Sham Shui Po – a team which represents one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts – have signed nine ex-Premier League players. Individually, each player is a son of the district and each is seeking a way back to the top, but together, they embody the dreams of Hong Kong’s working class.
The Premier League season will kick off on Saturday with eight teams – two fewer than the usual ten. With fewer teams, means fewer jobs for players who must now seek alternative forms of employment, while some will choose to leave the professional game entirely.
The First Division, which will kick off the following day on Sunday, has received more attention than usual this season and the reasons may appear contradictory. On one hand, former professionals such as Chan Wai-ho, Chan Siu-ki and Chris Annan have grabbed the headlines as they look set to continue their careers in the league, albeit as amateurs. These players will bring class to the league, whilst also contributing to the stigma of the First Division as a Sunday league of ‘has-beens’ and ‘never will bes’.
On the other hand, there are new players who are looking to use the league as a temporary stop in order to get back into the top flight. As a result of this dynamic, there will be many interesting battles this season between teams full of older, experienced players and younger, less experienced players who are hungry to get back to the top.
Sham Shui Po are looking to take advantage of the latter group. The club have added nine former Premier League players to their squad this season with the hope of helping each player return to the top flight. Their names are Lo Kong-wai, Hui Ka-lok, Chan Ming-kong, Mak Fu-Shing, Au Ching-lok, Leung Sing-yiu, Cheung Ka-lok, Tsang Siu-hong and Joshua Yim Kai-wa. Collectively, the players have appeared in 283 league matches and even more impressive is that fact that each player was either raised or currently resides in the district.
Beyond assembling a team which resembles the people of the district, the team also hopes to emulate the spirit of social mobility which gives its residents hope.
Sham Shui Po, the team, are named after one of the poorest districts in all of Hong Kong. According to the 2018 Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report published by the Census and Statistics Department, 16.6 percent of the district’s population lives below the poverty line – the third highest poverty rate among the 18 districts. Simultaneously, 16.7 percent of Sham Shui Po residents live in subdivided housing and the district is home to 15,400 subdivided flats – ranking second in both categories.
From the tong lau, to the street hawkers, to the famous Golden Computer Arcade, Sham Shui Po retains a distinct working-class spirit which pervades to its district team. Indeed, the club’s continued desire to persevere and punch above their weight, in spite of meagre finances, mirrors the ethic of working class Hong Kongers. However, the club face an uphill battle for relevancy and their challenge is made more difficult by the fact that they are currently embroiled in a standoff with the Sham Shui Po District Council over their funding and authorization to represent the district.
“We rely heavily on coaches and generous donors to support us,” claims the team’s chairperson Chan Chung-shan. “At the moment, we do not receive funding from the District Council and as well, our annual grant from the Home Affairs Bureau has been delayed.”
Sham Shui Po typically receives $500,000 annually from the District Council and another $550,000 from the Home Affairs Bureau through the District Football Funding Scheme. As the club has yet to receive either sets of funds for this season, some may question how the club have been able to function during this tumultuous period.
According to head coach Ko Chun-kay, the team have survived through the help of sponsors although finances remain tight. “It’s been challenging to even retain sponsorship from business who’ve supported us in years past,” he admitted. “Let me give you an example: bottled water. In the past, it was easy to find someone to donate water to us but this year, it was hard. It’s our hope that, because we’ve added so many players who hail from the district, that many more local businesses will become aware of who we are. And if they want to support us by donating or coming on board as sponsors, any amount – big or small – will be welcomed.”
Ko added that the club struggles with necessities such as training wear, noting that the team cannot afford to buy shorts for their players to complement their training tops. “Our training tops are gifts in kind from one of our local sponsors – Atacar – but these tops do not come with shorts,” he said. “We don’t, honestly, have the funds to buy training shorts for our players.”
Of the ‘Sham Shui Po Nine’, Lo Kong-wai is the most decorated member of the group. The 28-year-old winger – who can play on both sides of the pitch – has made over 100 league appearances, been capped six times internationally, and can claim Senior Shield and HKFA Cup victories to his name.
Lo came up through Sham Shui Po’s academy and was signed to the first team in 2008 before eventually helping the team win promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2011. Though the club were relegated after their maiden top flight voyage, he joined head coach Lee Chi-kin and many of the squad’s players at Yokohama FC (HK) the following season. But, the chemistry between Lo and Lee was fraught, and Lo eventually left for South China after the 2012-13 season.
