While flashes of cameras land on people like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben or Neymar, the football world is full of anonymous players who try to find their way in different leagues around the world.
This is the case of Spanish defender Daniel Cancela who, since 2010, has been playing with great success in the Kitchee Sport Club of the Hong Kong Premier League. Having progressed through the youth divisions with Deportivo La Coruna, Cancela played from 2006 to 2010 with Fuenlabrada CF and CD Lugo, both clubs in the Second Division B of Spain.
After completing his contractual link with the CD Lugo, Cancela received a call from his compatriot, the manager Josep Gombau, who invited him to join Kitchee SC.
Gombau, who until that year had served as technical director of the FCB Escola (a youth academy of Barcelona located in Dubai), was the driver of a real football revolution in the Hong Kong league.
Under his guidance, and with the contribution of Cancela and other Spanish players, Kitchee won the league for the first time in 47 years and became one of the most powerful teams in the competition.
In this exclusive interview with Back Page Football, the Spanish defender looks at his successful passage through Asian lands and reveals his opinions on the the political events that broke out in Hong Kong over the last year.
This is your fifth season in Kitchee SC. Did you expect to spend so much time on such an exotic place like Hong Kong? Was it easy to take the decision to play there?
Of course not at first. When you decide to switch teams, you do so thinking that everything will be okay. But in football, playing for five seasons at the same club is difficult. The decision itself was simple. For some time I wanted to play outside Spain.
The situation in football beyond the first division was already complicated and the idea was to look in other directions. Hong Kong emerged and the decision was easy. And is it was a good decision.
What kind of football is played in Hong Kong? How is the level?
It has evolved over the years. When I came to Hong Kong I found a not very competitive level of football. Only two or three teams in the league could be difficult opponents, and the level of the other clubs was medium to low. But lately it’s changing.
Now the league is a Premier League, and that means higher standards of professionalism in all aspects. In other words, we could say that the four or five top teams in the league could be strong candidates to ascend to the Second Division in Spain.
How is the infrastructure? Can you work without problems or do you think that there are aspects that should be improved?
As I say, it is improving but there are many aspects that are still deficient. Asia is unique in many ways and also in football. His conception of things is different and sometimes collides with our perceptions.
In Hong Kong there is the problem of space. Teams do not have their own facilities and training takes place in public facilities. Undoubtedly this undermines the quality of the preparation.
Luckily Kitchee is a pioneer in this aspect and we will soon be moving to our own sports city. This is luxury for any team in Hong Kong and will have a positive impact on the team.
The team has been one of the entertainers in the league in recent years. You have won three league titles and two league cups, cutting a long title drought for the club. What is the next step? Do you think that you can give the coup at continental level?
Since I came to the club, the ultimate goal is always the league, which is what gives you access to the AFC Cup (a sort of Europa League) in which we have been doing well.
This year we got to the semifinals, which had only been achieved twice by a team of Hong Kong. A couple of weeks ago we played the Preliminary Round of the Asian Champions League, in which we lost against Chonburi, a team from Thailand.
We are still far from being able to compete with the top teams in Asia but we are an ambitious club and that is the goal.
How important was the “Spanish factor” for the Kitchee growth in recent years?
That’s something I should not judge, but the fact is that there has been a positive impact. Before we arrived in Hong Kong, the team was over 40 years without winning the league, and has now won three of the last four. But undoubtedly the one who started all this was Josep Gombau.
The manager – who is now coaching the Adelaide United of Australia – introduced a way to play unknown in Hong Kong and eventually, this idea complemented well with the philosophy of the club. That image has outlived his departure and stayed as Kitchee’s identity. That will certainly be our greatest legacy.
Have you adapted well to life in Hong Kong? Have you created a special bond with this region or you’re just there for work?
It’s been five years since I arrived, half of a football career. My son was born and goes to school here and Hong Kong has been a very important part of my life. It is inevitable to create bonds.
Certainly, it is a difficult society in many ways, very different habits and a significant language barrier. Our adaptation is full but we will always miss our land.
How are foreigners treated in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is a global financial centre, and the concentration of expatriates is very large so it forms an important nucleus of society. Then there are two types of people in HK: those who are integrated into Western culture, speak English and interact with you and those who stay more connected with China and its traditions. For those you will always be a “Gwailo”, a word they use to call foreigners in a derogatory manner.
Last year was quite convulsed at political level. Mass protests demanding greater autonomy in the region have been seen by the whole world. Have they somehow affected the normal course of the league or could football stay out of the political situation?
Football has been left out of the political question. Indeed, much of society has been. Is true that the Occupy phenomenon was very striking, especially the first few days, but generally the life in the city, except in areas where people remained encamped, was not greatly affected. And also football.
Do your teammates express themselves about the protests?
My teammates talked a lot about it in the early days. The situation was unprecedented here in Hong Kong. But after a while no one spoke much. Some of my teammates, who attended to college, were very aware throughout that time.
They were even part of the groups that provided water, food and all kinds of things to the protesters, but in the locker room no one spoke in favour of or against the protests.
Many compared the protests with what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Are they really comparable events or is just a speculation of the press and analysts? Were you able to see some of the protests?
It is not comparable at all. Here, except in very specific cases, the situation was completely peaceful. What happened is that the protests were massive and occurred in a place where information could flow freely, so the impact was greater.
I witnessed many of the protests and the most prominent of these was the positive environment in which they occurred. The tension moments were few.
Surely you are aware of the situation in Spain and the arrival on the scene of PODEMOS. Bridging the great distances, are there any similarities between the two phenomena?
You can not talk about parallels. In Spain there is democracy and here there is none. People took to the streets demanding to be let free to choose who they want as Chief Executive (a kind of governor who is elected with the approval of China).
So far, there is no universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In Spain, luckily we have had that right for years, although the system is going through bad times. The similarity that you can see is the increase of true commitment in the young people.
Before, the young were not interested in politics but now, in the wake of what happened, they have greater participation. The irruption of people, parties and new ways of seeing and doing politics is always good for society.
Returning to football. How do you evaluate your career? Do you have pending bills?
I do not think about what could be and was not. For a while I thought I was unlucky to be in the Deportivo B when it was a top team of Spain and Europe. It is difficult for a left full back foothold on a team when you share squad with Romero and Joan Capdevila. But now I look back and I am proud of that.
Coming to Hong Kong has given me the opportunity to play against the biggest teams in the world (Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Paris St. Germain). Being a professional player for over ten years and have the opportunity to enjoy it with my family is something to be proud of.
What are your plans for the future? Do you expect to stay longer in Hong Kong or do you think in seeking new horizons?
I have one more year of contract and I’m not sure if it will be the last. If all goes well I will continue. What is almost certain is that I’m not going to play somewhere else. When you reach to a certain age and you have a family, you look for certainties and here I have them.
Once I finish my football career we surely return to Spain and I will dedicate to my other passion, journalism. Currently I am working with the Spanish newspaper ABC.
Finally, what is football for you?
It is my profession: from when I wake up until I go to sleep I think about football. It is commitment, dedication and talent. Individual and collective. For me, the most wonderful thing about football is that eleven different minds analyse a match jointly and simultaneously. It is almost magic.