Hailed as a hero by Chinese football fans, Lions goalkeeper Hassan Sunny gets star treatment in Shanghai

Singapore goalie Hassan Sunny met a local football team, HiKicker Youth FC, at one of CapitaLand's Raffles City malls on June 16. - ST

SHANGHAI: Man of the moment Hassan Sunny got his first taste of what stardom in China is like when he was in town for what has been described as a family holiday over the Hari Raya Haji long weekend.

The goalkeeper of the Singapore national football team arrived in Shanghai on the morning of Sunday (June 16) with his family in tow without much fanfare, but was quickly recognised by fans, who posted pictures and videos of him on Chinese social media.

The 40-year-old found himself at the receiving end of sudden adulation from Chinese football fans after his 11 saves in a June 11 World Cup Asian qualifying match denied Thailand – and granted China – a spot among the final 18.

Grateful Chinese fans soon began showing up at, and cleaning out, his nasi lemak stall in Tampines and even transferred money to the business via its payment QR code.

Ironically, when Singapore played China in Tianjin in March during another World Cup qualifying match, Chinese football fans in the stands were anything but friendly, making anti-Singapore chants.

ALSO READ: Dear Chinese football fans, Hassan Sunny’s 11 saves should be seen in the right spirit

Videos of the war cry went viral, igniting a debate in which many Chinese criticised the fans for displaying poor sportsmanship. China won 4-1 against Singapore in that match.

But the current instant fame has not quite sunk in for the Singaporean footballer, who hit the ground running in Shanghai with a series of appearances at three CapitaLand malls.

“It was unexpected and really huge,” said Hassan in a hastily organised interview by the Singapore property group.

“I don’t even have time to look at what’s in my e-mail. It’s been flooded the past few days. I missed my wife’s messages as well when she texted me.”

CapitaLand wasted no time in capitalising on the goalkeeper’s popularity, inviting him to Shanghai, where it has 13 commercial properties, for a visit.

Puah Tze Shyang, chief executive officer of its investment arm in China, said the company, which marks its 30th year in China in 2024, has “always been a bridge between the two countries”.

The company has 284 properties in China, encompassing business parks, serviced apartments, malls and data centres.

“When we found out Hassan planned to take a family holiday for the long weekend, we invited him to experience Shanghai and meet some of his new fans.”

CapitaLand said it did not publicise Hassan’s tour, but at least 20 fans trailed him from mall to mall, hoping to get his autograph and a photograph with the China-minted celebrity.

Two of them, Haruki Itoshiro, 23, and Mr Zhang Hanyuan, 19, said they found out on social media about Hassan’s whereabouts after fans spotted him.

“I think he has great professionalism. He persevered till the last moment in the Singapore-Thailand match, and you could say he helped China get into the final 18. So I’m very thankful from the bottom of my heart,” said Zhang, a student at Shanghai International Studies University.

Fresh graduate Itoshiro, who has been studying in China for seven years, said he knew of Hassan because of Singapore Premier League club Albirex Niigata, a satellite team of the Japan original.

“There are plenty of opportunities for him in China now. If he wants to open a nasi lemak shop here, he could do well, given his current popularity,” said the Japanese national, who also studied at Shanghai International Studies University.

Hassan will not be able to play for a Chinese professional football team under the current rules of the Chinese Super League, which prohibit teams from hiring foreign goalkeepers.

Asked if Chinese sponsors have come knocking on his door, the sportsman said “no”.

A Chinese-founded cryptocurrency exchange, HTX, announced on June 15 that it had appointed Hassan as “chief safeguarding officer”, but that is still under discussion, he said.

“Nothing has been confirmed yet. My team will do the necessary.”

Hassan’s new managers have made his life easier, he said, since managing his new-found celebrity status had become “impossible”.

They were a visible part of his entourage on June 16, protecting him from fans physically and cutting in during the interview with Singapore journalists when questions about his new account on Douyin – China’s version of TikTok – were asked.

No explanation was given as to why he was not allowed to talk about Douyin.

The goalie was also coy about divulging how much money had been sent by fans through his stall’s QR code, saying it was beyond his control. “I didn’t even bother (to check how much) because it’s not my money,” he said.

However, he added that he had to put a stop to it as he heard there was a scam related to the donations.

Hassan said he will decide in the coming days which charities will be beneficiaries of the sum collected.

In sending Hari Raya Haji greetings to Singaporeans, President Tharman Shanmugaratnam singled out Hassan in an Instagram post for “showing the way” by contributing the money to charity.

“Selamat Hari Raya Haji to all Muslims, and may we all share the same spirit of compassion and sharing,” wrote Tharman.

As Hassan waved and gamely took wefies with a stream of eager snappers, some of whom were heard asking who he was, his wife looked on calmly with their four daughters.

“To be honest, I’m quite surprised and amazed by how the China fans treated him because this is his profession and all along, that’s how he plays,” said Aidah Rahim, 41, who runs their nasi lemak stall, Dapur Hassan.

Hassan himself gave a hint of what could come when he said his Shanghai visit would not be his last.

He has not thought about retirement and, for now, it is “all about doing things to make sure I prolong my career”.

“I’ll come visit again, but I’m enjoying the experience and loving the love.” - The Straits Times/ANN

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Singapore , China , Hassan Sunny , football , Shanghai


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