“I don’t think it was the wrong decision,” said Lo, upon reflection. He claims that the pair butted heads on many occasions and recalled that he did not see much action during his lone season at YFCHK. Lo added, “To be honest, I felt that I had to part ways as early as possible in order to reach another level as a player.”
In the years since, many of the players who played under Lee’s tutelage at Sham Shui Po have followed their coach from club to club. The ‘Kin Army’ – as they have been dubbed – have won a league title at Tai Po as well as two other trophies at Eastern. Still, Lo feels no jealousy about the successes that his former coach and ex-teammates have achieved.
“I have no regrets. There’s a lot of luck involved in football. The people I feel bad for are guys like Hung Jing-yip and Lee Ka-ho who’ve left professional football,” he said, referring to two of his teammates on the 2011-12 squad. “If only they could’ve shared in the glory, then I’d be happier. But as it is now, our profession is losing too many players.”
Before R&F’s decision to fold the team, Lo states that he had spoken with management about the possibility of a new contract after the restart of the 2019-20 season. But, as fate would have it, he sprained his ankle in the second match of the restart and was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the season. This left him unable to further demonstrate his value to the team.
The last time Lo Kong-wai kicked a ball for Sham Shui Po, he scored this worldie against Tai Po (Credit: 元朗足球)
After R&F failed to win the league, management decided shortly thereafter to disband the team. Though his contract was due to expire at the end of October, like many of his teammates, he was forced into a desperate scramble to find a new club.
“I think, firstly, my injury was so severe (that clubs didn’t want to take a chance on me),” said Lo about his inability to sign with a Premier League club. “Secondly, my search began too late as many clubs had already decided on their squads for the upcoming season. I asked around but the common responses I got (from clubs) were that they don’t have room in their squads or in their budgets.”
Lo states that he understands that market conditions are poor globally. As it relates to Hong Kong, the number of people willing to invest in a professional club are few as it is not a profitable enterprise, even in the best of times. The winger confessed that there was a hint of sadness in his return to Sham Shui Po.
“I never imagined that at 28, I’d be playing in the First Division,” he confided. “In days following (R&F’s withdrawal), there were nights when I had insomnia because I was concerned about my future. But this is Hong Kong football, where you have to ride the ups and downs like a roller coaster.”
Vowing not to admit defeat, Lo plans to make the most of his second stint with Sham Shui Po. “No one who loves football wants to go out so suddenly like this,” he said. “I don’t want to give up on football, so I would rather play for Sham Shui Po than train with a Premier League club and not see any action.
“But I won’t quit because at the end of the day, I still love the game. The pay will undoubtedly be less but I’m going to keep grinding. I still believe that if I make the most of my opportunities, I’ll find my way back to the top flight.”
His teammates Hui Ka-lok and Mak Fu-shing share his ambition.
“Look, I’ve been playing (professionally) for seven or eight years and this is the third time in my career where the team I’ve been on has disbanded,” said Hui, who is 26. “When (Tai Po self-relegated), I was quite relaxed about my situation. I didn’t look earnestly for another club like some of the other players because I’d been through this before.
“My dream is not dead. Deep down, I believe that I have the ability to get back into the professional ranks, whenever that opportunity may come. I’ve never once thought about leaving football because I grew up with football, so I want to continue to fight my way back onto the Premier League stage.”
Mak Fu-shing, who only recently turned 20, admitted that he had learned a valuable lesson over the past month about the trials and tribulations of professional football in Hong Kong. He says that he hopes to grow even more as a person over the next season.
“A lot of the older players have told me that I needed to prepare for life after football. Now, I must heed their advice,” he said. “But I also want to prove myself and show that I can still play. I know that I still have a lot to offer. I’m just going to put my best foot forward every match and hope that Premier League scouts are watching.”
Although Sham Shui Po are not the only team in the lower divisions to have offered a home to unemployed Premier League players, what sets them apart are the number of players that have been brought in and the relative youth of the players. Of the ‘Sham Shui Po Nine’, eight are below the age of 30. So how did a First Division team with meagre resources manage to attract so many talented players who are entering their prime to come play for the team?
