The pandemic has forced a number of players to find alternative means of work in order to make a living. Some players, such as Dell Li Hon-ho, have decided to call it day and retire. But Li feels no regret about leaving professional football. This is his story.
It’s a warm autumn evening in Mong Kok.
Dell Li Hon-ho stands at the edge of his six-yard box in his yellow Tai Po keeper kit, watching on as his teammate Chak Ting-fung deals with a cross into the box by a Kitchee player. But the clearance is a poor one and the ball lands at the feet of Kitchee defender Kim Bong-jin.
“He’s not going to shoot from there,” thinks Li, as Kim is over thirty yards from goal.
His teammates think the same, allowing Kim to dribble forward another ten yards before bothering to close him down. By this time, it becomes clear to Kim that Tai Po are daring him to shoot and so he obliges. Kim puts all of his power behind the ball in hopes of putting it on goal.
Li sees the ball all the way and shuffles to his left in order to catch it
Except he doesn’t.
The ball stings his palms and Li watches hopelessly as the ball floats into the back of the net, giving Kitchee the lead after 13 minutes. Li shakes his head in disbelief but he tells himself that he can’t wallow in sorrow – there’s still plenty of football left to play.
Thirteen minutes later, things go from bad to worse.
Jordi chips a long ball over the top towards Josip Tadić. The Croatian striker gives chase, but the keeper is favoured to win the race.
Except Li hesitates.
The ball bounces a couple yards in front of Tadić who manages to nudge the ball ever so gently past the onrushing keeper. Fung Hing-wa tries to recover in time to bail out his keeper but Tadić smashes the ball into an empty goal.
It’s 2-0 Kitchee.
Tai Po would find two goals in the second half to level the score, cancelling out both of Li’s errors. Near the end of the match, Li appeared to have redeemed himself when he kept out Lucas Silva’s overhead kick from seven yards out to preserve a point for the Greens.
Except it wouldn’t matter.
Head coach Lee Chi-kin’s mind had been made up: Tsang Man-fai would replace Li as his number one keeper.
Li never appeared in another match of significance for Tai Po. He left the club in mid-May 2019, after the team returned from their away match against April 25 in the AFC Cup. Li was absent from Tai Po Sports Ground a few days later when the Greens lifted the Premier League trophy and paraded it across the streets of Tai Po.
The match between Kitchee and Tai Po on October 21, 2018 turned out to be Li’s final career appearance in a league match. He moved to Lee Man the following year but only appeared in a handful of Sapling Cup matches.
By that point, he was ready to move on. His career was over.
Li Hon-ho has no regrets over the way his career unfolded. After all, he was barely 18 when Sun Hei signed him to his first professional contract. Over Li’s 16 year career, he spent 10 seasons over three spells with Tai Po, with stints at Pegasus, Eastern and Lee Man in between.
At times, he had been the starter for his clubs and at other times, he warmed the bench. Though he was never regarded as a remarkable player, Li won four HKFA Cups, three Senior Shields and two league titles over his career. He was even named as one of the Best Young Players for 2009 alongside Au Yeung Yiu Chung.
It was also in 2009 when Li was named to Hong Kong’s squad for the 2009 East Asian Games. He was Yapp Hung-fai’s deputy during the tournament – a fact which few local football fans remember.
Like many players of Li’s stature, he could never take for his employment for granted from year to year. As he explained, the precarious nature of professional football in Hong Kong was one of the reasons for his retirement.
“Let’s be honest – I was never a star,” Li told HK01. “So rather than stay in the game and try to find a new club after the pandemic, I decided that it was better to turn over a new leaf. I’d rather have a clean slate and start a new career.”
To understand why Li walked away from football, one needs to turn back the clock to July 2019. It was during this month that he decided to write his insurance broker’s exam and obtain his license before the standards were raised. Li, who only has a high school education, knew that this was his final chance to get his license. Despite passing the exam, he did not consider retirement last summer, and he would soon ink an agreement with Lee Man.
When the first wave of the pandemic arrived upon the shores of Hong Kong, like most residents, Li assumed that the situation would dissipate before the summer. Clubs continued to train until the Leisure and Cultural Services Department decided to close its venues, throwing local football into chaos.
Although venues were eventually reopened in March, the pandemic had already dealt a heavy blow to the local football scene. The remaining fixtures of the Sapling Cup were played behind closed doors at the Football Training Centre and it was clear by then that the lower division seasons would not be completed.
In late March, the second wave caused the government to shutter its venues once again. It was at that point when Li began to seriously ponder his future.
“It felt endless,” he described. “You couldn’t go anywhere because all the shops were closed, and you couldn’t leave Hong Kong. I felt trapped.”
What happened in his personal life was of even greater concern.
Li and his girlfriend of nine years had planned to get married in March. However, these plans were thrown into disarray when his fiancée was trapped aboard the disease-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship where 712 passengers were infected with the coronavirus. Hongkongers who were onboard the ship did not return home until mid-February, and were placed under an enforced 14 day quarantine upon arrival.
“In the past, I would try to keep my career and my personal life separate,” Li said. “But after this happened, I felt that nothing was more important than my family, so I began to have more conversations with them about my future.”
He admitted that during this time, his fiancée began to take a keener interest in his post-retirement plans.
“She never interfered with my career – let’s make that clear,” he stated. “But in recent years, every once in a while she would ask me ‘When are you going to call time on your career?’ or ‘Have you thought about what you’re going to do after you retire?’. I’ll admit, in private, I had been thinking about my future.
