On the spectrum of Hong Kong football, where does university football feature? Is it easy to be a student athlete these days, as people seek to both balance their education and train in their chosen sport? In an ultra-competitive world, more and more university students are looking to maximise their options and packing their schedules as they seek to gain an advantage in all areas of their lives; including sports.
Marko Nadj, currently a student at the City University of Hong Kong, is one of many undergraduates who strikes a fine balance between studies and their athletic pursuits. He took the time to explain how the HK football universities competitions works and how he ended up leaving Serbia to come to Hong Kong to study.
Arriving in Hong Kong
“My story about coming to HK was pretty turbulent and interesting. Like many athletes from Serbia and other European countries that do not manage to play at top level by the end of high school (which in Serbia is around age 17-18), I had plans to continue my career and use my talent in order to get a scholarship abroad, focusing mainly on the US. I had gotten a couple of offers from there, but since the tuition fees were pretty high and they could not cover all of my expenses there and I was still considering their possibilities.
I started studying in Serbia, and then in the middle of my first year of studying, I met people from the City University of Hong Kong, who offered me a scholarship here in Hong Kong.
I have to admit, I was very reserved in the first place, my thinking was: ‘It is Asia, super far away from home, football is not as great as here or in the US, etc.”
But after giving myself some time to think, I considered every possibility, and here I am, in Hong Kong. Everything turned out to be good, I came here in 2019 for the first time and so far I have been enjoying most of the time here.”
University Football in Hong Kong
Compared to some global university sports programs where college sports attract millions of fans and generate billions in revenue, Nadj explained how the different universities in Hong Kong compete against each other, the level of play as well as the support involved and how frequent the games are.
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“There are 12 universities in Hong Kong that compete in the male football league organized by USFHK,” Nadj said. “The teams are divided into two groups of six and each university plays against every other team from their group once (5 fixtures). After this phase, the top two teams from both groups play in the final tournament (semi-final and final match). This system gives every team a chance to play 7 matches per year tops.”
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Nadj suggested that the format could change to improve overall play:
“My personal opinion, is that we could have more, maybe we could have a full league in the future, with all universities playing against each other home and away, just like HKPL. Also, I don’t want to forget to mention Jackie Chan’s Cup. It is played at the beginning of every academic year in September and October, before the USFHK competition starts.”
Video: Youth Football Training
He went onto talk about how academics was still the priority for many tertiary institutions.
“Between 8 and 10 teams are participating, I have to brag a little bit and mention that this year, we were the cup champions and now we are going toward the double, with two wins in the first two matches!”
In other nations, student athletes have many options and financial resources to help them fulfil their goals though in HK, academics is still the top priority and though there is a slow shift away from this; it is still deeply ingrained.”
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Some global universities offer a pathway to a sporting career and everything is geared for students to place themselves in the shop window and this publicity is multiplied due to the vast media coverage. For others, sports scholarships at universities are a chance to build a better life or change a person’s circumstances.
Nadj explained how sports at HK universities are structured.
“To be completely honest, the level of university football is not as near as high as I expected it to be when I was coming.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing players in our league, some of them are even the most important players in their teams in HKPL. But the main problem about university football in Hong Kong is the lack of importance, funds, and organization.
Unfortunately, universities in Hong Kong are just not dedicated enough to sports teams. It is still far away from the level of the US university competitions, they have much better facilities, equipment, medical care, more staff and so on.
I understand HK is not as focused on sports as much as they are, so the situation here is understandable. However, I have to mention that my impression is that competition has improved a little bit since I came here three years ago and if we see some changes in the future, I expect it to be even better.”
Ultimately, is it easy for university students to juggle their schedules as they combine both academic pursuits and their own hobbies and interest?. Sports related careers and academic courses are more prevalent these days and options include Sports Psychology, Sports Media and Sports Science and sometimes, the pursuit of sports and academic studying can be combined.
“It is not super difficult and one of the reasons for that is the fact I mentioned above, the competition and training levels of the university teams are not on an extremely high level.”
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How Good is University Football in HK?
The level of training and intensity could be higher he feels:
“We have only two trainings per week, so for someone like me, who spent the entire childhood having 5-6 trainings per week and a match every weekend, you can imagine how much more free time I have since I came here. Of course, I have gym sessions and regularly have training even though we don’t have them as much as with a university team, it is not as nearly as much as I used to have back in Serbia. So, there is enough time for practice and studying. I am halfway through my third year and so far I haven’t had a single problem with it.”
Photo: Nadj playing for City University
There are several examples of footballers who were academically inclined and managed to play at the top level and sometimes, the reverse happens and former players end up studying.
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As someone who comes from a strong football nation where sports, especially football is paramount, Nadj gave his views on the HKPL and the standards of play compared to the rest of the world.
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“When I came to HK I was not very familiar with HKPL, but then I started going to a lot of matches, met a lot of players playing here, and now that I have seen a lot of matches, I can say that I like it. I think there are a couple of players who have a great potential to play on a higher level in Asia or Europe.
One of the things I dislike about HKPL is a bit of an inequality between top and bottom teams, it is huge. Something has to be done about that in the future in order to have even more competitive and interesting competition. I think Hong Kong people really love football from what I have seen, and they deserve even a better league.
I’d like to mention that one of my goals actually is to try to play in HKPL after I graduate here. My visa conditions do not let me play there right now, however I have talked to some Division 1 teams about joining them, since that is the only league I am legally allowed to play in. I will not say the name of any team I was talking to, because I still haven’t agreed with any of them.
Currently everything is postponed due to this small outbreak, but I hope after that everything will be settled and I can finally start playing in D1 and fully enjoying Hong Kong football!”
As with life, success in sport depends on many different factors out of a person’s control and everyone’s path has twists and turns for better or worse. Student athletes are wise to keep all their options open.