“Our goal this year is to give a platform to players who grew up in the district or played for the team previously and can’t find work in the top flight,” explained Ko Chun-kay. “So, for example, Joshua Yim and Leung Sing-yiu were both products of our academy, who’ve played in the Premier League in the past and who we’ve been able to bring back as a result of market conditions.
“At the same time, through our recruitment, we discovered several players who live in Sham Shui Po such as Hui Ka-lok and Mak Fu-shing. We thought to ourselves, ‘Hey, since the economy is so poor right now, why not reach out and invite them to join the team?’ and that’s how it started.
“But as we got closer to the start of the season, players such as Chan Ming-kong and Lo Kong-wai – both of whom either previously lived in the district or played for the team – reached out to us and then, everything sort of fell into place.”
With so many new faces joining the team, the coaching staff has had to make difficult decisions ahead of the season. This has meant saying goodbye to at least six members of the squad who helped the club achieve promotion to the First Division two seasons ago. However, Ko sees having to make difficult squad decisions as a positive because with better players comes greater competition for minutes.
“We’ve explained to our players that our first objective is to play better than we did last year so that the guys with Premier League experience can get back to the top flight,” the coach expressed confidently. “The second objective, of course, is that we hope that they can help lead the way for our younger players from the district who’ve come through our academy because, obviously, if you have ex-Premier League players on your squad, everyone’s going to be buzzing at training.”
Ko clarified that Sham Shui Po’s budget had remained unchanged from last season. Because lower division clubs players are paid per appearance, the team has simply reallocated its resources by releasing certain players and replacing them with new ones at similar pay rates. While First Division clubs only pay between $1,000 to $3,000 per match – a far cry from the salaries of most Premier League players – the pay is still much higher than that of Third Division clubs who pay as little as $100 per appearance – or nothing at all.
“I think that the biggest challenge for our ex-professionals will be the pay rate because in the lower divisions, we only pay per appearance,” he admitted. “Especially for the players who are raising families, they won’t know how much money they’ll take home until after they’ve played a match.”
With the squad expected to be strengthened after the new signings, some fans have mused about Sham Shui Po’s chances at going back up the top flight for the first time since 2011-12. For his part, Ko refuses to get ahead of himself as he knows that the prospects are still far fetched.
“To be honest, our first season was a transition year for us as we’d not been at this level in quite some time. Even though we’ve added nine former Premier League players, we still need time to gel into a cohesive unit,” he began. “So, to suggest that we could win promotion as quickly as this season would be presumptuous as it overlooks the fact that there are some really good teams in our league like Eastern District. I think that a more realistic objective for us is to finish in the top half of the table. If we play really well this season, we’d expect to receive phone calls notifying us that some of our players have been signed by one of the big boys.”
The coach stated that he has communicated to the players that, should they receive an offer from a Premier League club, they can leave the club right away. Although this may come at the cost of stability, much less, the club’s chances of promotion, Ko maintains that he hopes his best players will be poached.
“From our perspective, we’re mindful of the possibility that we’ll lose our top performers mid-season if we play well – and I hope it happens,” he continued. “Because of this possibility, we can’t target promotion as a realistic objective for us this season. Of course, on the pitch, anything can happen and if it does happen, we’ll have to sit down and think about what to do.
“As for whether promotion is a long term objective for us, it will depend on whether we can attract more sponsors from within our district to step forward and support us. At the end of the day, we fly the flag of our district so we hope that more local businesses will support what we do.”
The team still faces other challenges outside of finances and instability. Although the team’s status as the district’s representative should afford the team priority in booking pitches, sometimes, the government will allocate a seven-a-side pitch to the team, which limits the quality of the training sessions. With Shek Kip Mei Park closed for renovations until next year, the club have needed to look outside the district, from time to time, to find an 11-a-side pitch for training.
“This is a problem for First Division district teams if people expect us to approach Premier League levels of play,” Ko said. “In years past, teams that have been promoted to the top flight do eight or nine (11-a-side) training sessions a week, whereas we train one to three times a week. For us to reach that standard would require a miracle. I hope that people will still come out and support us but please don’t demand that we finish in a promotion spot.”
All in all, despite its challenges, Sham Shui Po have given its players a platform in which to play their way back to the top. Whether they get there will depend on each individual’s effort and the willingness of Premier League clubs to add players.
In one of Hong Kong’s poorest districts lies perhaps the club that most closely resembles its working class. Together, 11 at a time, they chase the dreams they have had since they were children.
They only need one chance.