Everyone is on a journey in life and it is often the hope of fulfilling a certain unique dream which motivates and drives people to keep working hard and pushing themselves to attain their goals. Matthew Lam’s (Kitchee FC of Hong Kong) pursuit to play the beautiful game at the highest level has seen him make huge sacrifices and previously move from country to country just to secure that one elusive break which would place him on the path to success in the footballing world. Lam’s desire to fulfill his dream has taken him from the wide open plans of Alberta, Canada all the way to Hong Kong with numerous stops in between where he experienced both the joys and the lows of professional football.
Persistence and passion are decisive factors in anyone’s rise to the top and behind Matt Lam’s current success was a long winding, strenuous and arduous journey to the top; football is a game of mixed emotions and this is the same for the players themselves and the struggles and obstacles Lam faced to make it as a professional have molded him into the grounded character that he is today. Lam was born in Canada though his father was born and raised in Hong Kong so life has gone full circle for Lam who has now been in Hong Kong for nearly five years. Lam recounted his fascinating journey to becoming one of the most reliable midfielders in Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific. In his long journey to the top, many ‘doors’ of opportunity opened and closed before him though he kept moving forward.
“You have family in Holland so lets bring you to Ajax”
“I started off playing youth soccer for Edmonton and my father was one of the youth coaches at the time and all throughout my youth career and he basically helped me to develop as a player. It was not until I was 15 that the university coach of the University of Alberta gave me a chance; he was originally from Middlesborough and he gave me the opportunity to go over to Middlesborough for a trial so I was in Middlesborough. I was 15 and Middlesbrough were in the Premier league during that time and I was offered, after a months trial, a two year youth contract with them and so that was the plan. I was going to be with Middlesbrough though there was some difficulty with the permanent residence application as I was under 18 so I needed a parent or guardian to live with me over in England and that was not possible so it was taking quite some time to arrange that so in the meantime, my current agent I have now, I met him and he said ‘You have family in Holland so lets bring you to Ajax’ and I was like “Ok!”
Lam’s mother is Dutch so moving to join the famous Ajax academy was a source of serious pride and aside from being able to experience life in yet another country, Lam would be receiving one of the best football educations in the world whilst at Ajax.
“It was great as Ajax were like my family’s club and all my family from Holland, they all support Ajax and everything so it was just a no-brainer to go over there. Ajax also offered me the same two year youth contract with them and so I spent two years over in Holland with Ajax. After that I went to England to Sheffield United and I was there for a year. It is was a difficult period for me as I could not sign a permanent deal with them as Ajax were looking for youth compensation and they were asking for quite a hefty fee and their fee kind of drags on till you are 23 years old so that kind of followed me around and lead me on the path that I kind of took.”
Lam’s footballing journey took him back the England as well as Germany. Lam’s next port of call was in Croatia which proved to be a defining period for him as he found himself in a very difficult situation and Lam faced the harsher realities of professional football as he found himself without a salary at one point. For all the glitz and glamour of top level football, a professional’s life can be fraught with uncertainty with many not knowing where they will be in the near future.
“I had my landlord from my apartment come and knock on my door saying that you need to pay otherwise you will need to leave”
“Yeah, I was at Sheffield for a year then after that I sort of bounced around and I was looking for clubs and I was on trials with some really big clubs such as West Brom and Bayern Leverkusen in Germany and all were similar situations like where they said to me ‘Yeah, you are good enough to play’ but they were unwilling to pay the big fee to Ajax so that is when I went to Croatia and I spent five months in Croatia with three of them being paid. It was a tough situation for me and it was a good footballing experience in the sense that, I was with a club that were playing in the top league in Croatia so as a 19 year old, being able to play in the first team in the top league in Croatia was great but after I got my first appearance as a sub with them, that was the fifth loss in a row for the team and that is when everyone’s salaries were cut basically. No one was getting paid anymore as the owner said he wasn’t happy and that he did not have anymore money. That was an experience, especially as a young player. After a couple months more months of not being paid, I had my landlord from my apartment come and knock on my door saying that I need to pay them otherwise I will need to leave in the most broken english conversation with this landlord , I was trying to explain that it was not me that pays them, it is the club and so the landlord was like ‘I do not care, you have to get out’ so I basically just packed my bags and went back to Canada.”
“I was back in Europe shortly after. I was supposed to sign with a German third division club and it was also a good opportunity but the I got a phone call from a Dutch manager who was taking over a brand new club in my home city of Edmonton, Canada. I got the phone call from Dwight Lodeweges; he was really well known in Holland and he coached some top clubs like Sport club Heerenveen, NEC and he was also interim coach for a while at PSV. When he called me and when I knew he was taking over this brand new club in my home city then I was like like ‘Ok, I can’t really turned this down’ and so I was there for about a year and after the year, when we were just about to enter into the league, he was picked up by a Japanese club and I was pretty distraught as I had went back to Edmonton basically for him.”
Despite all the set-backs, these first tastes and glimpses of professional football stirred Lam to keep pursuing his dream to the next level.
