On the ball

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

It hasn't taken Lai Man-fei, 19, much time to make his mark on the local football scene. The defender joined the South China reserves in 2006 and was promoted to the First Division squad the following year.

The league leaders and defending champions realised the youngster had potential, so they sent him to Japan for a month-long training stint last year.

'I treasure all the opportunities I get and I'll strive to do my best,' says Lai.

Lai, along with Chan Ka-chun, trained with the under-19 team of the J-League's Yokohama F. Marinos shortly before the start of the 2007-08 season.

Lai says the training in Japan was very harsh. 'The Japanese players have great physical strength. To me, the toughest part is the physical aspect,' he says.

On the first day, Lai was asked to run 17 laps around the football ground.

Then the coach told him to run for 10 more minutes. And there was a lot more running to come over the next few weeks.

'When I first joined the training sessions [in Japan], I was exhausted,' says Lai. 'My muscles were aching and often cramped. I didn't even want to move after the workouts.'

It took him about a week to get used to the strenuous training.

'Other than the football training, we did some sightseeing in Yokohama,' says Lai. 'Japan is a very interesting place and I'll never forget experiencing two minor earthquakes there.'

When Lai returned to Hong Kong, he found his physical strength had significantly increased. 'I felt that people around me were moving in slow motion,' he says.

'However, the training here is less tough compared to Japan, so my strength went down after about a month.'

Lai is looking forward to training with other overseas professional teams to gain more experience and learn from them.

'I can feel a little bit of pressure,' he says. 'I'm glad that the SCAA [South China Athletic Association] gave me the chance and I'll turn the pressure into motivation to strive for the best.'

Lai made his debut for South China's First Division team as a late substitute in their opening AFC Cup match against Singapore's Home United on March 11. Then he was given even greater responsibility when he was named in the starting lineup for South China's third AFC Cup match against Malaysia's Kedah on April 2. He played for almost 70 minutes before being substituted.

'I'm excited to take part in such high-standard matches,' says Lai, who is in Malaysia for tonight's return leg against Kedah.

'I hope to do my best and help the team win.'