I’ve begun to notice, through my friends in Hong Kong and through some online research, the rise in American sports in Asia. To my surprise, Ice Hockey and American Football have become relatively popular and often played in Hong Kong – however, maybe this is just due to my ignorance. Having said this, I became interested in finding out a little more about how this all started and wanted to take a look at some of the teams pioneering this success in a country better known for its’ finance sector, horse racing and dragon boat racing than any other mainstream sport.
Hong Kong Cobras
I managed to get in touch with a local Hong Kong American Football Team called the Hong Kong Cobras and had a chat with their President, Benjamin O’Neill. They are a young, determined team made up of locals and expats who are about to embark on their first season competing at the highest-level of Chinese American Football. Their story is one of a rapid rise driven by a small group of determined guys with a love for the game.
The Cobras began life in 2011 as just a group of football fans who wanted to meet up and just throw some balls. As the weeks wore on, more and more guys joined up and eventually, they had the beginnings of a team. The guys begun to get more serious and wanted to start hitting like the pros and so they went out to get some equipment and football gear and started looking for teams to play. The first two years were spent struggling to find competitive teams to play and multiple matches against the Philippine Punishers were the most they could manage – until now.
Next season, The Cobras will compete in the AFLC (American Football League of China). This will pit them against some of the toughest teams in China with 5 regular season games planned between September and December. If they do well, they will make the playoffs and be in with a chance of winning the Championship of China – this is the highest level of football played in China and Hong Kong.
The League and Rivalries
Hong Kong currently has 4 teams but only 2 of these are at an appropriate stage to compete. The Cobras and the Warhawks have had some heated exchanges in the past and their rivalry runs deep despite the youth of the sides. Having said this, collaboration has been possible for the good of the league’s development but come matchday in the AFLC, sporting competition will take main stage.
The AFLC gained a huge boost with the recent acquisition of former Michigan tight-end Chris McLaurin stepping up to become League Commissioner.
The league consists of 12 teams consisting of teams from mainland China including Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing as well as the two Hong Kong teams and a couple from Guangzhou also. The AFLC gained a huge boost with the recent acquisition of former Michigan tight-end Chris McLaurin stepping up to become League Commissioner. By all accounts, he has done an incredible job so far of leading the development of the league – the pre-season has gone well so far and the Cobras are prepped and ready for their first fixtures. It has been a long time coming for some of the squad and come the start of the season I’m sure they will be pumped and raring to go!
Training and Preparation
Booking fields and finding free space in Hong Kong is notoriously difficult. The competition from a multitude of sports for the same spaces makes it a real challenge to even practice.
Some of the squad wake up extra early just to get there first and book the pitch before anyone else!
Their adopted home is the Happy Valley Sports Ground in Causeway Bay but the ultimate for the Cobras is a place they can call their own, hopefully this is just a matter of time – in their desperation to train, they’ve even ended up practising as far out as Tung Chung. It really hits me how dedicated this team is; constantly making sacrifices and doing anything they can to ensure that they train keeping in mind their goal of finally competing on a grander stage.
Objectives and Future Plans
Since 2011, the plan has always been the same, which is nice. We want to develop Football in Hong Kong into a spectator sport. We want people to understand and appreciate the game like we do and come out to watch us play. – Benjamin O’Neill, President – Hong Kong Cobras
The biggest hurdle for the team is expenses – Football is an expensive sport to play. Every player pays his own way to be part of the team. That includes thousands of Hong Kong Dollars for kit, for time on the training pitch, the travel throughout China to compete and it goes without saying that help from sponsors and donors would help them immensely. From my understanding, the Cobras are actively seeking out sponsors – every team needs this to grow and they have an ambitious squad and management team.
The sport has grown quickly in the last few years and there is still a lot of potential waiting to be unleashed too. Their hearts are in American Football and they are all keen to gain recognition and grow and share their love of the sport with the rest of the country.
Name: Thomas Man, 22
Position: Wide Receiver/Cornerback/Quarterback
Nationality: Hong Kong
Thomas is a 22 year old school teacher from Hong Kong and was one of the original members of the team back at the dawn of American Football in the country. He used to watch the NFL on TV a few times and having started by just throwing a ball amongst some friends, the team grew into the Cobras over time. His drive stands out and it is players such as Thomas that are necessary to grow a sport in a new country. His effort is exemplary and I hope the Cobras can continue to grow and that Thomas’ dreams continue to be fulfilled.
The sport involves a lot more than just “big hits and contact”, there is so much more skill involved. It’s also a great stress reliever. Says Thomas
He works hard in the gym too to maintain his physique and enabling himself to lead by example – his gym routine consists of a lot of plyometics, explosiveness training and working his core.
Unsurprisingly, Thomas has a strong respect for his parents and says that they are big figures in his life. “My father displays the same leadership and command of his business as I like to emulate on the football field, and my mother displays the detail-oriented focus that I hope to pick up on as well, especially when helping to plan out practices and designing playbooks.”
Thomas was keen to point out that whilst he may not be the largest member of the team, it is his speed and technique which sets him apart. “I play with the mentality that I will out-play my opponent no matter who they are or how good they are, you have to play with a certain level of confidence. Any hesitation, and the play will have gone right past you.”
Thomas and his friends worked hard to get where they are today and used their own money to fund their helmets, pads and other gear. Thomas himself has been there from the very beginning and is extremely proud of this.
