Update: Kitchee have since won the 2019-2020 HK league title
They are unsung heroes whose versatility can change defence into attack and whose relentless work rate and link-up play normally do not gain the plaudits they often deserve. They are unheralded though extremely vital to any team and yes, they are wing-backs (Full backs). Hong Kong football has their share of ‘below the radar’ defenders who work hard and persevere to little acclaim. One who has quietly plied his trade and accumulated incredible memories in the process is Kitchee’s Dani Cancela.
Show Us Your Medals!
Cancela has now been in Hong Kong for a decade and is probably one of the most successful players of his and previous generations in terms of accomplishments and the sheer number of trophies he has accumulated in his time here.
Cancela first spoke about the league restart (which Kitchee won) and the challenges involved. He feels it is correct to complete the 2019-2020 season as it would allow teams to see who can complete in the future continental competitions. As a grounded and thoughtful person, Cancela also realizes that he is in a fortunate position and does not take things for granted as he is aware of the struggles many are going through right now.
“The rest of the season will be interesting as there will be little time to recover and come back from mistakes and the quality of the teams will be more based on the physicality of the players and it will depend on the player’s fitness. It will be a game of survival! Kitchee will have five or six games including the final of the Sapling Cup (Kitchee won) so it will be challenging.
We, as players, need to see things with perspective and we can’t say that we are lucky as we kept our jobs during this time period. No matter if we could train or not, we do have jobs and the league has tried to find solutions to finish the season as there would have been some difficult items to decide, like who is going to play in the Asian Champions League next year.
In this scenario, which is terrible, everyone is trying to do their best and to find a solution and it is not ideal and we can try and finish this season and this is important.”
Cancela acknowledges that his defensive position does not gain the same recognition as say, attackers and wingers, though in keeping with his humble nature, he has come to accept this fact as simply playing is a honour and he has managed to stay in the same team for a decade which is an amazing achievement.
“I don’t have a high profile as everyone focuses on the centre-backs and the strikers and full backs are just on one side of the pitch. I have been here in Hong Kong for a long time. It is not easy to be in the same league and the same team for ten years.”
From Deportivo to Hong Kong
Like all the Spaniards who have come to Hong Kong to play, Cancela had no inkling that he would end up in Hong Kong while as a youngster. Cancela dreamed of La Liga though the competition was so intense that he was behind the world cup winner, Joan Capdevila, in the pecking order during his time at fallen giants, Deportivo de La Coruña. An opportunity come up to join the Kitchee revolution under the eye of previous manager, Josep Gombau, and the rest is history.
“When you are a young player in Spain, what you have in your mind is to have a career in Spain and to play in La Liga. I came from Real Club Deportivo de La Coruña and currently, the team is not going through the best time in its history. When I was there, Deportivo de La Coruña, was one of the top two and three teams in Spain. I was a left-back and at the same time, there was Joan Capdevila, who was the left-back for the Spanish national team when Spain won the world cup so it was hard to gain a position in the first team and I played in the 2nd division in Spain.
My wife and I always tried to find a way to go out to another country for a new life experience and to experience a new type of football. I heard about a chance in Hong Kong as Mr. Josep Gombau (former Kitchee Manager) contacted me via an agent and I spoke to my wife and we agreed to go and it was the best decision in our lives!”
The move has proved to be fruitful for Cancela, who along with establishing his career in Hong Kong, started a family during his decade stint here so far.
“Ten years later in Hong Kong, we have raised three kids in Hong Kong and I have played a lot of games for Kitchee and have played in the Asian Champions League, against European giants and have played for the Hong Kong national team and have travelled all around Asia. This is all because I came to Hong Kong and If I stayed in Spain, I would have never had any of these chances.”
Improving Language Skills
Cancela is also happy that his language skills improved while in Hong Kong. He previously thought that his linguistic skills were pretty good though realized that he could improve even with his teammates.
“My English improved a lot while in Hong Kong. I would not say that I did not speak English at all as that is not true as I have studied in school. I liked to study English more than others when I was at school but it is another level when I came to Hong Kong.
I realised that I did not know too much but in my second or third year at Kitchee, my roommate was Zesh Rehman so I had no choice as his pronunciation is very good; then my best friends at Kitchee were Matt Lam and Jared Lum so I improved over time. I learnt a lot from Zesh as he is very experienced so I have learnt a lot about English football as well”
Best Memory? Beating Eastern on the Last Day of the Season
Cancela has won all there is to win in domestic football though has interesting ‘best’ memories which include winning the league with Kitchee against big-spending South China who had the likes of Nicky Butt and Mateja Kežman in their ranks. The second was defeating Eastern in a packed Mong Kok stadium to win the premier league, after playing catch-up for a whole season. Lastly, winning the senior shield was a huge achievement as it seemed to be a trophy that eluded him for a long time.
“I think the first league win was amazing as Kitchee had gone a long long time without winning the title and Kitchee used a set of Spanish players to influence their style of play. Kitchee enjoyed that title win a lot as South China brought in some big players like Butt and Kezman and I remember that game in Tseung Kwan O when we needed to beat them to win the league and it was a remarkable game.
