Hassan, Izwan face off as Thai League 2 kicks off
Singapore's top two goalkeepers meet as their clubs Army United and Nongbua Pitchaya clash in Bangkok
As Thai League 2 (T2) teams Army United and Nongbua Pitchaya battle it out in Saturday's (Feb 10) season-opener in Bangkok's Thai Army Sports Stadium, there will be a Singaporean presence in both sides' line-ups.
The Republic's top two goalkeepers, Army's Hassan Sunny and Nongbua's Izwan Mahbud, will be facing off against each other in the opening weekend of Thailand's second-tier league.
It will be Hassan's comeback match in Thailand, having spent two successful seasons with Army United in 2015 and 2016, while Izwan will be making his debut for Nongbua, who won promotion from the third tier in 2016 and finished eighth out of 18 teams in last season's T2, one spot ahead of Army United.
Hassan, who played for Home United last year, told The New Paper: "Everyone at Army United has been talking about this game. But I've faced Izwan many times before, so it's going to be just another game. This time, it's different only because we are in Thailand."
Izwan, who took a pay cut to join Nongbua from Tampines Rovers, was just focused on having a good debut.
He told TNP: "It will be my first game and the team are shaping up very well. Everyone has been working hard in pre-season, and now that the season is starting, everyone is ready to give 100 per cent."
The duo are among five Singaporean footballers playing in Thailand this season. The others are Zulfahmi Arifin (Thai League 1's Chonburi FC), Baihakki Khaizan (Thai League 2's Udon Thani, on loan from Muangthong) and Gabriel Quak (Thai League 1's Navy FC).
Having played in Thailand before, Hassan, 33, readily shared his experience with his national teammates.
Said Hassan: "It's a totally different football atmosphere compared to what we faced in Singapore. And also eyes are on us everywhere and expectations are very high because we are now foreign players at a club. But I feel it will be good for us as this will make us train even harder and be on our toes in every single training session and game."
Izwan's start to life in Thailand has not been easy as he had a corrective hand surgery late last year.
Said the 27-year-old: "Training is more intense over here. I just recovered from injury, so training is hard, but I am adapting to it."
Besides getting used to a higher intensity on the field, the players have also had to adapt to life off the pitch.
For Muslims plying their trade overseas, one of the things uppermost on their minds is the availability of halal food.
As there is only one halal eatery near where Izwan stays in the north-eastern province of Nongbua, he has often prepared his own meals, having learnt to cook from his mum.
He said: "Most of the time, I cook my own meals as there is only one halal stall nearby."
For those who are based closer to Bangkok, there are slightly more options.
Hassan has recommended to his Muslim teammates some eateries that sell nice halal food in the Thai capital.
He said: "I accompanied Zulfahmi to this restaurant in Sukhumvit, as the food there is quite cheap and good. They serve nice local dishes. So it's a good combo.
"I also took them to Chatuchak market which opens only on weekends. There's a good halal chicken rice stall. Typical Singaporeans, we must have our chicken rice."
After joining the Thai league, which has recently exported players to Japan (Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda, Theerathon Bunmathan) and Belgium (Kawin Thamsatchanan), the Singaporeans' appetite for footballing excellence has been whetted too.
Both Hassan and Izwan are hoping to help their respective clubs achieve success this season.
When that happens, there could be an even stronger Singaporean presence in the Thai league in future.