Kitchee right-winger Sebastian Buddle still can’t believe what he and his teammates had to deal with late last year. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong so it was upsetting to be labelled as a ‘foreign’ player,” mused Sebastian.
The 17-year-old West Island School student was one of 49 young players that had been caught up in a Fifa-enforced rule last Christmas. In an unprecedented move, the Hong Kong Football Association deregistered the players – all aged under 18 and without a Hong Kong passport – due to a rule on the international transfer of players and the protection of minors.
Under the Fifa regulations, the transfer of players under the age of 18 is not permitted unless the player’s parents move to the country for reasons “not linked to football”. Though questions were raised as to whether the rule should apply to Hong Kong, a uniquely multicultural city in which many foreigners already reside, the ban lasted for three months and ended in the middle of March this year.
“It was very frustrating not being able to play competitively for such a long time,” explained Sebastian, who has been playing with Kitchee since the age of 10. “Our match schedules have been very intense for the last few years. I was used to playing around two matches a week.”
The ban meant that some U18s league matches had to be postponed, leaving Kitchee U18s lagging seven games behind most teams.
As in most sports, getting regular game time is arguably the most important step in consistent development. “It was frustrating knowing there were cup games that I could have been involved in with the first team, that would have provided me with valuable experience,” Sebastian added.
Fellow Kitchee midfielder Barak Braunshtain was also banned from playing. The 17-year-old Island School student felt similar frustrations as Sebastian as he watched from the sidelines for months.
“Before the ban, our U18s and Reserves teams were in great form,” said Barak, who added they’ll have to work twice as hard to gain that previous form back.
Barak still feels the ban was undeserved. “I don’t agree with it. I was born in Hong Kong and I have a Hong Kong ID card; my family didn’t have to move here just for my football career,” he said, hinting at the ambiguity of the Fifa-enforced ban.
The Kitchee back-room staff immediately leapt into action after news of the ban. “When we first heard about the ban, we readied all the forms to be sent to Fifa for investigation to get us back onto the pitch as soon as possible,” said Barak. Kitchee sent the forms during the first week of the ban, but didn’t get a reply from Fifa for four months.
For Sebastian, at least, there was eventually a silver lining.
“It actually helped me improve as a player. Not playing meant I could focus on training with the first team squad, which meant I was training six days a week at a professional level,” Sebastian said.
The day after his ban ended, Sebastian was called up to the first team. He made his professional debut in a Premier League match against Hong Kong Rangers Football Club.
This ruling seems like it was just a minor hiccup in the Kitchee duo’s footballing career, as they look ahead for more first team game time and set their sights on the U18s league title. Their aims don’t just stop there though.
“I want to push for more first team opportunities and to play at the highest level that I can play at,” said Sebastian.
“I want to say a huge thank you to the Kitchee staff who kept us going throughout the ban. Not being allowed to play wasn’t easy. They kept us motivated during training and helped re-register us,” said Barak, who wants to put the ban behind him and focus on his future.
“I can’t wait to get back onto the pitch. Training is very different from being able to play a proper 90-minute game.”
Sebastian echoed these words: “I’m looking forward to playing [regularly] again. I want to push on.”