One of the premier league’s most consistent teams, Southern, are again punching way above their weight in the league and, as a testament to their youth schemes, have reached the final of the Sapling cup. One of the key reasons for the Aberdeen’s side rise and improvement over the years is the steady hand of their captain, Zesh Rehman. The towering defender takes nothing for granted and is an active learner both on and off the pitch which is probably why he still remains at the top of his game. Rehman was happy to chat about why Southern have been able to achieve such positive results despite not having the same financial clout as some of the other HKPL teams.
“I think anyone who knows Hong Kong football and Southern will know that Southern have become a competitive team which we have shown already this season when we beat Eastern in Tseung Kwan O in a league game. Southern have become a competitive team who are not easy to play against and capable of beating anyone,” Rehman said. “We are two or three points off the top of the league and I think we are overachieving due to our budget as it is not in the top three or four (in terms of team finances) so we are doing well in terms of squad and budget.”
Southern invest a lot in their youth players in terms of time and training and some of the young players are beginning to come through the ranks and make their impact in the first team. Rehman is passionate about youth development and is always ready to impart his wisdom and experience to the youngsters in his team. Rehman knows what he is talking about as he has hundreds of games under his belt from his playing time in all four top leagues in England, playing in Malaysia and Thailand and of course, from representing Pakistan at the international level. Top-level football is not easy to navigate and he wants to help guide aspiring players through all the obstacles and pitfalls to the top. Rehman stresses that Southern are very patient and want to give the youngsters time to find their feet and blossom.
“For some of the young lads who are part of our U18 team, they are training with the first team, whilst before, they did not train with the first team until they were 20 or 21. The youngsters have exposure to training with the first team and some of them have played in the league; not for very long but they have made a debut so I have tried to help them as much as possible. With young players, you have to be patient and give them time to develop. Ah Fai, Calvin and Ricky are all helping the young boys develop and learn.”
Since making his premier league debut with Fulham as a youngster, Rehman is still going strong as he simply loves taking to the field. With players like Kazu Miura (Yokahama FC) still playing at the age of 53, Rehman said he would love to keep playing as long as he could as he loves the game so much and with his discipline and attitude, he potentially has many more years at the top.
“Haha, I am thirty-six now so the next milestone will be forty and then try and catch Fabio who is a great example and role model. The fact that he is still playing at forty-two is great and he is a good player to look up as he still has the same enthusiasm. He has inspired me to continue to play and to get to 50? Why not! It won’t be easy but for now, I still enjoy playing and I am still hungry to win games and trophies. I will try and prolong playing as long as possible and help others along the way.”
Rehman stressed that though genetics does play a part; eating well, working smart and having a little bit of luck will go a long way to maintaining a healthy mind and body.
“I think it is a combination of things! Genetics helps and I think not having a serious injury helps as well as discipline and stretching and how you look after yourself and hydration as everything is a good habit. It is also a case of being smarter and working smarter so that you don’t do as much as some players before a game so it is about managing your intensity and load with the coaches. As you get older, you tend to learn more about your body but in football, anything can happen, so you need a little bit of luck as well. I won’t eat as many carbohydrates as I did when I was twenty-six. It takes a little longer to digest and makes modifications.”
Aside his time in England, Rehman has played in both Thailand (Muangthong United) and Malaysia (Pahang FA) and gave his assessment of the leagues when compared to the premier league in Hong Kong.
“In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, all the local players are technically very good and physically, they are quite agile but I would say in terms of tactical thinking and coaching, Thailand is making progress. Thai teams are competing in the Asian Champions League and some players have gone to the J-league and are having some stints in Europe. I think Thailand is breaking away from the rest of Southeast Asia right now. In Malaysia, the level is not too much higher than Hong Kong but you have clubs who have a much longer history than Hong Kong clubs such as Selangor and Johor Darul Ta’zim Football Club have a wonderful new stadium but in terms of level, there is not much difference compared to Hong Kong as some of the Hong Kong clubs have played in the AFC cup and AFC champions league.”
The key difference, according to Rehman, which has seen the league in Thailand develop so rapidly, was the amount of business money and sponsorship geared towards the game. Another factor is that the fans in both Malaysia and Thailand come out in large numbers to support their regional sides.
“The Malaysian and Thailand leagues have more sustained input from businesses and sponsors and you could argue that those two nations are truly football-loving nations. In Thailand, the speed of the game is a lot quicker and in terms of intensity, the speed really sticks out.”
Hong Kong football is notorious for teams forming and then playing and simply vanishing over the course of a few seasons and when a giant like South China drops back into the lower leagues, it shows a structural issue within the Hong Kong game.
“When you compare some of the old established clubs in South East Asian to old clubs in Hong Kong, the ones in South East Asia are older and are still going and they don’t just fold at any moment.”
Rehman said it was hard to compare the Hong Kong league to the Chinese Super League as the gulf in finances was huge though said, it was great that some Hong Kong players have had the chance to play in those leagues for the challenge and experience.
“The level of finance is miles apart and it is great that some players from Hong Kong can play in the first division and the Chinese super league as it is an opportunity for players to stretch themselves and not be too comfortable.”
Rehman believes in giving back to society and does a lot of work with youths around the world and he hopes he can give others the chance to reach and fulfil their potential, regardless of a career in football or other fields.
“As footballers, we are very lucky and privileged to experience things that maybe a lot of other people wouldn’t so it is just a way to give back and it should be the community where you are so you serve the community that you work in. To just try and help people go to a match or train with someone; just to share what football has to offer as football is probably one of the only things which can bring people together and cultures together. Even in the Hong Kong league, football brings a lot of people together so I think that it is so powerful and you can use football to send positive messages and when football is involved, people begin to embrace each other.”
Rehman knows that a playing career will have to end one day though he believes in life long learning and has worked hard towards his coaching badges and to further his education. When asked if he would like to become a manager, he said he would first like to focus on helping others develop their skills and would like to focus on youth development as this was his passion.
“Coaching is something I am preparing for and I enjoy it and I think the next step will be development and whenever I stop playing, I would not rush into a head coach job as what matters to me is the development of emerging talents and trying to help players transition from youth football but I want to develop players.”