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Battlers on the pitch, best friends off it: a tribute to Hong Kong legends Lo Kwan Yee and Lam Ka Wai

The world of professional football is a competitive one. So to have childhood friends playing alongside each other and gradually representing the country together is rare, let alone playing for the same club for 10

The world of professional football is a competitive one. So to have childhood friends playing alongside each other and gradually representing the country together is rare, let alone playing for the same club for 10 long years. JPF pays tribute to this iconic friendship that has propelled Kitchee and Hong Kong football for the past decade…

 

As the brand new Hong Kong Premier League season kicked off last weekend, the local football fans would have noticed something odd. Synonymous with Kitchee for the past decade, Lo Kwan Yee and Lam Ka Wai are no longer donning the famous blue shirt.

 

Kwan Yee is now with R&F while Ka Wai has joined Eastern. Fate would have it that both players were to face each other as opponents for the first time in 10 years as quickly as in the opening fixture and were subsequently involved in the match-defining incident.

 

As both players jumped for a header in the 80th minute, Kwan Yee’s arm struck Ka Wai’s face – earning the former his second yellow of the game as he received his marching orders.

 

Trailing 2-1 at that stage, Ka Wai’s Eastern capitalised on the numerical advantage by scoring two late goals to win the game 3-2 at the death.

 

Friendship was the biggest winner of the night though, as both players still met up for post-match supper and chatted long through the night. It is incredible how the duo could put aside whatever happened during the match to do so and that can only happen when both are long-time BFFs.

 

 

 

Start of an iconic friendship

 

The two talented footballers first crossed each others’ paths when they were called up to the Hong Kong Under-16 squad and gradually grew closer as they felt their characters ‘matched each other’.

 

They then spent their teenage years at Hong Kong Rangers together, with Kwan Yee becoming the youngest-ever player to feature in the then-First Division at 15 years and 309 days while Ka Wai gradually made the first team after two loan spells elsewhere.

 

The former then transferred to Kitchee in 2007 after eight years with Rangers and was joined by the latter a year later.

 

Together the two would propel Kitchee to unprecedented success – winning six top-flight titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups and one Senior Shield from 2008 to 2018, while playing alongside each other regularly for the Hong Kong national team – with more than 100 international caps between them.

 

Given the no. 12 and no. 10 shirts, right-back cum defensive midfielder Kwan Yee and midfield playmaker Ka Wai quickly rose to become Kitchee’s captain and vice-captain respectively.

 

 

Unpredecented success with Kitchee

 

Under their leadership and the guidance from Spanish coach Josep Gombau, the club won their first Hong Kong top-flight title in 47 years during the 2010-2011 season – beating rivals South China by a solitary point.

 

In particular Ka Wai enjoyed an outstanding campaign with nine goals from midfield – including two goals in an important 4-3 away win against South China – as Kitchee earned the right to play in the 2011 Barclays Asia Trophy and 2012 AFC Cup.

 

Their passion for football would come at a cost in the subsequent off-season though, as the club stripped them of their captaincy roles after the duo accepted a friend’s request to participate in an amateur football tournament without the club’s consent. Ka Wai had broke his fibula in the process and was ruled out for a considerable amount of time.

 

Credit to both players, they learned their lessons and worked doubly hard to prove their worth to the team – which eventually resulted in them earning back the captaincy roles some time later.

 

Both players went from strength to strength from there. Kwan Yee was named Hong Kong Footballer of the Year in 2011-12, while Ka Wai scored the winning goal in Hong Kong’s 1-0 friendly win over Singapore in June 2012.

 

 

The latter also produced a standout display in Kitchee’s 2-5 loss to English Premier League giants Manchester United in a pre-season exhibition game in July 2013 – dribbling past Michael Carrick to power home a long-range howitzer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DeXVKfidIdI) that earned the adulation from the home fans before grabbing an assist later in the game.

 

While the coaching reins switched hands a number of times after Gombau’s departure in 2013, it did little to stunt the progress of Kitchee as they continued to prosper with the game of football getting more and more popular in their homeland.

 

The inaugural Hong Kong Premier League replaced the old First Division in 2014-2015 and it was unsurprisingly won by Kitchee, whom also won the FA Cup and League Cup that season to win their second-ever Treble under another Spanish coach in the form of Jose Francisco Molina.

 

In 2016-17, Kitchee won a third Treble – capturing the Senior Shield, FA Cup and league title under homegrown coach Chu Chi Kwong. That pushed the club amongst the elite of Asian football as they participated in their inaugural AFC Champions League campaign in early 2017.

 

Ka Wai starred as he scored a last-minute header (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6t1O2UuZzA) to help Kitchee down Vietnam’s Hanoi FC 3-2 in extra-time during the Preliminary Round 2 clash, although it proved to be in vain eventually as they lost to South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai on penalties in the Play-off Round.

 

 

The start of the end

 

While this is the start of bigger and better things for the club, it also marked the end of Kwan Yee and Ka Wai’s memorable careers in the famous blue shirt.

 

With the club going in a different direction with quality foreigners coming in (one example being Diego Forlan at the start of 2018) and a couple of promising youngsters coming through the ranks, the veteran duo saw a drop in game time last season.

 

Kwan Yee was in the starting lineup just four times, while Ka Wai started only three out of 18 league games as “the Barca of Hong Kong” romped to another Treble.

 

While it was always their dream to bow out with Kitchee, both players knew that change was necessary for them to get more playing time in these last few years of their football careers.

 

As such they took the painful decisions to leave their beloved club after 10 years playing alongside each other – with Kwan Yee joining R&F, while Ka Wai went to Eastern in the off-season.

 

While they are now lining up opposite each other, their friendship and bond remains strong as ever – something that JPF can certainly testify to.

 

 

Friendship with JPF

 

It was in 2013 when JPF got to befriend this iconic duo as we got the chance to speak to Ka Wai through the help of Dan Ito, the veteran Japanese player who has played in almost 20 countries around Asia.

 

We wanted to do our first-ever Hong Kong player interview and we found Ka Wai the type of profile which we wanted. After chatting on the phone, we flew to Hong Kong to meet him in person and we have kept in touch ever since.

 

Through him, we got to know Kwan Yee as well. From there, JPF built up an unlikely friendship with both players – meeting up for coffee or meals whenever we’re in Hong Kong or when they’re in Singapore for AFC Cup or Hong Kong national team duties.

 

It is usually a family affair when Kwan Yee and Ka Wai meet up, with the respective spouses and children all joining in as well. Interestingly one of JPF’s earlier meetings with the duo even involved discussions about how Ka Wai was going to propose to his then-girlfriend (and now wife)!

 

This bond is only more likely to get stronger when they eventually hang up their boots and proceed onto the next phase of their lives.  It is truly heartwarming to see such stories of friendship in the competitive world of football.

 

At JPF, we wish both of them the best as they embark on this new journey with their respective clubs.

 

Article: Junpiter Futbol/ Kenneth Tan

 

 

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