HONG KONG (AFP) – Raul Baena has proven himself alongside Sergio Busquets in Barcelona’s youth teams and later was Mauricio Pochettino’s trusted lieutenant at the heart of Espanyol’s midfield in La Liga.
But it was in Hong Kong that the former Spain Under-21 international eventually won a league title and then played a pivotal role in writing a little piece of football history for the Chinese city.
The 33-year-old defensive midfielder scored an added-time equalizer in a 2-2 draw against Andres Iniestas Vissel Kobe this month to propel Kitchee into the knockout rounds of the Asian Champions League.
It was the first time a Hong Kong team had come this far in the competition of the region’s best clubs. Capping a dramatic evening for Baena, he was sent off in the final moments.
The Hong Kong champions’ exploits were all the more remarkable as their preparations were severely disrupted by a Covid outbreak that began in January and largely paralyzed the city of about 7.5 million people.
“I still think about it every day even though I’m on holiday,” Baena told AFP from Spain, where he’s taking time off because football in Hong Kong is suspended due to the pandemic.
“That goal was a very important moment for me. I know (also) what it means for Kitchee, for Hong Kong.
“It’s a historic goal that will help us keep growing, keep improving and continue to propel Hong Kong to a very good place in Asian football.”
Kitchee meet Thailand’s BG Pathum United in the round of 16 in August.
– “You can’t do anything” –
Baena’s career began in Barcelona’s youth teams alongside Busquets, who won the World Cup and three Champions League titles with Spain.
Lionel Messi was also coming through the ranks at Camp Nou at the time.
Baena did not follow them into the first-team, instead moving to city rivals Espanyol, where he made nearly 100 appearances and became a mainstay under current Paris Saint-Germain coach Pochettino.
This was followed by changes to the Spanish clubs Rayo Vallecano and Granada, with stints in Australia and Greece.
And then in December 2020 came the call from Kitchee, who played in front of a few thousand fans in pre-Covid times and once had former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan.
“I liked the fact of playing in the Asian Champions League, being in a strong Hong Kong team and fighting for titles that I never won as a professional,” said Baena.
But life and football have not been easy in Hong Kong since a surge in coronavirus infections caused by Omicron variants put the city into semi-lockdown.
Restrictions are being eased but last season’s domestic competitions were half canceled – a new season is due to start in August – and the group stage of the Champions League was held in neutral countries.
Kitchee played in Thailand but had not previously been able to train properly together in Hong Kong. They had to run masked and Baena sometimes trained alone.
“It was difficult physically and mentally,” Baena said.
“We’re here to play football, we’ve been doing it our whole lives and suddenly there’s nothing you can do.”