If I had to choose one clear memory then it would be the game when we beat Eastern in Mong Kok stadium as the stadium was full and we were behind Eastern for the whole season. Kitchee played an amazing second half of the season and we chased Eastern the whole season and we beat them very convincingly in the last game and this was the biggest win of all for me. Sandro missed a penalty in the first minute and then he scored in the 9th minute and Kitchee were up 3-1 and we basically destroyed Eastern. Eastern were very tired as Eastern had played in the Asian Champions League and Kitchee were really focussed and were really competitive.
Winning the Senior Shield for the first time was also great as it was very difficult and it was a great memory as I had played in the Senior Shield for 6 or 7 years and had never made the final until that first win.”
Asian Champions League Memories
Cancela also spoke fondly of Kitchee’s run in the Asian Champions League and how Kitchee punched above their weight and proved that they would be competitive against the best teams in the region.
“It was amazing to play in the AFC Cup and, when Kitchee played in the AFC cup, we never thought we could reach the AFC Champions League group stages. One year, Kitchee still had to beat Hanoi FC, the Vietnamese team in the qualifying rounds and we did but lost to Ulsan in the next round. When you know you have the chance to play in the Champions League, the feeling is unbelievable. I missed the first three games as I was injured so I missed the games against Jeonbuk and Tianjin and I played in the game in Japan against Kashiwa Reysol This game was when Kitchee realised that we could compete at this level and to be honest, we lost 1-0 against Kashiwa and then we beat them at home.
Kitchee also played a good game against Tianjin as we only lost in the last minute and even in the away game against Jeonbuk, we played well. When Kitchee realised the kind of things and we can and cannot do at this level, as mistakes would be punished, we saw that we were not that far off in terms of level, and it as a good experience for us and for HK football. It is a shame that we could not keep going in that competition as the number of fans would have grown a lot.
Against Tianjin, we could have won that game as it was even and we went on the attack and it is not like we were defending and if you saw the game, as a neutral, then you could not tell which team was which and you would think that the teams were equal. Tianjin had big names like Pato, Witzel and some China national team players. I don’t know how these CSL teams can keep those levels of salaries as even in Europe they can’t do that.”
Playing for Hong Kong
Cancela is proud to be a Hong Kong international and knows that wearing the Hong Kong shirt is an honour and is humbled by this all and knows the responsibilities that come from wearing it.
“I feel very proud and I feel very responsible as I know I was not born and raised in Hong Kong and I can understand that for some people, it is not easy for so many foreigners playing for the HK team. I know I have more responsibility than other people and I always wanted to join the national team. Each time I play for the HK team, the atmosphere is different and I will never forget the atmosphere against Iran and though we lost 2-0, having the feeling of the fans with us was amazing. Those world cup qualifying games against China, I could not play those games and I was watching the games but I felt really proud of the team. When you are a player, the highest level you can go is international football and Hong Kong gave me this responsibility so I am thankful and grateful for that. I would not have made it if I did not come to Hong Kong and have played in the AFC Cup, Asian Champions League and World Cup qualifiers so it makes me feel very proud of my career.”
Cancela again reflected on the situation in Hong Kong and was empathic to everyone from different parts of society as the world goes through so many upheavals.
“It is a difficult situation and it is not an ideal situation and accommodation but it is what we got so we need to deal with it as at the end of the day, so many people have lost their jobs and are struggling. At the end of the day, we have to train a lot and we have little time to rest but many people would like be in our shoes right now.”
Cancela knows that football in Hong Kong is not a top priority and is a realist who knows that the HK teams will play many games with no breaks though HK teams will never have the same infrastructure as others in terms of sports science, to keep the players 100 percent fit.
“We could have done what we have done before because we are doing tests once a week. In this situation, Hong Kong in terms of Covid, is not as bad as other countries in the world which kept playing games but we have to remember that football in HK is not as important as it is in places like Spain and does not move as much money as it does in Europe. In other countries, they have huge TV contracts which they have to fulfill and it is not happening in Hong Kong.”
Cancela acknowledges that football is probably not a top priority in Hong Kong at the moment.
“For the HK government, football is probably the 60 or 70th problem in the list of problems that Hong Kong has. From the football perspective, it has been a long long time with no training which is difficult for us as so many players have changed teams and are not even sure if they can play or not so the competition is not really the same so we have this situation and we have to play and we are happy to finish the league.”
The intensity of games was also raised again as players would be playing so many games back to back with little break.
“It will be different as there were some teams who were well above the others so maybe now there is not so much of a gap as it is very equal and teams have almost the same points. One or two games and no mistakes and if you miss a man or get injured then the situation will also change and it will be interesting for all the fans. There are cup finals in the middle and these games are challenging with only a few days to recover and it will be hard to come back after 6 months and teams trained last month for 8 or 9 days but this is not enough as it is hard to have no games in 6 months to now competing every 3 or 4 days. It is will be draining but we should have had more time or prepare. We are not top-level teams in terms of structure for players recovering; it is not like Europe where you have players playing every three days but then they have medical staff who work with them for 12 hours per day to recover but that is not the case in Hong Kong but it is what we have and we have to deal with it. We hope that everyone is ok and no one gets injured as the new season starts two weeks later and injuries would affect the new season.”
The quiet unassuming defender is a wise head so when he speaks most people really do listen.