career was over. I didn’t want to listen to them, i wanted to prove to myself that i am still ‘alive’, fortunately, I managed to come back stronger mentally and physically.

C: I do associate you with mental strength .You left in 2014 as the League’s best player to make a name for yourself in a brand new country. You also had to cope with numerous injuries, quite a few in this season alone. Do you feel that mental resilience is a big part of your psyche?

H: I always told myself that if i can still walk, run and use my limbs, there’s no reason why i can’t be on the field. We are adults and must think like adults. I can understand if a lady needs a break if she’s injured but as a man, i need to harness my mental strength to carry on doing what i need to do on the pitch. Mind over matter. When i was out for two years, i worked a lot with psychologists, nutritionists and dieticians at the Singapore Sports Institute. I had plenty of support and coaching as iIwent along my way.

C: In 2008, you played the first half as part of a Singapore Selection side in a friendly match against the Brazil Olympics Team and made outstanding saves against Diego and Alexandre Pato's shots, letting in only three goals. Did you enjoy the personal glory or the fact that it was a defeat hurt you?
H: Ronaldinho too. At the end of the day, we must know our limits. Folks always say that the sky’s the limit but at the end of the day, we are mere human beings. We make mistakes but we can’t take that as an excuse. We still need to work our way to success. I was very happy with the game despite conceding the 3 goals because we were up against millionaires, they were highly paid, that’s the reason why they did a better job than us. I did my best and made a few saves, an enjoyable experience. When we play such exhibition games, it’s a way for us to showcase ourselves,t o show that we can compete with the best in the world.
C: In the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, you become a subject of controversy after failing to defend your goal post from a Malaysian counterattack. Malaysia, who was leading 1-2 finished the match, scoring an open-goal , making the final result of the match 1-3, You become a subject of parody in the aftermath of the game by Malaysian fans. How did you bounce back from that?
H: To be honest, i wasn’t bothered at all, I faced harsher criticism when i didn’t play well with the national team. I grew up in a tough and difficult football environment. When i played with Rafi Ali and Rezal Hassan, they would curse at me everyday just to make me a better player. They told me off many times just to wake me up and learn to take nothing for granted. With regards to the match versus Malaysia, I saw the video and the comments but I laughed about it. The fans have the right to comment, if i wasn’t in the football scene, i would laugh about it too.

That being said, I chose this life and job, i have to face all these. It doesn’t bother or hurt me emotionally and physically. I always keep my feet on the ground, Even now, i don’t regard myself as the first choice goalkeeper in Singapore. I will always ponder if i will get a call up. I don’t want to give myself too many hopes, i prefer to keep myself on my toes. That’s also how i motivate myself for training and matches. If I take for granted that i will start every game, the excitement and pressure won’t be there. That’s what i have been doing for the past 15 years. I learnt so much from the senior players. They taught me to be alert and humble.
C: On the topic of humility and the senior players. I had a chat with Fazrul Nawaz and he shared with me that as he grew up as a young player, he received a lot of tough love from the senior players. Any stories to share?
H: Well, I had to wash quite a few boots and gloves!
C: In 2016, UK based The Telegraph ranked you #18 on its list of the world's top 20 goalkeepers. You admitted to the Straits Times that you originally thought that it was a late April Fools joke, Do you still feel that that’s the case?
H: I have no idea how they came to that conclusion but to be named along side some of the greats in the game is a great achievement for me. I didn’t know about that until the media notified me. I won’t see it as as success but i will give myself some credit for the hard work I've put in my craft. Since this ranking is on a Global basis, it’s something unbelievable for me.
C: Overall, how would you rate the AFC Cup Campaign? No club ever made it that far via the qualifiers but losing in the ASEAN Zonal Finals must have hurt.

H: Prior to the beginning of the season, we thought that we will make it to the second round of the AFC Cup. To be in the finals was beyond our wildest dreams as we surpassed our initial target. For club and country, we are proud. To put things into perspective, Malaysia’s JDT, a huge South East Asian club, didn’t make it to the finals. As a Singaporean side, we cannot match the budget of Malaysian and Thai clubs and our pride is justified.

C: Hariss Harun won it last year with JDT, it couldn’t have hurt for him to share some tips with you guys?

H: He told us a lot about his experience with JDT. That being said, he was with a different crop of players. While Home United featured Singapore internationals, the level is different. Unfortunately for Hariss, he couldn’t win a back to back AFC Cup title. The last time I played in the Afc, I was with Tampines Rovers and our run was halted at the Quarter-finals stage.  Hence our run this year is a big achievement.

C: The League Cup campaign didn’t go too well either. Your club has the chance to compete with an all conquering Albirex Niigata (S) for the Singapore Cup and the S-League. Do you think that its a good thing to be able to focus on just these 2 tournaments?

H: Albirex has been doing very well for the last few years. Home United is the only club they failed to beat this season. We will be meeting them for the Singapore Cup Semi-finals. I feel that we have what it takes to beat them. The league is not over as well as we do have 2 games in hand. Now, we can really focus on the remaining two tournaments we have a chance to win. Burnley beat Chelsea, no one expected that. That being said, We are not underdogs, we are at a similar level as Albirex. It will be a 50-50 sort of game and we will be going for a win.

C: You better hope that Albirex’s Tsubasa and Inaba get sent off then! (Chelsea had Gary Cahill and Fabregas sent off during that defeat.) Moving on, tell us a little about Coach Aidil (Shahrin)’s coaching style.
H: Hmm, Coach Aidil uses the players’ strength well. We have players who can attack and defend. So i can say he’s smart in a way as he knows how to put the right players in the right positions.

C: You are a very vocal leader on the pitch. How early in your career did you start shouting instructions?
H: I learned all that through Rezal Hassan and the senior players, especially Rafi Ali when I was at Tampines rovers. I was very quiet initially but they noticed that as my biggest weakness. So we worked on it.
C: Your last international honour came ten years ago in the 2007 AFF Championship. Singapore did win the AFF Championship as recently as 2012. As it is, the country is ranked 171th, the same as Laos. What do you think went wrong?

H: The neighbouring countries have been improving tremendously recently. We have to give credit to them. For us, things have not been in a good shape recently but i believe we will improve as a football nation in the upcoming years.

C: Perhaps your years in Thailand made you a fan of Thai food. Care to share with the readers some of your comfort food places?
H: Yes. Initially I was not a fan of spicy food. I couldn’t take chilli at all. But my time in Thailand changed me as I am immune to it now. Usman halal restaurant at Sukhumvit Soi 22  is nice and cheap and the best restaurant for me personally. They serve good food and it is popular among tourists from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.