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    Chinese Soccer Has a New Hero: Singapore’s Veteran Goalkeeper

    China looked set for yet another disappointing exit from the World Cup qualifiers. Then, an unlikely hero came to their rescue.
    Jun 12, 2024#sports

    It looked like China’s hopes of World Cup qualification had been dashed yet again.

    Entering the final round of fixtures in the second group phase of the Asian qualifiers, the Chinese men’s national team only needed a draw against South Korea to advance to the knockout stage. They didn’t get it.

    South Korea eased to a 1-0 victory in Seoul on Tuesday evening, meaning that China would be eliminated if Thailand managed to win against Singapore by a margin of three goals later that night.

    Few Chinese fans held out much hope. Thailand were at home, desperate to qualify, and facing a Singapore side that had nothing to play for having failed to win a single game in the group.

    But then, up stepped an unlikely savior: Singapore’s veteran goalkeeper, Hassan Sunny.

    Thailand piled the pressure on Singapore in the second half, but Sunny had one of those nights where he seemed almost clairvoyant. The 40-year-old pulled off a remarkable 11 saves to keep the score 3-1.

    The final whistle in Bangkok triggered frenzied celebrations in China. Thanks to Sunny, the Chinese national team had squeaked through into the next round by the tiniest of margins.

    China and Thailand finished the group with identical points and goal difference, the Chinese advancing thanks to a slightly superior head-to-head record. Just one more goal for Thailand would have been enough.

    Until last night, the vast majority of Chinese soccer fans had likely never heard of Sunny. The Singaporean is a legend in his home country, having represented the national team for years. But he’s far from a global star. He plays for Albirex Niigata in the Singapore Premier League — and runs a food stall selling nasi lemak and other Malay dishes in his spare time.

    But the keeper has now become an overnight folk hero in China. On Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, the Singaporean Embassy’s feed has been flooded with comments from soccer fans asking the diplomatic staff to pass on their thanks to their “savior.”

    “Tonight, thanks to your outstanding soccer team, I have experienced unparalleled joy,” one fan posted. “For a long time to come, my happiness will be associated with Singapore.”

    Many fans have gone even further in their attempts to thank Sunny. Some online sleuths managed to track down the goalkeeper’s food stall in central Singapore and posted its details on Chinese social media.

    Fans then began posting positive ratings for the food stall on the listings platform Dianping. Some even placed orders remotely via Alipay, using a photo of the store’s QR code that someone had posted online.

    One fan from Shanghai told domestic media that he had transferred 50 Singaporean dollars — equivalent to 268 yuan or $37 — to Sunny’s stall. “It’s quite an auspicious number,” the fan said. “As a repayment for all the emotions I’ve experienced from supporting the Chinese national team, I’d say it’s money well spent!”

    After the game, Sunny filmed a video thanking China’s fans for their support. “Thank you, China,” he said.

    As of Wednesday, Sunny’s food stall — Dapur Hassan — has received around 1,000 reviews. Many of them have titles such as “Best Goalkeeper Sunny” and contain screenshots of the fans’ remote Alipay payments.

    “Thanks a lot. You saved the Chinese team from the ICU,” read one review. “Thanks for your world-class performance. Your restaurant should be no. 1 in Chinese fans’ hearts,” read another.

    Liu Yi, another fan from Shanghai, told Sixth Tone that the idea of sending remote payments to Sunny may seem “excessive,” but that he still felt compelled to express his gratitude to the keeper.

    Liu, 40, said that he had bookmarked Dapur Hassan on his phone, and plans to pay a visit when he travels to Singapore with his sons this summer. “I’ve always been hesitant about visiting Singapore since it’s considerably more expensive than other Southeast Asian countries,” he said. “But now, to personally thank Sunny, it’s a must-go.”

    China must still negotiate several knockout ties if it is to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, to be held in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. History is not on their side: China has only previously qualified for a single men’s World Cup — the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea.

    Like many veteran Chinese fans, Liu has endured numerous letdowns over the years, and has learned to temper his expectations. Yet, he’s still holding out hope that the team can make it this time — hopefully without the help of another Sunny.

    “I just hope that we earn our place there through our own performances, not by relying on others’ results,” he said.

    (Header image: Chinese soccer fans watch the 2026 World Cup qualifier match between China and South Korea at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2024. VCG)