The queen of clubs| By Howard Yang Edited by Kate Kim 25 Apr 2016
It may just be a practice match but the men on the pitch are intent on winning. The football bangs into a net before the whistle blows and then, almost immediately, rivalry is tossed aside as the men gather together in the center circle.
After all, they are teammates and in their midst is a young woman, patting players on their backs.
She is Chan Yuen-ting, nicknamed Beefball for her never giving up, and is head coach of Eastern Sports Club, who were crowned Hong Kong Premier League champions on Friday.
At only 27, Chan entered the record books as the first woman to lead a men's team to a top championship title.
It may seem surprising that the macho world of professional men's football would accept a young woman as boss. Indeed, reactions were mixed when Chan was appointed to succeed Yeung Ching-kwong, who moved to become assistant coach of the Meizhou Hakka Football Club in December. But Leung Shou-chi, Eastern's executive director and a veteran of the game, says giving Chan the job was a no-brainer.
"I took one minute to decide [the appointment of Chan]," says Leung. She was the only candidate for the job who possessed the Asian Football Confederation's "A" Coaching Certificate.
Chan is an undisputed rising star in local football. Before joining Eastern, she was assistant coach at Hong Kong Pegasus FC and Southern District.
At Pegasus, she was also a data analyst. The promotion to the top job at one of Hong Kong's leading teams brings great pressure for the rookie head coach, but so far the signs are good.
"I am so surprised that the players support me very much," says Chan, who believes their first trophy this season, the Senior Challenge Shield, was the result of them pulling together as a team despite the changes in personnel.
Her extraordinary journey started from a youth summer scheme for football which she joined for fun. It was the summer before she entered Secondary Four but she can still recall her first touch of the ball. "[The first time] playing football, I can remember it well. It was on a concrete pitch in Sha Tin. That was how I started playing football and then coaching up till now."
Reflecting on the early days of her enthusiasm for football, Chan says: "Actually, I think it was kind of love at first sight. At the beginning, I adored David Beckham very much, so I started watching matches. It seemed fun to play, so I applied for that scheme to learn how to play."
Chan says her early playing days went well and her passion for the game grew. She believes her natural ability may have helped her develop a long- term interest in the game. "Maybe I was an innate sportswoman, so I started well. It was because I started well, playing football gave me a sense of achievement."
It is the sheer joy Chan gets out of the game that has driven her to devote her time and effort to the sport since she first kicked a ball a decade ago.
However, her love of football did not distract her from studying and, after secondary school, she entered the department of Geography and Resource Management of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chan never imagined she would pursue a career in professional football, but at CUHK she found herself spending much of her time on the pitch.
"Once I entered CUHK, I put my studies in second place," she says. "I don't think I was a diligent student in my department."
Chan played for the CUHK women's football team, the Sha Tin district team, as well as the Hong Kong team. "I played football for five to six days a week. My studies at university did not go as well as in secondary school."
Although her academic performance in her three years of undergraduate study suffered, Chan says she has no regrets "because I obtained a lot from football."
After completing her undergraduate degree, she decided to study for a Master of Science and Postgraduate Diploma in Sports Medicine and Health Science at CUHK. It was then she decided to develop a career in professional football. She is glad that her family supported her decision to further her study in sport. "I took a loan to pay the tuition fees for my bachelor's and master's degrees and my family did not need to pay for my studies so I was free to do what I liked," says Chan.
Her extensive knowledge of sports medicine and health science helps her carry out data research. It also helps make up for her lack of experience as a professional. She analyzes the performances of her own players and their opponents and collects masses of data from each match.
Through the match data on players, their stamina, the pre-match and post- match analysis, Chan can assess whether players are on form or not.
"These help me understand the needs of modern football."
Data analysis has become a feature of football and clubs employ analysts and pay good money for the results. But Chan carries out much of the analysis herself and uses it to make practical decisions in Eastern matches.
Yet football is as much a game of the heart as it is of the intellect and many may find it hard to believe how this young woman, who has never been a professional player herself, can win the respect of players of her own age or older. So far, this does not appear to have been a problem.
Chan has close and friendly relationships with the players, partly due to her naturally outgoing personality but, more importantly, due to her willingness to learn from the experienced ones and her coaching colleagues.
"My colleagues used to be professional players and many of the Eastern players are in the Hong Kong team. Their experiences on the field are very useful and I think having suitable communication with them helps my coaching a lot," says Chan.
Andrew Barisic, a 29-year-old Australian striker, says Chan and the players have mutual respect for each other, adding that players need to be able to relate with their coach on an emotional level and not just to discuss matches.
"If there is any problem, the players feel open to talk her [Chan]. If you don't have that relationship, the players sometimes maybe get a bit upset or they can't voice their opinion about something so it is really good that she accepts everyone [and everyone is] able to talk to her," says Barisic.
Chan readily admits she has disadvantages mainly her lack of professional playing experience. But she works hard to make up for it through her people skills and her technical knowledge of the game.
She watches and studies the careers and performance of Barclays Premier League club managers. She admires the tactics of former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, the short-pass style of next Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola and the man- management skills of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
"I don't know if I can imitate them, but I will try to study them," says Chan.
There are drawbacks to being a female coach but Chan says she cannot do much to change them and instead she must work with them. Besides, there are some advantages too.
"Female coaches are usually more attentive and patient," she says. "I think the way that men and women perceive things is always different and, on the coaching team, it is better to have males and females to complement each other."
Chan is determined to continue her coaching career in the foreseeable future. Further down the line, she acknowledges she may have to face the challenges of balancing her career with family responsibilities.
"But at this stage, when I can still invest time in football, I would not miss any chance."
Her passion for the beautiful game is what drives her forward, but she also appreciates the support she receives from fans. Among Hong Kong Premier League sides, Eastern enjoy relatively high attendances at their matches.
"They always buy tickets to support us, making the atmosphere better. And our motivation becomes greater as well," says a grateful Chan.
Her gratitude, for the opportunities she has been given and for the responsibility that has been entrusted in her, motivates Chan Yuen-ting, Beefball, to continuously raise her game.
"Hong Kong's football has given me a lot. Hopefully, one day I can serve Hong Kong's football."
An excerpt from the March edition of Varsity magazine published by the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong.