2020: both an unforgettable year and a year to forget. In the wider world of sports, the impact has also been felt by Hong Kong’s professional footballers, who like feathers in the wind, have been blown back and forth by circumstances out of their control. Conversely, like feathers in the wind, professional players can be blown completely off course and into the unknown.
Eastern’s Jared Lum can attest to the challenges of 2020; he has been through troubling and testing times and has emerged from the ‘dark’ tunnel wiser, humbled and, maybe, world-weary.
Fans will see footballers as living glamorous lives but the reality, especially in Hong Kong, is more of players wondering what unexpected surprises will arise in the rollercoaster that is the local game. A player can have a team one season and in the next season, it will simply not exist anymore and a mad scramble for a new job, on short notice, is more common than uncommon.
“Check Your InBox” Social Media Message Opens Doors
Those random spam emails in your inbox? Well, some could be offering you fake financial advice! Other messages? well, they could be opening doors to a new life!
Lum has been a mainstay of the Hong Kong game ever since he read a random message on Facebook which set off a chain of events that transformed his life and brought him to Hong Kong. At the time, Lum was playing for Sydney-based Marconi Stallions Football Club and was considering getting a ‘real’ job when a random inbox message transformed his career. With his move to Hong Kong, Lum felt a cycle of life was being completed as Lum’s paternal grandmother had grown up in Happy Valley.
The affable and down-to-earth Lum opened up about his career in Hong Kong, his youth in Australia and how events on and off the field during 2020 occasionally left him sleepless at night as he weighed up his future in the midst of great upheaval in Hong Kong.
From a Playing Limbo into An Existential Limbo
For some, peace of mind, comes with a ball at their feet and the ability to express themselves because surely, what most athletes want to do, is to play?
“It has been a crazy year, obviously, it started a long time ago with the social unrest and all of that. Those events postponed a few games and training was called off. I would be playing on the weekend, then obviously when the pandemic hit; the players were like ‘Are we playing? Are we not playing?”
The answer for Lum over the course of 2020? A resounding ‘not playing’
Running Into Oblivion
Lum, at the time, had left Kitchee and moved to R&F expecting to help them win their first premier league title though instead found himself in ‘playing’ limbo and then simply, in an existential limbo as R&F left the Hong Kong league on a permanent basis.
“When leaving Kitchee and joining R&F, the same situation came about ‘Am I able to play?’ or ‘Am I not able to play?’ And eventually not playing. So it’s just this year has honestly been crazy and all I wanted to do really is play. The last couple of weeks has been the happiest I’ve been in over a year because I’ve just been back with the ball. I mentioned to you before that all I was doing was just running and it was that’s all I did and I was so sick of it!”
Light at the end of the tunnel came in the form of Eastern manager, Lee Chi Kin, who offered him an opportunity and a spot in an already large Eastern squad.
Lum is not oblivious to how fortunate he is when compared to some of his former R&F peers in finding a squad spot.
“Obviously you can do what you can do and use the ball as much as you can, but it’s not on the grass and it’s not with a team so I’ll be forever grateful to Eastern and Kin Sir for obviously offering me a deal. I knew what the situation was with R&F pulling out two weeks before the league started with financial budgets already full and there wasn’t much room for players so I’m happy.
I’m very fortunate to be able to play now with Eastern because if you look at the rest of my ex R&F teammates, they’re struggling to find clubs now because with only eight teams now; there’s a certain number of foreigners and a certain number of locals players.
Lum stressed that if no clubs in Hong Kong had come in for him then he would have to leave Hong Kong and his ambitions for playing for Hong Kong would have also left with him.
“I was a little stressed as it was a big concern and my wife and I had the conversation pretty soon after what happened with R&F. At that time, my wife and I had options, and obviously, it was to go home and that was a pretty big option especially if Eastern didn’t come calling because it was either pick up a club in Hong Kong and obviously fight over it with R&F (legal case) or go home to Australia.”
For Lum, moving back to Australia would not guarantee a full-time professional contract and he pondered what options lay ahead for him if he was to have returned at some point this year.
“Obviously again that started (with me considering studying) the university course and all that and thinking what am I going to do when I go home? I’m going to pick up coaching and play football and make a bit of money for football but no, it was a big consideration going home because it is what it is.”
