Just the start for confident Kitchee

There is no better way for a football club to celebrate the anniversary of its foundation than by winning a title. Just ask Hong Kong side Kitchee, who have commemorated their 80 years of existence by winning the national 1st Division Football League, their first championship triumph since 1964. In doing so they beat off the challenge of their biggest rivals, South China, who have 40 league championships to their name and former England international Nicky Butt and Serbian striker Mateja Kezman in their ranks.

Coached by Spaniard Josep Gombau, Kitchee won their two games against South China and lost only two of their 18 matches, drawing two others and winning the rest. In doing so they showed power up front and defensive solidity, scoring 52 goals in the campaign and conceding only 16, the best figures in the league on both counts.

“It was an unforgettable celebration,” Gombau told FIFA.com. “On a personal level I couldn’t be more satisfied and we’re all thrilled with our achievement. We’re very excited now at the prospect of taking part in the next AFC Cup. It’s my second season in charge here and I’ve noticed a big change. The league’s getting stronger and stronger, teams are more organised and the competition’s getting tougher by the day.”

A project for the future
Developing Hong Kong football. That is the goal that brought Gombau to this part of the world. “I was a director at Barcelona’s academy and during that time Kitchee organised a friendly with the first team,” he said. “That led to a partnership agreement and the opening of a football academy for children, and that’s how I started. They then asked me to take charge of the first team.”

As well as the academy, where children receive all kit and equipment free of charge, the agreement also led to the creation of an educational project run in conjunction with the university. “The man responsible for it all is club president Ken Ng,” explained Gombau, who has gone from running the academy to winning the title in four years. “Mr Ng has a global vision and he doesn’t see the project as something exclusively for Kitchee. What he wants to do is promote football throughout the country.”

That objective seems to be coming closer to fruition. Attendances are up, interest in the national league is growing and the arrival of star players, albeit approaching the end of their careers, is helping to raise its profile. Kitchee are a case in point, with no less than six Spaniards in their squad, all of them doing their bit to nurture the local game.

“In sporting terms it’s been very easy to adapt to life here,” continued the coach. “Asian players are very disciplined and committed. They make an effort and work hard, and they also pay attention and learn fast. Their only weak point is their physique. They lack height and power, though they make up for that with skill and speed.” And when it comes to a style of play, there is only one gospel that the former Barcelona academy man preaches: possession football.

International exposure
Kitchee followed up their long-awaited league win by coming out on top in the HK International Soccer Sevens, a seven-a-side tournament also featuring the likes of Boca Juniors, Ajax, Liverpool, Glasgow Rangers, Aston Villa and Glasgow Celtic, all of them fielding talented young sides.

The club’s anniversary festivities are set to continue with a friendly on 27 May against Spain’s Villarreal, a game that will also raise funds for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March. Flying in to bolster the Kitchee line-up for the game will be none other than Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata.

Finally, on 27-30 July the Hong Kong champions will host English Premier League teams Chelsea, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers in the Asia Trophy, a tournament Gombau is very much looking forward to: “It’ll be wonderful for us to take on these teams. Obviously there’s a big difference in terms of class but we’ll give it our all. We’re very excited for our fans.”

The Spanish tactician has already started planning for next season, and with a number of extra games in store following their qualification for the AFC Champions League, he is looking to strengthen the squad: “It’s very exciting to be competing at international level. It’s a fascinating challenge for me as a coach and a great opportunity too. We’re delighted to be taking it on and we really want to enjoy it.”