Busy window concludes with 3 players moving north

Three Hong Kong players earned contracts with mainland Chinese clubs this window, bringing the total number of players in China to eight.

Although Hong Kong’s winter transfer window closed on 29 January, the transfer window in China remained open until midnight on 28 February.

Three Hong Kong players, Oliver Gerbig, Sun Ming-him and Alex Dujardin were transferred to clubs on the mainland, making it the busiest window for Hong Kongers moving to China since the winter of 2016. The total number of players registered on Chinese squads now stands at eight – with five plying their trade in the Chinese Super League and three more in the second-tier China League One.

Both Gerbig and Sun were members of Hong Kong’s Asian Cup squad, while Dujardin has yet to appear for Hong Kong at any level. Additionally, Sun was a member of the Asian Games squad which finished fourth.

Gerbig’s transfer to Henan FC is the latest in his rapid rise through the levels of the professional football. The 25-year-old centre-back had only signed his first contract with Kitchee in July 2022 after playing four years of collegiate football in the United States. Before then, he had spent his youth career playing in Taiwan and Germany.

After making 46 appearances for Kitchee and helping the club to win the league, two Senior Shields and an FA Cup, he now heads to the CSL on the back of a solid showing at the Asian Cup.

Gerbig made his debut in 2023 for Hong Kong. (Credit: HKFA)

Sun’s rise has been more gradual than Gerbig. He made his name as clinical striker for Diocesan Boys School and was invited by his high school coach, Fung Hoi-man, to play for Hoi King- a First Division club owned by Fung – whilst he was a Form 6 student. A year later, Sun followed the team to the Premier League following their promotion and has not looked back since.

He joined Eastern in 2021 after stints at Tai Po and Pegasus, making 55 appearances for the club, while scoring 25 goals.

But beyond his scoring record, Sun has showcased his positional versatility over his career, leading to questions about where he could play for his new club, Cangzhou Mighty Lions. The 23-year-old has primarily played at left wing and as a centre forward, but at the Asian Games, he proved that he could hold his own at left back.

There had been earlier doubts as to whether his transfer would be completed before Wednesday’s deadline. Cangzhou had been under a transfer ban by FIFA since last June due and were in a race against time to clear outstanding debts in order to get their embargo lifted. Fortunately, news emerged on Tuesday that FIFA had agreed to do and the transfer was finalized on Wednesday.

Sun joined Cangzhou in training earlier this week. (Credit: Eastern)

Dujardin’s transfer to China League One side, Nanjing City, was rather unexpected given that the player had been playing for bottom-dwellers HK U23. Needless to say, it came as a shock to many when the club announced on Monday that they had agreed to terminate the centre-back’s contract and that he would soon join a club on the mainland.

While his brother, Remi, is well known amongst Hong Kong football circles, less is known about the younger Dujardin. After playing for Yokohama FC, South China and Kitchee at the youth levels, he played three seasons at the collegiate level in the United States.

He returned to Kitchee in November 2020, signing his first professional contract but a year later without making a single appearance. He returned to top-tier football in 2022 with HKFC and impressed the decision makers at U23 enough to earn himself a contract. The 25-year-old served as a marshal for the relatively inexperienced back line, playing nearing every available minute of the season and serving as vice-captain of the side.

Although Remi returned to the Hong Kong Premier League last month after his former CLO club, Dandong Tengyue, folded, it is believed that he utilized his contacts to help his younger brother earn his step up.

Dujardin had played nearly 1,900 minutes this season for HK U23. (Credit: HK U23)

The transfer activity this window has drawn comparisons to that of the winter 2016 window when a record five Hong Kong players – Jack Sealy, Festus Baise, Lee Chi-Ho, Itaparica and Paulinho – signed with mainland clubs. That window came months after the players made spirited performances for Hong Kong in two 0-0 draws against China in World Cup qualification.

But this window differs in several important ways. First, it has been rumoured that Cangzhou have been monitoring Sun long before last year’s Asian Games. Indeed, former Hong Kong team member, Bai He, is an assistant coach with the club and likely kept tabs on possible targets in the Premier League.

While the question of Gerbig’s transfer was due to his Asian Cup performance is unknown, Dujardin’s move shows that national team performances are not a prerequisite in order to get on the radar of foreign clubs.

Second, with the exception of Paulinho, who was sold for 2.5 million RMB (HK$2.76 million), the other four players moved on free transfers. This time around, Gerbig was sold for an initial sum of 1.1 million RMB (HK$1.22 million) plus bonuses while Sun’s fee is unknown.

In fact, all five Hong Kong players in the CSL have commanded fees at some point. Leung Nok-hang joined Meizhou for free after the dissolution of R&F in the Premier League, and was sold for a Hong Kong transfer record of 20 million RMB (HK$22.1 million) a year later.

Matt Orr joined Guangxi Pingguo Haliao for 30,000 RMB (HK$33,000) – a bargain in retrospect – while the fee paid by Meizhou for Yue Tze-nam’s services was undisclosed. If one were to go back a bit further, Li Ngai-hoi’s transfer to Nantong Zhiyun in 2021 cost the club an initial sum of HK$1 million.

Orr was introduced as a player for Shenzhen Peng City this week. (Credit: SZplus)

Developing a proper market for Hong Kong players is vital as it demonstrates to potential investors that there can be a return on investment. While transfer fees are still far and few between, and cannot be relied upon for profitability, at the very least it will provide sustainability for local clubs, who are often seen as money pits.

But the biggest difference in the two windows is that the age of the players who are moving this time around. In 2016, only Sealy was under 32 years of age. Conversely, all three of Sun, Gerbig and Dujardin are 25 or under.

Just as local investors need to see Hong Kong clubs as worthy investments, foreign clubs must see Hong Kong players as assets worth investing in as well. At 25 years and under, all three players could be resold down the line for profit if they perform. Serving as success stories will pave the way for future Hong Kong players to earn moves abroad as they have will have proven that Hong Kong players have the ability to play at a higher level.

It may also incentivize Premier League clubs to sign players to multi-year contracts in order to give the clubs leverage in negotiations and ward off clubs – whether local or foreign – from poaching their top players for free.

The Premier League has yet to establish itself as a stepping stone for players to showcase themselves in hopes of landing a move to a better, foreign league. It remains to be seen in the long term whether this is the start of a new era or simply a one-off.

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