Hong Kong (AFP) – Raúl Baena grew up at FC Barcelona, training in the core of the youth team with the respected Sergio Busquets and established himself in the Spanish elite under the orders of the Argentine Mauricio Pochettino in the city’s rival, Espanyol.
But this former Spanish under-21 international is now savoring the honeys of success in Hong Kong, winning the first league of his record and writing a page in the modest footballing history of this small territory.
Thanks to an impressive header from him in added time, his Kitchee FC leveled the score against Andrés Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe of Japan (2-2), a draw that allowed them to qualify for the knockout phase of the Asian Champions League.
Two minutes later he was sent off, but the job was done: for the first time, a team from Hong Kong would compete in the final rounds of the great Asian football championship.
“I still remember it every day despite being on vacation,” the 33-year-old footballer told AFP by phone from Spain, where he is resting, taking advantage of the fact that competitions in Hong Kong are suspended due to covid and should not return until August.
“For me, that goal was a very important moment. I know what it means for Kitchee, for Hong Kong. It is a historic goal that helps us continue to grow, continue to improve and continue to put Hong Kong in a very good place.” , Explain.
“What we have done this year, two years ago or last year was unthinkable,” insists the defensive midfielder, assuring that people laughed last year when he said that the goal was to get out of the group stage.
Training with a mask
The achievement is even greater when you consider how the defending champions of the Hong Kong league made it to the group stage in Thailand between April and May.
In January, the city was plunged into a massive Covid outbreak that paralyzed domestic competitions and closed sports facilities, including its modest stadium of less than 7,000 seats.
Unable to train with the ball, the players were at first close to the field with a mask and in small groups to do some kind of exercise, but “nothing to do with football,” recalls Baena.
Later, the restrictions were tightened and they were forced to train on their own until the club, a month and a half before the competition, sent them to Thailand to “train normally and play friendly matches”.
“It has been difficult physically and mentally,” he says.
“In the end, they take you out of your area, out of your work environment. We are here to play football, we have been doing this all our lives and suddenly you can’t do anything,” he adds.
“We can’t settle”
Born in the south of Spain, Baena was recruited as a teenager for the lower categories of FC Barcelona, where legends such as Lionel Messi, Cesc Fábregas or Sergio Busquets were trained.
But instead of following in his footsteps towards the first team, the man from Malaga opted for the city’s rival, Espanyol de Barcelona, where he would consolidate himself in the elite under the orders of Pochettino and after the Mexican Javier Aguirre.
He then went through Rayo Vallecano and Granada and tried his luck in Australia and Greece before ending up in December 2020 at the Kitchee, where the Uruguayan Diego Forlán scored the last goals of his successful career.
“I liked the idea of playing in the Asian Champions League, of being in a powerful team from Hong Kong and fighting to win titles that I had never achieved as a professional,” explains Baena.
With a team that mixes local figures with foreign soccer players, some nationalized who play with the Hong Kong national team, Baena is already aiming for the next challenge: the round of 16 against Thai Pathum United in August.
Reaching the knockout rounds “is a very big step, but we can’t settle for it,” he says.
© 2022 AFP