Hong Kong. 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 and 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 traveled to Singapore to take on the city-state's S.League champion Tampines Rovers in an AFC Asian Champions League playoff.
Tampines is no pushover. It is a side brimming with experience, boasting players like Aleksandar Duric, Mustafic Fahrudin 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, it entered the AFC Cup and its first tie came against yet another Hong Kong side, Kitchee.
For much of its history, Kitchee has been just another football club. But the last 10 years have seen its become a contender for the glamor team of Hong Kong. It has won the Hong Kong First Division League in three of the last four years, finishing runner-up in the 2012/2013 season.
Kitchee has also added the FA Cup and League Cup as well as becoming regular in the AFC Cup.
In addition, it has 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 center 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 glamor 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 English Premier League, with Fulham, and the first Pakistan international to play in the AFC Cup.
“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 further,” Rehman said.
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 admitted that there was interest from elsewhere in Thailand as well as Singapore, Iran and Kuwait, but his research was leading his gut instinct to point toward Hong Kong.
“I spoke to a few people in the region as well as players and coaches who had worked there 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,” Rehman said.
From talking with Rehman, one gets the impression that he was not the kind to rush blindly into 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, who seeks “to develop a social inclusion program in the UK, delivering community-based initiatives that focus on using sports as a pathway and platform for community cohesion, integration and offer pathways into training and citizenship programs in marginalized communities and neighborhoods — 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 who grew 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. Ken Ng, the boss at Kitchee, 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 is planning for the future with its 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 PlayStation 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, it again ran out a comfortable winner, putting four past the Stags with no reply, ensuring its place in the group stage of the AFC Cup.
Unbeaten after five games, the only points it has dropped came in a surprise 2-2 draw at home to Indian side Pune.
Its 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 its 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 football’s second tier competition. Kitchee hosts 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.