Hong Kong’s leading young footballers are busy preparing for their biggest challenge to date: the qualifiers for the 2018 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U23 Championship.
The team trained with Hong Kong’s senior team coach Kim Pan-gon in Kowloon Tsai Park on Monday, less than a week before they jet off to Pyongyang, North Korea, where they face the host country, Laos and Chinese Taipei.
“The toughest game will be against the hosts,” said Remi Dujardin, 20. “It’ll be an intimidating atmosphere, so our approach to the game will be more defensive. We want to hold them and frustrate them for as long as possible and try to get them on the counter-attack.”
The team will come under the spotlight, playing in front of what could be a full house at the 50,000-capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium. “It’s a new experience. We rarely get this kind of atmosphere in Hong Kong, so we’re just going to try and embrace it. It’s probably going to be one of the greatest moments in our lives,” said Robbie Wu Chun-wing, 19 and student at the City University.
Hong Kong-born Dujardin, a midfielder, is part of the 23-member squad and is confident about the team’s chances. “Our other games against Laos and Taiwan will be different. We’re at a similar level and we’re confident that we can get six points against them.”
The former French International School student, who has returned to Hong Kong after a successful stint in the US, is ready for the challenge. “I imagine when we’re playing, it will feel like everything is against you – basically 23 of us against a whole country. North Korea is such a patriotic and unfamiliar country, so it adds to the pressure,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a game of football. No matter what happens, we’ll make our country proud.”
Wu, also a midfielder, says things are going smoothly and they can’t wait to show their improvements on the pitch. “As a team, we’ve got better since returning from the tournament in Myanmar. Preparations have been very good and we are ready,” said the former YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College student, adding that it’s always an honour to represent Hong Kong.
And if that alone isn’t daunting enough, both Dujardin and Wu are playing well above their age group. “We’re playing two years above, so all the experience we’re getting right now will only help us become better players. We want to help Hong Kong qualify for the championship,” Dujardin said.
Coach Kim, who is from South Korea, is aware that the players will be in unfamiliar territory. “It’s the first time they would be playing in front of so many people. We’ll try to prepare them physically and mentally; how to concentrate, but also to have fun.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups along the way. “It’s a difficult situation because some clubs are still using their players in training, so they’re a bit tired … especially with this hot weather,” said Kim. “But we’re good to go with our targets. We’re still on the right track.”
Before taking charge of the senior team, Kim was the U-22 coach as well as the Hong Kong Football Association’s national academy coach, scouting for and coaching up-and-coming players.
So it’s unsurprising that Kim has a soft spot for the young squad, and it shows. “If we could get a point against North Korea, that would be fantastic. That, along with six points [against Laos and Chinese Taipei], would mean we can challenge for the second round,” he said. “We need to maintain a good goal difference, too. It will be a challenge, but we’re doing our best and I’m looking forward to it.”
Hong Kong play North Korea next Wednesday, followed by matches against Laos (July 21) and Chinese Taipei (July 23).