Lum has expressed relief that he was able to find a team when teams globally were cutting budgets.
“It would have been hard enough finding a team two weeks out (from the start of the season) even without a pandemic. You look at a pandemic where budgets are stripped and obviously sponsors don’t want to put in as much money as before. I’m relieved and just happy to be back playing and doing something I love.”
Sliding Doors 2 “Check Your Messages!”
Hong Kong football can be both overly complex and sometimes surprisingly straight forward and Lum explained how the move to Eastern happened.
“Yeah, pretty much (it was Kin Sir reaching out). I was obviously talking through Fernando (also at Eastern) as well because I played with Fernando for so long. Kin Sir had the opportunity come up and I really couldn’t say no because we enjoy our life here in Hong Kong and obviously, I want to stay in Hong Kong for the seven years. So, and obviously now with the R&F’ situation, we have to be here in person to fight the legal case.”
Peace of Mind Is Hard To Find
As Lum’s job worries subsided, the relative peace of mind has returned with some great support from his wife and family.
“Take the last month and a half and the situation has been mentally draining is all I can say. I think up until I started training again with Eastern, obviously, I had something else on my mind. It was just mentally draining and my wife was a great support as she kept me sane. She knew what was going on, obviously as she’s in the same circumstances as me, where it’s gonna be stressful for us but she kept me going and I don’t think I had a good night’s sleep at all, because it was just like ‘What if this happens? What if this happens? We got to do this with the lawyers?!”
Running on a Treadmill to Nowhere
The emotional strain has been telling and in his toughest times, even running on a treadmill, had been an arduous task.
“It was terrible. Honestly, terrible and there were days where I’ve said to my current teammates that I was quite fit. I’m generally fit to play and I like to run, but there were days when I would go out and or go to the gym, and I’d start running on the treadmill, and five minutes later, I just leave the gym because there was just no motivation there because I was just mentally fatigued.”
Respite for Lum has been game time, if only a few minutes but it progresses from a simply doing nothing.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I’d be really on the team sheet (for Eastern league games) but just to get a couple of minutes, it’s been great. It’s been the longest I’ve had off football and it was nine months from my last game with Kitchee to being on the Eastern bench and I placed it on my Instagram as it has been 248 days.”
Lum is happy to be back playing and not simply training by himself.
“Obviously, you can do as much running as you can but running doesn’t replicate to playing an actual game. In Eastern’s last game against Lee Man, I just played last five minutes and even against Resource Capital, I think I got 20 minutes but I think I did one sprint, and I was like ‘Hang On’, let’s not do all these things straight away!”
Lum experienced success at Kitchee and he says the current squad at Eastern reminds him of established Kitchee teams of the past.
“Yeah, Eastern sort of remind me of the Kitchee squad from three years ago, like you could put out two Kitchee teams and still do okay!”
Eastern are one of the few teams in Hong Kong who are somewhat stable and this is reflected in their strong squad.
“Everyone looks at Eastern and says ‘Oh, that’s a good squad’ but when you look at the results with Happy Valley, they brought in some good overseas players. When Eastern played against Lee Man, it was a tough game and Lee Man are playing good football and once they have their full squad back with Nando (Fernando Recio) back and maybe making a few additional signings there, they’re going to be right up there and obviously you can never count Kitchee out. Obviously, Kitchee went a different route this year but you really cannot count them out.”
We will Always Have Mong Kok 2017!
Lum says when he was part of Kitchee, there was a special atmosphere and some opponents had already mentally lost when they faced certain Kitchee teams of the past.
“With Kitchee, it was different and I don’t think I’ll be part of a team again that went undefeated through the whole league season so that team was special. The year before that, I didn’t think we’d be able to top that (experience) but that last game of the season when we beat Eastern 4 – 1 was amazing. Mong Kok was sold out and that was first versus second and whoever wins takes the title. When trying to find something like that around the world; it’s very hard to replicate especially where you get first versus second on the last day of the season.
Video: Liverpool versus Arsenal in 1989. Nearly as exciting as Eastern versus Kitchee in 2017.
