One day you are playing regular first division football in Hong Kong after arriving from Malaysia via Sarajevo and then another day, you are asked to lace up and play against the full international England team in a very random friendly. This is the amazing story of former South China legend, Alen Bajkusa, who ended up living out an incredible fantasy. For one glorious match, the Bosnian striker had the chance to take on the might of England and the likes of Steven McManaman, Tony Adams, Alan Shearer and a whole host of stars on the kind of hallowed turf of Hong Kong stadium.
The Golden Inventec Century Challenge Cup in which a Hong Kong Golden Select XI took on a full-strength England has become more notorious as the years have progressed. The game was played on Sunday, 26 May 1996 at Hong Kong Stadium and was England’s final warm-up match before the 1996 Euro finals.
The might of England were to take on a Golden Select XI of players from Golden, the Hong Kong league and one or two guest players such as Dave Watson, the former Norwich and Everton player, who ironically had been capped by England before.
The match was heavily criticised by the English media as a rather random exercise which was too far away from England on the eve of their own home tournament. These worries came to bear fruit as England eventually laboured to a narrow 1-0 win over the hosts in wet and damp conditions which hindered the flow of the game.
Ticketing was also an issue as some of the best seats were priced over and near to HKD1000 dollars and of course, there was the famous excursion by some of the England players to sample the Hong Kong nightlife which ended up with more negative publicity. The 26000 fans who did come to the game, were universally left disgruntled as the game progressed, as England were expected to hit double figures but the visitors struggled to find their flow.
For fortunate Golden players, it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and they would go out to enjoy the moment, play against a full national team and enjoy the world’s attention if only for a brief ninety minutes.
Alen Bajkusa was a South China player at the time of the game, though he had been loaned out to Golden, for a period of time in the previous season. When the England game was announced against Golden, his former team asked him to play for them in the one-off match.
Bajkusa was happy to share his memories on the match and upon hearing of the game and that he would play in it, he thought it was a joke being played on him.
“I thought the game was a joke at first! In 1994, I signed a two-year contract with South China and in 1995, South China loaned me to Golden. In 1996, I went back to South China but Golden asked me to play as a guest player against England. I was very excited! I mean that England team, at that time, had top players like Alan Shearer and Steve McManaman, all those guys! Teddy Sheringham; all the top players and more.”
Bajkusa knew that there would be a different approach by both teams to the game. England would want to avoid unnecessary injuries while Golden would try and be competitive against some of the biggest names in the sport.
“It was England’s last warm-up game and Golden only lost 1-0. For them, it was just a friendly game and to make sure no one got injured before Euro 1996”
The Golden Select XI was a mishmash of players, some who probably barely knew each other, though Bajkusa said they were determined to work to stay in the game. Bajkusa, as a striker ended up marking and chasing down players. It was suggested in jest during the course of the interview, that if he scored against England that his life or Scottish strike partner, Lee Bullen’s life would have changed in an instant. Who knows who was watching the game and maybe the large clubs would come knocking if any of the players made a decent impression.
“Golden tried our best and we fought really hard. We marked them and we ran like crazy! I played out of my own position and you had to help the team to fight. We had two opportunities where Golden had a one on one and Lee Bullen had a chance. If Bullen had scored then we could have lead one or two zero and it would have been a different game.”
Bajkusa enjoyed his rare cameo for a whole 75 minutes until he was substituted for Pang Kam-Cheun. The moment may have been fleeting though at least the memories remain and he received a priceless souvenir as he swapped shirts with David Platt.
“It was a great experience and to play against England in Hong Kong was a big thing. I got David Platt’s shirt. He got my shirt but I don’t know what he did with it. Maybe he just threw it away!”
The game has become more infamous than famous as the years have progressed. Golden and their bright pink strips are now defunct as a football team and England very nearly brought football home in that glorious summer of 1996.
As for Bajkusa, the Bosnian striker was eventually signed by Caen in the French league for the 1996/97 season. During his time in France, he went onto score a goal against a Paris Saint Germain side with the likes of Leonardo and Bernard Pascal Maurice Lama in the team.
His journey had come full circle and he was back in Europe. Maybe someone was actually watching him, and his sheer effort and determination against England on that wet and rainy May day in 1996…