North District left back Ben Yang was the sole player outside of the top flight to be invited to train in the recent Hong Kong Senior & U23 Team training camp. He talks to us about why he remains as proud as ever to put on a Hong Kong shirt.
Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Football Association announced the list of 24 Senior and U23 players who would train at the reopened Football Training Centre between 14-30 April, in preparation for upcoming international competitions. Although players from Eastern, Kitchee and Lee Man were excluded from the list, many of the expected participants received an invite.
One name which raised a few eyebrows was that of Yang Tsz-pan. The 21-year-old, who goes by the English name Ben, is the sole player on the list who plies his trade outside of the Premier League. Yang came through Tai Po’s academy and made his professional debut in March 2019. He would receive his first cap for the Hong Kong U19’s in September of that year under current Hong Kong U23’s head coach Cheung Kin-fung.
But due to Tai Po’s shocking decision to withdraw from the Premier League in 2020, the left back has been forced to take a step back from professional football. Yang plays as an amateur these days for North District in the First Division while balancing his day job and his university studies.
Through it all, he remains as earnest as ever to represent Hong Kong on the international stage.
Yang fell into football at a young age.
“I was around 3 years old when I first kicked a ball. My mum was worried that I would sit at home and play video games all day so she signed me up for football classes,” he recalled. “After I started playing, I couldn’t stop.”
Asked if he had any fond memories of those classes, Yang distinctly remembers scoring a goal on his first day. He remarked, half-jokingly, that his early success on the playground was the basis for his love of the sport ever since. The classes, which were run by Tai Po, compelled Yang to join the Greens’ academy, where he would later progress through their youth system.
“Initially, I was only in their youth programme because it was a recreational activity to blow off steam,” Yang said. “Then one day, my coach let me know that the Tai Po U10 team was short of players and he thought that I was good enough to play for them. Once I was in the academy, I worked my way up to the U18’s, which is when I started to play for the reserves.
“By the time I turned 15, I don’t know why, but I had this burning desire to become a professional footballer. Quite fortuitously, there was one night when someone told me that the first team head coach, Lee Chi-kin, was coming to watch the reserves play. Knowing that he was there gave me some extra motivation that night to perform. Even when my body felt tired, I found the strength to keep running.
“After that night, I didn’t hear from him. But then, out of the blue, my youth coach rung me up one day and told me that Kin sir wanted me to train with the first team. So, I trained with the first team for a year before I signed my first pro contract a few days after my eighteenth birthday.”
Lee was not the only coach to have spotted Yang’s talent. In 2018, the left back was selected to represent the Hong Kong District All Stars, an exhibition side that was put together for a local showcase tournament organized by the Jockey Club. Though the All Stars eventually finished fourth, Yang’s favourite memory from the showcase was a goal he scored against the Manchester United U16’s.
(Credit: HKJC Youth Football Development Scheme)
Yang made his professional debut in March 2019, coming on as a second half substitute against R&F in the Sapling Cup. At the end of the season which culminated in Tai Po’s first ever league title, Lee left the Greens to become the head coach and director of football at Eastern. Yang stayed at Tai Po and made the starting XI twice for incoming head coach Fung Hoi-man in the Sapling Cup.
Regrettably, the second half of the 2019-20 season was beset by the pandemic, which caused the season to be paused twice. Tai Po encountered salary arrears as a result of the pandemic’s effect on their main sponsor’s business, and by the end of May they were forced to self-relegate.
“It’s unfortunate that the pandemic broke out that year because I’d played a full 90 minutes in the Sapling Cup for the first time ever,” the left back said, though he did not feature in any of Tai Po’s league matches. “After the season was paused for the first time [in January 2020], some of the coaches were changed and not long after that, the club started to run out of money.”
Tai Po’s demise left Yang without a club in the summer of 2020, which led him to make the decision to step away from professional football. He found a job with the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department where he currently works and receives subsidies for his university tuition.