“There were some difficult times and a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows in the career but I always knew that as soon as I got my first taste of what real professional football was when I was over in England for the first time in Middlesborough, ever since then I decided that I have to do everything I can to be a footballer. When Lodeweges left for Japan, I got a phone call from him asking me if I was interested in joining him overseas with him in Japan. It was a really big club in J2 of Japan. JEF United from Chiba, a really big club and two years before I had been there, there were the only club previously for twenty years that had not been relegated from the J1 to J2 and they are still stuck in J2 and they are doing everything they can to come back up but that was a fantastic experience for me and unfortunately I was only able to sign a loan deal as I had just signed a new three year contract with my club in Edmonton and that was when the Japan offer came in and I was fortunate enough to spend a year over there. Then after that I went back to Edmonton for another year and it was a disappointing season as a lot of things happened there which should not have happened”
A new door swung open…
Life went full circle for Lam when Hong Kong became an option for him to continue his professional development. South China initially showed interest in Lam though it was Kitchee who eventually picked him up and Lam has been there ever since. Lam joined at a time when Kitchee’s footballing philosophy was being redefined by the then Kitchee manager, Joseph Gombeau who has currently the manager of the Australian U23 team. Lam benefitted from this form of mentorship and guidance after overcoming so many hurdles and has blossomed into the consummate professional he is today.
“I was actually contacted by South China. My agent started reaching out to going to Hong Kong as my father is from Hong Kong and we figured that I would be able to get the passport straight away so we reached out and it was South China who were interested first and that interest began to fade a little bit. They were a little unaware of my abilities and stuff at the time so I trained with Kitchee for about a week and a half to two weeks and I was offered a contract and I have been with Kitchee ever since which is about four and half years ago. I came in then and the coach was Joseph Gombeau and so he was a really good manager in terms of player management and he could see quality in players and I showcased myself fairly well in the trials and I have been fairly regularly playing with Kitchee in my career and we have had some numerous managers. It has been nice to be with one club with stability. Hong Kong gives that stability to players regardless if it is with one club and or another club. It is an interesting place and I never imagined myself playing in Hong Kong and I am really enjoying it.”
Lam’s father was born and raised in Hong Kong before settling in Canada so Lam’s ‘homecoming’ to Hong Kong was a significant for the Lam family as it allowed Lam to return to his roots and become greater acquainted with the city in which his father grew up in and left to pursue a new life in Canada. Lam’s father initially wanted him to play ice hockey which is a Canadian passion but football was always the sport for the younger Lam growing up in the wide open spaces of Alberta, Canada.
“Where I am living now is where my grandmother used to live and grew up and went to school so it is pretty cool.”
“I do not have much family in Hong Kong as most of them have left and are living in Canada and the United States; there are some distant relatives here in Hong Kong. My father is always just blown away as he moved to Canada years and years ago and that his son is playing football in the city that he grew up in. Where I am living now is where my grandmother used to live and grew up and went to school so it is pretty cool. My father is a football fan and a football player himself and he moved to Canada when he was 18 or so and he was the one who started me off on my playing career as a kid. He would have preferred us playing ice hockey as we lived in Canada and it was just in our blood, my older brother and my younger sister played football so even though my father tried to place us in ice-hockey which is more natural for Canadians; we went against the grain and we said ‘No, we are footballers’ and we all just love the game!”
Lam also reflected on Kitchee’s stirring run in the Asian Champions league qualifiers where they defeated Hanoi 3-2 in a classic game and eventually fell to Ulsan away in South Korea. Lam said these performances gave a great indication of the level of the Hong Kong game.
“Everyone who watched any of Kitchee’s games in the ACL can see that the top clubs in Hong Kong can definitely compete at that level and it was a heart breaker that we did not go through and in the game against Ulsan, we arguably had the better of the chances and we played a bit more defensive then we normally like to but in the league we are a lot more offensive but yeah it was so unlucky that we did not go through and it shows the quality of the players that we have in that team is quite a high level and we are definitely able to compete and yeah it is great for Hong Kong football in general and we have Eastern in there competing in an absolutely dreadful group; probably the worst group to get drawn in but they already have a point from their games so far. It was an unfortunate start for them but to play with nine players against arguably the best team in Asia is always going to be difficult.”
Lam also shared his opinions on the Chinese Super league and says that, given the decent showing of both Eastern and Kitchee in the Asian Champions league 2017, that Hong Kong’s top teams could be able to be competitive against the best club teams in China though he did acknowledge the gulf in finances which made it difficult for Hong Kong clubs to reach the next level.
“I believe Hong Kong is a great gateway to open up to the rest of Asia.”
“I would not say that Hong Kong football is falling behind. It will never be able to compete with the financial backing that the super league has and yeah, I think obviously there is a big gap and in terms of quality, the overall quality of the CSL is obviously much better but there are a number of quality players here in Hong Kong that could and should be playing in those leagues but due to timing and opportunity, it has happened that they have not been able to get over there. There is quality in the top teams here in Hong Kong which could compete at that level. It is showing that not all those teams in the CSL are able to compete in the Asian Champions league as well and we are more or less on the cusp of breaking in there and so I think is always going to be difficult as the financial backing is incredible and we will never be able to compete with that. In terms of players, I believe Hong Kong is a great gateway to open up to the rest of Asia.”
Matthew Lam’s life has gone full circle and both his personal and footballing journey will continue on though right now he is content with life in Hong Kong. Would he swap all the challenges and obstacles he faced which moulded him into the player and person he is now? Probably not.
Photos by JRP Borthwick, J Greenberg, Chris KL Lau