Friday, May 16, 2014
Football In Hong Kong
I think it is fair to say that when people talk about football in North East Asia, the focus will be on
the region’s powerhouses. South Korea, Japan, China. No one will mention Hong Kong. In fact,
many will be surprised to learn they even play football there, let alone have a thriving league.
But within the game, a few things have been happening up there which are making people sit up
and take notice.
Back in February, South China travelled to Singapore to take on SLeague champions Tampines
Rovers in an AFC Asian Champions League play off.
Tampines are no push overs. They are a side brimming with experience, boasting players like
Aleksander Duric, Mustafic Fahruddin and Shaiful Esah. South China won 2-1 though the home team
did end the game with nine men after having two players sent off.
For Tampines though, worse was to follow. Knocked out of the ACL they entered the AFC Cup
and their first tie came against yet another Hong Kong side...Kitchee.
For much of their history, Kitchee have been just another football club. But the last 10 years have
seen the club become possibly the glamour team of Hong Kong. They have won the First Division
in three of the last four years, finishing runners up in 2012/2013.
They have also added the FA Cup and League Cup as well as becoming regulars in the AFC Cup.
In addition, they have come up against the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in high profile friendlies. In fact, the Arsenal game could give a pointer to the club’s ambition. The money
raised from that game is going towards the development of a youth football training centre with
Arsenal handing over a further donation.
Zesh Rehman knew all this back in 2012. That was when he made the decision to switch the
glamour of Muang Thong United in the Thai Premier League, considered by some to be the best in South
East Asia, for the apparent backwater of Hong Kong.
But Rehman, used to being a trailblazer, had done his research. He was after all the first Asian to
play in the Premier League, with Fulham, and the first Pakistan international to play in the AFC
“I made the move because I wanted to continue playing in The AFC Cup having reached the quarter
final with Muang Thong, at the time Kitchee were looking to secure an Asian foreigner for the
AFC Cup so I guess it was fate. My initial reaction was positive because I had heard a few
whispers of the projects in place there before hand so I was keen to explore the opportunity
The Thai league was booming at the time. Muang Thong and Buriram United had taken the game
to the next level thanks to ambitious owners with deep pockets and crowds were rising.
It certainly seemed an odd move for Rehman to make.
He admits there was interest from elsewhere in Thailand as well as Singapore, Iran and Kuwait but
his research was leading his gut instinct to Hong Kong.
“I spoke to a few people in the region and players/coaches who had worked their previously and
after that my mind was made up. The club had just won the league the season before and had a
superb young coach in Josep Gombau who implemented an injection of flair and skillful football
with his Spanish approach so I was looking forward to working with him.”
From talking with Zesh, you get the impression he is not the kind to rush in blindly to anything.
He has been quoted as saying his “sole purpose in trying to be a success as a professional
footballer is to inspire other Asian players to follow my lead and achieve their goals.”
He is a passionate guy with his own foundation which seeks to “to develop a social inclusion
programme in the UK delivering community based initiatives that focus on using sport as a
pathway and platform for community cohesion, integration and offer pathways into training and
citizenship programmes in marginalised communities and neighbourhoods - working across all
ethnicities and cultures.”
For him, playing in Hong Kong was one more string to his bow. To show that a young Asian kid
growing up on the streets of inner city Birmingham can achieve anything.
Rehman enthused over the way the club was run, making the point that a happy employee was a
productive employee. “Kitchee (is an) extremely professionally run outfit behind the scenes.
Salaries are paid on time every month, the import players and families are taken care of and all
the day to day matters are dealt with efficiently. The boss at Kitchee, Ken Ng and all the staff are
doing a wonderful job for the Kitchee brand and image of Hong Kong football on a regional scale.”
But while Kitchee are planning for the future with their youth training academy, another long term
import had a word for warning for young players in Hong Kong. Speaking with the Hong Kong FA
website, 30 year old Brazilian Roberto Affonso Junior, who has spent seven years with Sunray
Cave JC Sun Hei, says that he was frustrated to see the young players waste their free time
playing with their gadgets.
“Sometimes, I really want to tell the younger players to spend less time on Facebook or Play
Station and focus more on their football careers. Back in Brazil, young players will work hard on
and off the pitch to fight for their own careers or for their families. They all wanted to chase after
something bigger in life and that was why they worked so hard. Over here, there seems to be
virtually no pressure on the players to perform and little competition for places,” he said.
When Kitchee met Tampines in the second group stage game, they again ran out comfortable
winners, putting four past the Stags with no reply, ensuring their place in the group stage of the
Unbeaten after five games, the only points they have dropped came in a surprise 2-2 draw at
home to Indian side Pune.
Their former defender however thinks Kitchee will soon outgrow the AFC Cup. He cites the
cooperation going on behind the scenes with Barcelona, introduced by former coach Gombau, as
one reason for their rise.
“The Barcelona ethos, philosophy, style of play and development of players and coaches is very
evident in the current set up. The local players and coaches are improving vastly and they also get
the chance to go to Spain and get further insight. Next year Kitchee will step up a level in terms of
training facilities so it's definitely a club destined for the AFC Champions League within the
next 5 years,” he stated confidently.
For now, they are impressing in the AFC Cup, Asian club football’s second tier competition.
Kitchee host Arema on Wednesday at the Mongkok Stadium and while the Malang side can
probably count on a reasonable support from Indonesians based in Hong Kong, coach Suharno
knows his players will need to be at the top of their game if they are to return south with anything
from this game.
COMMENT - This piece was written before Kitchee finished their group stage games in the AFC Cup with the last paragraph added. It first appeared in the Jakarta Globe...it is their headline, not mine!