On the pitch, Yang joined Second Division club Fu Moon for the 2020-21 season on the invitation of a friend. Regrettably, the season was put on hold in November due to the fourth wave, during which the club’s chief backer pulled his support due to financial pressure. Eventually, the left back decided against staying at Fu Moon and returned to Tai Po for the second half of the season.
Returning to a place where one achieved their greatest successes may help to revitalize one’s career. But for Yang, who had spent nearly two decades of his life at the New Territories club, he realized that had outgrown his comfort zone.
“Actually, I don’t think I played well last season,” the left back confessed. “At the end, I felt that I was at a crossroads in my career. I’d spent so much time in one place that everything had become stale; I felt that I couldn’t push my game to another level.”
A friend, who had already agreed to join North District referred him to the coaching staff and shortly thereafter, Yang signed on with the club as well. He has appeared in all 10 of the club’s matches this season prior to the shut down.
At 21, Yang has already experienced the dispersal of a squad due to self-relegation, an evergreen tragedy which has led a countless number of players to retire early. Even as Yang nears the second anniversary of Tai Po’s withdrawal from the top flight, he claims that his love of football is as strong as it ever was.
“When I was in sixth grade and about to enter high school…I feel that this is a critical juncture in every Hong Kong kid’s life. It’s as though the rest of your life will be determined by what happens [in high school],” he said. “I was an obedient child so I would obey my mother if she told me to stay in my room and study.
“But it got to a point where she encouraged me to quit football. She would say things like ‘Oh, there’s going to be ample opportunity for you to play football recreationally after you graduate’ and I would push back and tell her that playing football was what I wanted to do for a living. Even if I wasn’t going to become a professional, at the very least [going to training] would allow me to see my mates and blow off steam.
“What’s ironic is that my mum was the one who got me into football in the first place, but my mum was also my biggest obstacle when I wanted to become a professional. Eventually, when I did turn pro, she came out to support me and that meant a lot to me.”
Navigating around such a roadblock was not easy, but Yang says that things have turned around ever since he was called up to Hong Kong U19’s in September 2019.
“My mum’s happier now because, to my family, representing Hong Kong is an honour,” the left back said, proudly. “I’m happy too because this is where I was raised, so to be able to represent [Hong Kong] is such a thrill. In the days after I received the call [notifying him of the call up], I couldn’t sleep. The night before the first training session, I barely slept at all. I was too nervous!”
Although he had been out of the Hong Kong youth setup since November 2019 – and out of professional football for almost as long – Yang is looking forward to the opportunity to wear the Hong Kong shirt again. The infamous U23 drinking binge, which led to the banishment of 11 players has created an opening for him at left back where Hong Kong are short of depth. HKFA chairman Pui Kwan-kay has already revealed to the media that he expects Hong Kong to send its U23 team to July’s EAFF Championship in order to prepare for the Asian Games in September.
“Since the beginning of January, I hadn’t been to a training session or match in three months,” Yang said. “On the first day of training camp, I felt a bit stiff and my movements were not as sharp, but at least I could keep with the lads. It’s going take some time before I can regain full fitness.”
The fact that Yang is the only amateur to be included in the training squad has only served to make the 21-year-old even more determined to put his best foot forward.
“Maybe it’s because I’m an amateur now or maybe it’s because of the lockdown, but I’m even more gracious of the opportunity to play than I was in the past. When I was a professional, I used to train every day and sometimes I would feel like I was just going through the motions. But now, as an amateur, there are fewer opportunities to train so I will definitely cherish it.
“Many of the players at this training camp are my former U19 teammates. They’ve been playing as pros in the Premier League for the past two years and they’ve improved a lot, whereas I’ve been playing as an amateur in the First and Second Division. Although it’s difficult to make up for lost time, I hope that this training camp will allow me to close some of the gap between myself and them and I’m going to work harder than anyone else to make that happen.
“Putting on a Hong Kong shirt gives me such pleasure that I can never feel at the club level and maybe this is because it’s an achievement to represent Hong Kong. I definitely hope to be a part of the Asian Games squad. Representing Hong Kong is an honour, as I’ve said, and in my mind there’s nothing like it.”