That was something special and then obviously with the fans storming the field so really those two moments were special. Kitchee was something different and the Eastern team of today sort of reminded me a little bit about that squad, that we had in those two years.”
The toughest games for that Kitchee era, was when the squad played internal games, against each other.
“I tell you now that the hardest games Kitchee played, or you believe in that time, were when we had 11 versus 11 on Thursdays at training. That year, even had we put out our second team, they would have won the league. We had so many foreign guys that were local, Brazilian guys who were naturalized, the Spanish then you have sort of me and Matt as well. And obviously, the local players were top notch as well like Lo Kwan Yee, etc.”
Remember the Name!
Lum feels deeply connected to Hong Kong and his roots run deep and stretch back generations.
“I think I did from the start because there’s one thing that sort of sticks with me; my great grandfather, he gave all of my generation, so my brother and my cousins, Chinese names. I actually got my name tattooed on my arm because I thought I’m never going to use it; this is just a symbolic thing for my family representing my family and then I came over to Hong Kong and I remember Alex Chu in the changing room said, ‘Do you have a Chinese name?’ And I was like, yes I do and I showed him my tattoo and he read it to me and my name because I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name properly or anything like that! So, just that, that full circle as my grandmother was born in Hong Kong and she left to go to Australia and came back did her schooling here as my family were from Happy Valley.”
Lum’s children were born in Hong Kong and so he now himself feels an even stronger connection.
“Hong Kong is always going to have a really special place for me because this is where my kids were born, you know, so even when I watch the national team play or anything like that, I’m a fan now because I’ve spent so long here and I’m seeing, HK football, sort of coming full circle again. I’ve seen it grow and now it’s dropped off again but I feel like I am connected now to Hong Kong.”
Codes of Football!
Lum was happy to discuss Australia’s sporting culture and all the different codes of football and how association football has grown down under.
“Obviously then you’ve got netball for the girls but football, even back then, was the number one sport played by kids. It was obviously not mainstream as what it is now. Football still doesn’t have the country’s heart as obviously you got the cricket team and that’s number one and that’s always going to be number one. You have got NRL and AFL and for me, it wasn’t as big because I was never sort of interested in those sports as my dad always played football and then obviously my mom’s side are from Scotland, they always knew football, so that’s all we sort of did.”
Media coverage is crucial to exposing sports a wider audience and Lum acknowledges the challenges soccer has to gain popularity in a market already filled with popular team sports.
“My mother also didn’t want me playing rugby union or league when I was when I was young and obviously NRL and AFL, are a big thing in Australia and it is all about the media. The Australian media pushes all the other sports and leaves soccer on the back burner so that sort of was stopping it from growing.
It was always soccer for me and in Australia, obviously qualifying for that World Cup and that golden generation of soccer was massive for the game there but it was always big at junior level.”
State of Origin
Different cities in Australia favour different sports and in places like Melbourne, Aussie Rules is king and the dominant mainstream game.
“There are 10 plus teams in the AFL in just in Melbourne alone, and all those teams get 50,000 people to their games every weekend so how can you compete with that and that’s just Melbourne! ‘State of Origin’ is also massive only for rugby league. and again, that way you say where people are from, they needed rules to clear that up because there’s always a guy that was born in New South Wales that represents Queensland or the other way around and so always bad blood there.
I think they’ve changed the rules now where it’s like you have played your first professional game there or something about your career had to be in that state.”
With the growth of the Australian A-League, there was a gradual shift in fan culture as soccer fans brought a whole new world of chants and songs more suited to European stadiums.
“The thing is, when football came along, especially the Western Sydney Wanderers and when they won the Asian Champions League; they sort of upped the ante for the crowd atmosphere.”
Lum believes the growth of soccer could lead to a shift in fan culture in Australia.
“When you talk about the AFL players, they’ll go and watch a game, especially the Sydney soccer derby, there won’t be as many people as there is going to be 40,000 people, but the AFL players will state ‘This is such a better atmosphere than what we know with 80,000 people!’ This is because there is an European atmosphere with organic cheering and they got the chants to do that; so I think if Australia workouts how big soccer is, these things would change.”