I am just very happy to be growing the sport in Hong Kong and in Asia, definitely seeing a long-time dream come true. From starting with a group of guys throwing a football around 6 years ago, to 2 fully organised and geared American Football teams competing in a Chinese league, it’s pretty awesome and I feel proud of where American Football has come from. I am proud that I can say I am one of the original founding members of American Football in this part of the world!
Name: Markus Hartwig, 38
Position: Offensive/Defensive Line
Marcus is from Arkansas in the US and is a pilot for FedEX based in Hong Kong. It was actually his wife that encouraged him to “go check it out” – before this he had no idea that Football was even played out there (he’s not the only one!)
He has been playing American Football since 7th grade (Henderson State D2) and so he serves as some great experience to have on the side. Having seen some of the guys in training, who were much older than him, throwing themselves into tackles and still maintaining a really high level of fitness was inspiring for him and he felt obliged to get involved once again.
Marcus’ first day at training could hardly have gone any worse. I asked him how it went with the following response: “Terrible! I pulled my hamstring the very first day! It was a quick lesson that I need to really stretch these old legs more than I did in college. I’m out there 30 min early now running and getting warmed up before each practice.”
Goals for the team? Play with class, Win out, and stay healthy.
Marcus comes across as being hugely attached to the sport and a very humble and thankful guy so, for me, it was interesting to hear about how he changes throughout a game: “Between the whistles I play very violently and physically to impose my will on, and intimidate opposing players. Between plays , I will joke and laugh with them.”
I wanted to know a little more about his personal goals and I felt his reply really exemplified how much he loved the sport and also how thankful he was to the Cobras for giving him the opportunity to play again – it can only be a good thing to have a teammate like that!
“I am playing the sport that I love, 15 years after I thought I had seen my last snap. I just want to maintain my health and continue as long as I can before I transition to something less taxing like golf or just coaching (I’m currently just a hacker).
Personally, I am very fortunate to have reached my career goal as an Airline Pilot, I have a great family and live in a place that I love. I just want to raise great kids, and keep our quality of life”
Name: Chia Alpha, 24
Position: Running Back/ Corner Back
Having spoken to Alpha, I found his story really heartwarming. Every response he gave showed his gratitude to the team and it really struck me how much the sport has helped him in his own life to become more confident and a stronger individual.
“I could never forget my first day at training – I was hit really hard. I tried to avoid those big hits like a little girl. From that time I knew the only way I can continue is to be better or I will never have a chance to be a starter in the team.”
We spoke about how he felt on the pitch and I was keen to understand what it was that drove him to play such a physical sport.
“I enjoy the atmosphere of playing; it’s like being in a war field. You have to stay alert or the next second you will be facing the turf. This is a man’s sports. Big hitting is just a part of it. If you love it, no matter how hard it is, you should not care, you may even love it after.”
Alpha told me that most Hong Kong residents still think they are just playing rugby. I’m sure this will change over time but it is something that he is very determined to try to change. I’m glad that he has found something that he really loves doing and I hope it continues to help him in his own life too.
“Football changes me, turning me from a weak little boy to a man. I get bigger, faster, with better leadership in the team, it helps with my career also when you are having better confidence in yourself. It brings me lots of greatest friends ever. Thanks football.” Alpha Chia
I thought it would be good to finish with a story from Marcus about his first match he ever played for the Cobras and possibly one of the biggest games the team have played:
“My first game with the Cobras was up in Guangzhou China against the Shanghai Warriors in Dec 2012. It was an NFL sponsored event with the Oakland Raider cheerleaders and Barry Sanders in attendance. We get to the stadium and I am looking for a locker room…”nope, sorry”, those had all been roped off for the Cheerleaders and Barry. To the side were 4 teams all changing under some trees with 2 porta-potties. It was a bit surreal, but welcome to China. The one thing I remember was my friend Raphael catching a pass across the middle and then we hear Barry Sanders yell out “Good catch #88” Raph comes back to the huddle and couldn’t stop talking about Barry calling him out. I don’t think he did anything else that game, but it made his year.”
I’d like to take the opportunity now to thank all of the guys who helped me to write this, including Benjamin who has been helping me with photos and insight as well as collecting replies from his players for me (I’m writing this from the UK). I also want to thank Thomas, Marcus and Alpha for taking the time out to reply to my questions.
I will be looking forward to following the Cobras this season and I wish you all the best for the season ahead and the future! Success shouldn’t only be measured on match results; I think you have all done remarkably well up to now to even get this far! You all seem genuinely driven to succeed and I hope that you all get the rewards that you desire and deserve.
The few games they have managed to date have been successful:
2014 Apr – HK Cobras vs Chinese Screaming Demons – 14-6 (W)
2013 Nov – HK Cobras vs China Sea Dragons – 30-6 (W)
2013 July – HK Cobras vs Guangzhou Goats – 36-26 (W)
2012 Dec – HK Cobras vs Shanghai Warriors – 0-5 (L)
2012 Aug – HK Cobras vs Philippine Punishers 12-32 (L)
2012 July – HK Cobras vs Shenzhen Crusaders 58-0 (W)
2011 Aug – HK Cobras vs Guangzhou Goats/Zhuhai Beserkers 62-8 (W)
2011 May – HK Cobras vs Philippine Punishers 14-43 (L)
If you are interested in following the Cobras in their inaugural season in the AFLC then follow them as below:
Facebook: Hong Kong Cobras American Football
If you wish to contact me for anything please feel free:
Facebook: Michael Day
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