Until recently, the last time a ball was kicked in a professional Hong Kong football match was way back in March. Months have passed and many players and club staff have suffered emotionally, physically and financially like all other areas of Hong Kong society.
For all the images of their perceived gilded lives, HK footballers are a world away from the likes of Messi or Ronaldo and many are struggling along like everyone to get through the current situation especially with so many uncertain factors at play.
Matt Lam, the R&F midfielder, was happy to give voice to his community and share the difficult experiences that players and club staff are undergoing at this moment in time.
Lam first made clear of his disappointment at the ‘waiting’ game and perceived lack of communication that has occurred when compared to other leagues that were quick to make a decision so all other vested interests could also plan ahead.
“It has been incredibly draining and frustrating. Yes, this is an unheard-of situation though, to see so many leagues that were able to make decisions on what to do ongoing forward so quickly while in the HK, the league had been delayed and delayed and delayed, with next to no information on what to do and what to plan for.
The biggest frustration was hearing, week by week, there would be a meeting, say, on a Thursday and that we would have some information and then there would be another meeting in two weeks’ time. This meeting would then be reconvened for another two weeks. It was unbearable.”
Like everyone else, this time period has been both an emotional and physical challenge for the players who have also struggled to adjust in these challenging times.
“It has been really tough as how does a person prepare themselves mentally and physically for a league which is so start-and-stop. For example, you get to a certain physical peak, and then everything gets shut down again and you have to go through the whole process of getting physically and mentally prepared again as you just cannot train when everything is shut down and locked down. It was really really draining both physically and mentally.”
Lam stressed that even basic training had been all but impossible for the majority of players.
“As a team, we were so limited to what we can do with only being able to gather in two to four people groups so being able to maintain any level of fitness is incredibly difficult for the club. It is unfair for the club to continually wait for decisions and be delayed.”
Like others in Hong Kong, some R&F players have families whom they have not seen for months due to the travel restrictions. This has led to families being separated for a painfully long time and this has affected the emotional well-being of some players.
“We all have families which we have to consider in the matter as well. This is really difficult as you have to think about your family and whether if you are from abroad if your family members stay at home as you will not know the next time you see them or do you keep them here in lockdown? This is a really really difficult thing for many to go through.”
A lack of clear decision making from the top left some clubs trapped in a limbo which in turn is proving to be financially costly.
“Guangzhou, fortunately, are a club in good financial situation, but they have been bleeding themselves pretty dry paying for hotels for players as we cannot go back to our home countries and many players have apartments in Guangzhou and have not been able to go back there. The club has been putting up the players in hotels and paying for their food, just waiting for decisions to be made. The situation has turned into a groundhog day where you are doing the same thing over and over again.
“I am fortunate enough in the sense that I kept my apartment here in Hong Kong and my whole family was here as I went back and forth. I would be coming back two times a week. Everyone, except the local HK players who have family in HK, is based in Guangzhou. For a long time, there are families who are separated still. For example, our centre-back, Sean Tse, has been separated from this family for quite a few months so this is a really tough situation obviously
My family has had a few ups and downs as my wife delivered my second child in May, which was at the end of the first wave, so I was in Hong Kong but not able to be in the delivery room for the birth of my son. My wife is strong-willed so she had a normal delivery with no complication though that was a stressful time for sure.”
Lam is also not too impressed with the home isolation idea as he feels it is flawed though says the players have little to no choice.
“This is a little silly in my opinion. I know the HKFA has to make up certain rules to get approval from the government. For players and staff undergoing home isolation, we still need to go out to the outside world to get to training and we are not permitted to use public transportation so players have to take taxis as there is no actual transportation being offered by the HKFA, so this is a little hard for some.
I am fortunate to be with R&F and they pay a good salary and I can afford to get to and from training but not everyone is on a good salary so some players have to spend HKD 150 to 200 to get to training and the same coming home. Is that expected to be paid by the players or by the clubs? As this is the assumption made under a blanket rule so it is unfair to everyone involved.
For home isolation, kids are going back to school so are the players expected to be in a different room from their families for an extended period of time as you still cross paths with people who go outside so I think it is a Mickey Mouse rule in my opinion. Ok, I will listen to the rules but it seems a bit silly and bizarre.”
Lam is well aware that the HK league has limited resources and simply a world away from leagues like the NBA, whose model cannot be recreated in Hong Kong.
“The testing is every week or so and we test once a week and we test a few days before a game but you can still contract the virus, I don’t expect that the HK league can do what the NBA or leagues globally can do but players are isolated from the outside and are tested everyday. The league does not have the funds to do that but you cannot expect the same results from the NBA and MLS when you are not implementing the same protocols. They need to say something to get approval from the government but at the end of the day, it is very different from what the other leagues are doing. Every other league either cancelled the league, picked the champions from the ranking or they finished off as quickly as they could.”
When the 2019-2020 HK season does eventually resumes (at the time of interview), Lam feels R&F could still win the league and cup double.
“It was a big setback for us when the league allowed four teams to drop out without a penalty as I believe we lost 12 points in total as we were sitting comfortably at the top of the league with the momentum going. With the squad, we have been doing as much as we can to prepare individually and as a team and I feel we are confident in achieving the double.”
Plastic Pitch Blues
Lam says the team are confident though also some of the allocated training facilities have proved to be disappointing.
“We feel a lot of things are working against us in the current situation with us having to train out of Kowloon bay and I do not know how this decision was made but the pitch is really brutal and some of the players struggled after the first session. It is a turf pitch but the pitch is so rubbery, so it is hard yet too soft in a way so your body does not react to it properly. We have really nice training facilities in Guangzhou and we trained on grass everyday and we trained out in Tseung Kwan O facilities. From going from training on grass and then to go to train on arguably the worst turf pitch in Hong Kong, is hard.
With a two-week pre-season, you have to push to a certain limit but you have to train on this turf which can lead to so many injuries but no one has been injured.
The coaching staff have been aware so we are trying to maintain as high a level that we can without pushing too far with injuries. To prepare on this pitch for two weeks and then have six games in 2 and half weeks is unheard of in any league. We are still confident and we maintain a positive mindset and we are the top of the league, (at time of interview) we feel we deserve to be there.”
We know a lot of fans do not support R&F for reasons which are much bigger than football
Lam was complimentary of his time at R&F so far and discussed the dynamics of the club and it’s status amongst Hong Kong fans.
“R&F are getting a lot of stick from the HK fans, as obviously, we are the Guangzhou team and we know a lot of fans do not support R +F for reasons which are much bigger than football.
From an HK player’s perspective, I am very happy to be with R + F as they have given me and other Hong Kong players a lot of opportunities that we would not normally have and they do not force players to take salary decreases in the middle of their contracts like one of the big clubs did this season. The club are not at the risk of going under each season as they have the funds. They are a committed team with big plans to win titles and the deep pockets to fund this. I understand why some fans feel they cannot support a Guangzhou-based team as the reasons are bigger than football though the team is made up of just as many Hong Kong players than any other team and the club has been very good to us.”