“I was always that Asian Kid”
Lum opened up about being one of the few youngsters with an Asian background trying to make a career in soccer in Australia.
“It was very rare to have another Asian person playing or Asian from Asian heritage playing in my Australian teams, especially, when the level started getting higher. I was always that ‘Asian’ kid; that’s who I was in Australia, that Chinese kid. There wasn’t anyone else like that on my teams. I went to a sport’s school, Westfields Sports Highschool (where Harry Kewell also went). There was another Asian that played in the years below me and he’s over now in Vietnam, Martin Lo, and he is the only Asian player who’s sort of playing at that level.”
Forlan and his Van
At Kitchee, Lum played with global names like Diego Forlan and Moussa Sissako. Was Lum star-struck and what were Diego Forlan’s driving skills like?
“MoMo (Moussa Sissako) was very normal and he was down to earth and he was funny. Obviously, Diego was a bit different due to his higher profile. He was one of the guys and he was just a normal guy, I would pick his brain and ask him so many questions. Obviously, I’m a big Manchester United fan so I would ask him questions about Beckham, Ferguson and Scholes and I would be there always listening to his stories and it was great.”
Forlan also seemed to enjoy his role as a designated driver.
“He would take us on a journey every day because, like literally, we’d all hop on the train from Hung Hum to Shek Mun. It’s very quick thirty-eight minutes or something for the whole trip. But he saw us getting on the train and he had the car which was a 7 seater so and he lived at Harbourview Hong Kong. It was very easy to talk to him and very good playing with him.”
The Anfield Experience
Lum is a huge Manchester United fan though his first EPL experience was at Anfield, sitting in the players’ lounge with the WAGS and Peter Crouch, whom he noted, was rather tall.
“I went to Liverpool, as a 15 -year old, and I spent three weeks at the Liverpool Academy. That was the only Premier League game I saw so it was Liverpool vs Chelsea and Fernando Torre’s first game. I was in the players’ lounge and Peter Crouch was there as well. I just remember he was really tall and all the players’ wives were there. I was just 15 and it was quite an experience and I was just taking it all in. That’s the only EPL game I’ve seen but yeah, I am a massive Manchester United fan.”
“Beckham was my idol growing up and as I became more aware about football, it became Paul Scholes. I sort of tried to base my game on him as he was just a joy to watch, and he sort of is the guy who doesn’t get the massive accolades but he made the game so easy and if you search what other players say and ‘quotes’ on Paul Scholes then he is respected. They teach about him at La Masai at Barcelona and they call him the ‘teacher’ as he controlled the whole game every single time.
Why Manchester United?
“I think I was very fortunate because the first jersey my dad got me was a Manchester United jersey and we got it for Christmas one year and I remember that my brother got a Newcastle jersey; so I just say every time, ‘Thank God I got a Manchester united jersey’. It was just my first ever jersey so I stuck with that team all the way through; my brother got a Newcastle shirt and they were also big at the time.”
“Mind the Gap” Generational Blues
Lum fears for the future of the Hong Kong game with the shortage of talent coming through twinned with a lot of senior players deciding to retire or who will call it a day very soon.
“That is an interesting question because obviously, I’m well aware of the young kids coming through, especially the boys at Kitchee. And for me, there is a big generational gap here in HK.”
Big names are retiring and no one seems to be taking their places.
“If you look at the people now coming to retirement, obviously in the last couple of months, Chan Siu Ki but also look at the players like Lo Kwan Yee that are coming to the end and then, even on top of that, the guys that are naturalized, they’re all coming to the end. There is a big gap now between those players and the level of the players coming through. If you look at the players around my age, from 25 to 30, I’m 28 and from 25 to 30 there is not much there at all in terms of talent.”
No Carrot and Barely A Stick!
Lum stressed that a lack of motivation is creeping into the HK game and young people do not see a future as professionals.
“You’ve got the young people coming through now and I’ll be honest, I’ve seen a lot of people sort of come through, and they will be loaned from Kitchee because they obviously couldn’t break into the first team and it’s how it was at the time, it was a hard task to break into that first team. There is an issue there and especially now, the biggest issue that I see, is motivation.”
Lum says parents are right to question the validity of whether or not their child should be a professional footballer in Hong Kong.