“I’m old school – I don’t think I’d feel fulfilled until I got married and had kids. So, during the pandemic, I couldn’t think only about myself. I knew I couldn’t sit at home for months on end until next season started, just so that I could extend my career. I knew I had a responsibility to my family to maximize my income, while I still could, so that we can live a happy and comfortable life.”
Li acknowledges that he is living a privileged life compared to many current players. Although his contract with Lee Man did not expire until the end of May, he had already lined up a job with Manulife by late March.
“I still keep in touch with my ex-teammates,” he confided. “Both local and foreign players have families to feed but they haven’t received a paycheck in months. I empathize with the stress they must feel when they’re hanging by a thread, living paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t know when they’ll be able to find a new club.
“Some players are working graveyard (overnight) shifts, some are having to get up early in the morning so they can work two jobs, some are driving around all day because they work in the transport industry, some are working in sales and promotion, whilst others are doing any number of menial gigs just to make ends meet.”
Compared to footballers, insurance brokers work longer hours. This fact does not bother Li who freely admits that his current monthly income is, on average, between 50 to 100 per cent higher than that of his football salary.
“I’ll be blunt – this job pays, end of story,” he said, candidly describing his remuneration. “Like I said, the most important thing to me is to be able to raise a family.”
It is inconceivable to suggest that footballers are not aware that more lucrative jobs exist outside of football. On the contrary, many choose to stay in the game in spite of the money, out of loyalty to their childhood dream.
Li does not believe that there is anything inherently wrong with choosing to prioritize one’s dream over a more stable, well paying job. Depending on the individual’s stage of life, people may make different choices based on what is more suitable for them.
“Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, pulling an upset to win a championship…these are feelings that are indescribable unless you’ve experienced them yourself. You can’t put a price on that.
“But every athlete’s career has to end at some point and fortunately for me, I’ve found a new job that presents me with new challenges. Every day, I’m learning something new, which makes me look forward to the future.”
If you mention to Li that he seems rather opinionated, he would feel embarrassed by this observation and apologize for speaking his mind. As the youngest of three brothers, Li is an introvert by nature, electing not to speak when possible.
“In the past I didn’t have much experience talking with strangers,” he revealed, explaining that he had reservations about becoming an insurance broker due to the need to speak with people he did not know.
“Even when I coached football, it was just one-way communication. The first few months, my job was simply to register people and have them sign forms. There was a lot of dead air. I’d go to work every day hoping to finish as quickly as possible.”
How does feel about the job now?
“When I was a player, people would rarely praise me,” he recalled. “I’d make one or two saves and – at most – there’d be a smattering of applause.
“Since becoming a broker, friends have come to me for insurance advice and in some cases, I’ve helped them save money. They’ll come back to me afterwards and thank me for helping them, but honestly, I’m just as thankful for their feedback. Because, until now, I’d never felt like I could make a difference in anybody’s life. I’ve never felt this level of encouragement in my life before.”
Li believes that his newfound self-esteem has helped him become less introverted and adapt more quickly into his new role.
There will be some who will doubt Li’s true motivations, arguing that he retired because of age or declining ability. Although Li, who is 34, had planned to play until he was 40, he is not bothered by doubters as he has moved on with his life.
When asked for his advice to younger players, he reminds them to cherish their time as professional footballers and to think about their post-retirement plans as early as possible. Li says that he would encourage players to try and learn a second skill or trade in their spare time so that they have a back up plan, should their football careers come to a sudden halt.
As for the state of professional football in Hong Kong, Li believes that stakeholders need to be more aggressive and proactive in implementing ideas to improve the local game.
“When the dust settles after the pandemic, the reality is that there will an even bigger gulf between rich and poor clubs,” he predicts. “We’ve already seen clubs with insufficient resources withdraw from the league or self-relegate. So now, you’re going to have clubs with $50 million budgets beating down on clubs with $10 million budgets every week. Tell me how that’s entertaining?
“The bosses need to adopt a more collectivist mindset instead of the ‘every man for himself’ philosophy that they currently have now. If they start making decisions that are for the good of the sport as a whole, then the business side will improve, and the smaller clubs will become more financially stable. If you grow the size of the market, then everybody makes more money even if your market share is smaller.”
Looking back on his decision to leave the game, Li feels no regret.
“Local football is a niche industry and as such, the jobs in the game are unstable,” he ranted. “Many players are struggling to put food on the table for their families yet, you have clubs who don’t even pay their players on time. How cruel is that? At the same time, you have foreign players who come to Hong Kong not for career advancement, but for a working holiday.
“Do you know why local players don’t speak up about their situations? It’s because if they do, then at best, they’ll be benched and at worst, they’ll be blacklisted by everyone in the league. Such unwritten rules shouldn’t exist.
“So no, I can’t honestly tell you that I feel sad about retiring. What has helped in a perverse way is that there’s been so little news about local football lately because no one is playing. Not receiving any updates about the game has actually helped me face my new reality. It also helps that I’m really enjoying my new job and so, even in the brief moments when I feel the slightest bit of regret, it passes quickly.”
As one of only seven members of Hong Kong’s 2009 East Asian Games squad who were still active professionally last season, Li feels fortunate to have lasted as long as he did.
“Even though my accolades are not exceptional, I’m still grateful to the game for what it’s given me,” he said. “I’m blessed to have had a longer career than most players. If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose to become a professional footballer, but I would’ve retired sooner.
“I’ve never been someone who needed or wanted to be in the limelight, but to all the fans who’ve praised me or scolded me in the past 16 years – thank you.”
It’s a steamy summer evening in Kwun Tong.
Dell Li steps out of the Manulife Financial Centre after a hard day of work. Wearing leather shoes and black suit and tie, he turns northwest on Wai Yip Street as he walks towards the MTR station.
Li is going home.