A few months ago, we were contacted by a student who recently gave up pursuing a football career in Hong Kong. This is his story.
My story is not one for the headlines. I’d love to say that I’ll make it as a professional player. That I am an upcoming talent. That one day I’ll spring out of nowhere and become an instant success like Chan Kwong-ho or even Huang Yang.
But I am a realist.
I’m in my early 20s now and I have probably played my last game of competitive football. For me this is not the end of the world. I am not asking for sympathy or understanding. I just want to tell my story on why I decided to bid farewell to a footballing career in Hong Kong.
I grew up playing on street courts and once I was in high school I was driven by the dream of becoming a professional player one day. I was just like any football-obsessed kid: going to school, playing football until dinner time every day, and then returning back home. By the time I had graduated from high school, I had played for a U18 club and a 3rd Division team. I was not at a level to play in the local Premier League, so I was looking for options in lower divisions where I could develop and improve while attending college.
Fortunately enough, after attending an open trial for a Premier League reserves team, I earned a spot on the roster, and soon after, I was given the opportunity to train with the first team. All of a sudden, like many young players before me, I found myself to have become a practice player at a Premier League club, while balancing my dream with my education. To clarify, I wasn’t registered with the first team and was barely getting paid, but it still felt like the first big step towards my goal.
To make you understand how big of a thing this was for me: In 2009 I was watching Au Yeung Yiu-chung captaining the Hong Kong representative team in the East Asia Games. Nine years later, I was actually on the training pitch with him. It was the feeling of conquering one’s dreams, even though I was de facto still just a practice player.
However, what many fans maybe don’t realize is that the 30-men player list that you see at the start of the season does not include all of the players associated with the club. Every team has one or two young players or trialists that are not registered, and some of those players may never have their breakthrough. The thing that grown-ups don’t tell you when you’re an optimistic kid chasing a dream is that the ball is actually not the most important thing. The game is the game, but outside of that, football is just like anything else in life. There is favouritism, politics, loneliness, rejection, disappointment. Many times it doesn’t feel fair and you have to find your way around it. It is almost impossible now to exactly pinpoint what kept me going. Popular culture makes the life of an athlete appear so glamorous, no matter the level of play. People see the trophies. They see the clout. But they don’t see everything behind the scenes.
In reality, you are spending every day of the week at the training ground, potentially sacrificing your education or your career for a potentially tiny contract that most likely starts at around HK $4,000.
To tell the painful truth, most of us will never even get to sign a contract or make a single appearance in a league game, but when you are chasing a dream, you have no time to think about that possibility. No matter how unrealistic your goals seem to be, you cannot doubt yourself, because that is exactly how you will lose.
And so I kept going. I wanted to prove that I really belonged at the professional level in Hong Kong. Eventually, during my last summer at the club, we got ready for pre-season friendly games with other Premier League sides. I was playing well in training and I always thought that I did well enough to deserve a spot in the squad for such occasions. Maybe they were only friendlies, but that didn’t matter to me. Such games meant a real chance to put on my club’s jersey and to represent the crest. It meant proving myself to my coaches.
Two months on, the pre-season came to an end and I had only played 30 minutes out of the 360 that were possible. I briefly played against the defending champions of the league, but for three games I was not even considered. Personally, I feel like I deserved more than that. To a footballer, being left out on matchday is always a slap in the face. There were other practice players on a similar level but less dedicated, and they were still getting picked for these games.
In that moment, the reality suddenly started sinking in. I don’t know how a 20-year-old kid is supposed to handle that. I was devasted. I went to the gym three days a week. I went to training six days a week. And I even stayed after training to work my ass off – only to be left out on matchday. The only day in the week that counts for a footballer.
That pre-season was probably one of the toughest moments of my life and ultimately it got me one step closer to giving up on my dream to become a professional footballer. As an athlete, I never thought about my future outside of football, because the ball was all that mattered to me. I finally had to face life when I reached the junior year of college. I was looking into career paths for a finance major, and I came to realize that continuing with my dying football dream could turn into a huge mistake.
My parents have done everything in their power to set me up for success. They paid for my college education and supported me in whatever I was doing. I was lucky. But maybe now it is time time for me to pay them back.
I eventually stopped playing and focused all my energy on earning a college degree, as this seemed the most reasonable choice, both for myself and my family. My dream was always to play in the Hong Kong Premier League, but life changed. It did not seem worthwhile anymore to risk my future like this and to shy away from responsibility. And suddenly I was not enjoying football anymore.
When I told my head coach that I was leaving, he was very understanding. He thanked me for working as hard as I could every day. But I am also grateful, as he had given me a chance to live out my dreams – even if it was just for a very short period.
Call me what you will. Entitled. Narcissistic. Untalented. Forgotten. That’s okay. But I know that I really gave football everything I had. I never sucked up to the coaches. I never relied on relationships. I was never anything but myself. When I said I wanted to be a professional footballer, many laughed. In the end, they were probably right, as I am now a finance student.
Many of us young players will never make it, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. How many people wake up every day and regret that they gave up their dreams too early? Not everyone gets to be involved with professional football. I get that. And there are probably thousands of kids that would give anything to be associated with a Premier League club. Even if it’s “just” the Hong Kong Premier League. To all those youngsters, I have a final message for you (if you made it this far into my story that is):
If you want to go to the top, the road will never be straight. My lesson was that even good players don’t always make it. Everyone takes hits. Everyone fails. But that is not important. It’s about how you bounce back. That is the most important thing in life. And for many that life is football.
Offside.hk respects the decision of the author to remain anonymous.