“Obviously, fans would think we’re just talking about salaries or anything like that with R&F but R&F was massive for the league because players had something to aspire for especially young players. Even right now, if I’m the father of a 17, 18,19-year-old kid, would I really want them to play football in Hong Kong? The answer is probably no, because of the salaries for the local players. Will they be able to make a good living?”
Lum reinforced that a lack of motivation and career path is always a concern.
“And it’s that motivation that is not there for the kids because no one’s pushing them like even the younger kids coming through! What motivation, do they have to be a professional footballer here in Hong Kong?”
A Bigger League?
Lum feels that for Hong Kong football to improve that it has to expand in some form or another in order to attract more talent and sponsors; this in turn could mean more investments and hopefully, higher salaries.
“For me, when I look at it here in Hong Kong, there is no way for the league to get bigger unless you expand it. Obviously, some might not like this but unless you expand it into the Guangdong region; the greater bay area then you bring teams from Macau, Taiwan and you make that a big league like that, then all of a sudden there’s more teams for players to aspire to and sponsors come in, as sponsorship, is a big, big source of revenue.”
Having no real incentives is stopping the growth of the Hong Kong game.
“It would just be something that the young players can actually aspire and go too and say ‘I want to play for this team’, ‘I want to play for this team’, because you can make a better living from, with a team like R&F in the league. Obviously, you ask any of the players will they want to go to a team like R&F, they will always say ‘yes’ because of the salaries or not and it’s not there anymore as the salaries are all going to be capped because, while big HK bosses don’t have to spend money to compete with. R&F used to come and say ‘I want that player, I can offer him this’ and all of a sudden, teams would have to offer him something higher to get him to stay.”
The Kids Are Alright …or Are they?
Back in Lum’s day, youngsters were keen to learn and pick up new tips and advice from the senior players. Lum has now seen the fatalistic attitudes some youngsters have, of being very talented, but not willing to place in much further effort.
“There is a big issue there with the young players coming through and I can honestly say, I can think of three players right now that I’ve seen in all my time in Hong Kong where I think was ‘going to make it’ and say ‘he can make a career’. That’s three young players, I can pick. I wouldn’t even say three, I would say two.”
“If you were at training and you see the young players, the mentality the young players have is so different to what we had as young players like me, when I was going to train. For example at Sydney FC, I was always the first at training and I was always asking the older players questions and I was picking their brains about everything. I would watch and I would try and learn off the senior players now and young players now don’t want to do that; they are training with the first team and it is like ‘I made it and this is me and I don’t have to do anything else!’ There’s no real push factor for them to pedal!”
Life Choices: Football Or Uber?
Players globally are now having to switch careers or find part-time work to supplement their incomes and Hong Kong is no exception with some players moving down the divisions and some are taking up manual or service related work to earn a living.
“That comes with the league structure. There’s no room for youngsters anymore so they go and play in the second division now. A lot of the players can make more money driving Uber than they can playing football in Hong Kong.
You talk about what, obviously, a kid’s not motivated by money. For some, they want a stage in front of big crowds. We (senior players) talk about that all the time, especially the older boys and we say, ‘How can we improve Hong Kong football?’ and people don’t like to hear it but Chinese teams, the more Chinese teams you have then the bigger it gets.”
Lum also commented on the number of players in Australia who are overlooked despite having the talent.
“There is a crazy amount of talent in the Australian Second Division that is overlooked and it is just ridiculous. There’s one player in the league now and he’s played for eight teams and he’s just turned 30! Obviously, players, like myself, have never been picked up by any A-league club. They weren’t given opportunities because the agents are friends with these people and these people. Honestly, if I want to go back to Australia, I would probably pick up the phone and say, ‘I would play for minimum wage and just play.”
How long will Lum stay in Hong Kong?
“I look to stay in Hong Kong, at least until I get my seven years or if something came up or my wife wanted me to go home.”
Lum will be happy to see the back of 2020 and hopes for better days in 2021 where the simple pleasures of simply kicking a football, in relief, and not so much in anger.
Lum has the ball at his feet again.
2020: an unforgettable year and a year to forget.
Update: HKPL Season is Currently on Hold