Variety and chance to learn give Sevens lasting allure
Year after year, they keep coming back: Celtic, Rangers, Aston Villa, Ajax. The list of big clubs who love the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens is long, but what is it that makes this unusual tournament unique?
Celtic development squad coach Danny McGrain (pictured) has almost lost count of the number of times he's been here and believes the entire experience is invaluable as he tries to help his players develop into mature professionals.
'It's great for them to come over here,' he said. 'Educationally, to experience Hong Kong and see all the various aspects of life: the journey, the flight, the whole bonding experience.
'Overall, it's just great for young boys to experience a seven-a-side tournament, to experience playing against good teams, to sit and watch older players [in the Masters tournament] whom they've perhaps heard of but never seen.'
Aston Villa love this tournament, having won it five times, most recently last year. 'It's difficult to explain [the attraction],' says academy director Bryan Jones. 'It's a different format which our players don't really get the opportunity to play at all. The experience of playing in heat and high humidity, which obviously [they'll encounter] if they progress through the system to a successful club in Europe and world competitions, is [also] an experience they'll never forget.
'Plus it's so well-organised, you're so well looked-after by the Football Club, it's probably one of the best tournaments we get invited to - so the longer we can do well in it and keep getting invited to it the better. It's great for the club and great for us.'
Tommy Wilson, Rangers' reserve team coach, admitted: 'This is my fourth time here and, when I first came, I was thinking to myself, 'Why are we travelling that distance to play in a seven-a-side tournament?'
'But when you come here and see how well-organised it is, the quality of the opposition and the experience the young players get on and off the pitch, then it's hard to argue against it. It's the kind of experience our young players have to adjust to. Rangers' players are constantly on a plane, travelling to pre-season games, Champions League games and Europa League games, so this helps them prepare.'
The seven-a-side format also demands excellent touch and technique. While teams such as Ajax and Boca Juniors might have players brought up playing small-sided games with the emphasis on close-control, British football still too often prioritises strength and athleticism.
'Our game in England and particularly at our club, we like to press the ball, a la Barcelona for example,' adds Jones. 'You can't necessarily do that over here in the heat so you have to adapt and they have to use strategies and different ways of thinking about the game.
'We try to look at a squad when we select it who are the best footballers. It's imperative that you keep the ball and you look at players who have the ability to do that.'
McGrain agrees: '[Celtic's under-19s] have just won the league and cup so they're good in their division, at 11-a-side, but seven-a-side is just a different game. You need to have good ball control and this will teach them how the first touch is so important. In 11-a-side you might get away with a bad touch but over here if your touch is bad you'll be punished for it.'
Liverpool are making their debut this year and coach Pep Segura, who worked in Barcelona's youth system and coached in Greece before moving to Anfield, admitted he didn't know what to expect before yesterday's action..
'We can see after the tournament, but we usually prefer the 11-a-side because our players in this age group don't play sevens. 'We like to play tournaments with different themes, different cultures, different football cultures, because this is important in helping the players develop.'
Don't be surprised if Liverpool join the rest in making HKFC an annual visit.