Star's heavenly support
The last words that Robson Leung Ka-hai's Brazilian grandmother said to him before she died still fill his mind. 'Are you grown up enough to meet life's challenges?'
The 18-year-old Hongkonger, whose mother is Brazilian and his father Chinese, is too young to give a definitive answer, but well on the way to achieving his dream - of being a successful professional footballer.
'Grandma told me she was proud of me becoming a professional footballer in Hong Kong,' Robson says. 'I am still motivated by her now; I believe she is watching me play from heaven. I pray before games and ask for her support.'
Her battling spirit taught the winger to strive for success. 'Grandma was very ill, but also tough,' he says. 'She stayed alive - waiting in bed until I visited Brazil on holiday last summer. She asked me that question - if I was grown up enough - just before I went to the airport to fly to Hong Kong. She died the next day. I'll never know how much pain she suffered in order to grab my hands and ask me that in person.'
When Robson first came to Hong Kong, aged nine, he spoke no Cantonese or English. He started at school in Primary One the next year and Hong Kong club Kitchee recruited him to train alongside their young players after seeing him playing football. 'I knew I was starting late at school, so put in extra effort,' he says. 'I knew nothing about my subjects. In Brazil, I'd never learned Chinese, mathematics or English.'
Robson did so well at school he moved up to study in Primary Three the next year.
At 15, Kitchee registered him to play in the First Division in preparation for the Asian Football Confederation in 2008. Playing away to Dongguan Lanwa, in Dongguan, Guangdong, Robson - then a defender - was stunned when Kitchee's coach called him from the substitutes' bench and told him he was playing. 'I didn't know he was going to put me on,' Robson says, who set a new record as the youngest player to play in a First Division match at the time.
Although Robson went back to Brazil to further his football career, he found it difficult to establish himself there. 'Competition was really keen; more than 200 players were fighting for a single place at clubs in Brazil,' he says. 'Then I got a call from Alex Chu, Kitchee's administrative director. He helped persuade me to come back here.'
Robson returned to Hong Kong in 2010 and, after enrolling in Form One at Yan Chai Hospital Tung Chi Ying Memorial Secondary School, in Ma On Shan, started to train with Kitchee's youth team. This season he joined the sister club, Tai Chung in the Second Division, to enhance his experience and trains with both teams.
Two bad injuries last year led him to have surgery and kept him on the sidelines for more than two months. These setbacks were followed by the death of his grandmother last summer.
Despite his sadness, he is often seen with a smile on his face. 'Whether we feel like smiling, crying or being angry, we still need to carry on living. I believe in trying to inspire myself and others with a smile.'
His optimism was rewarded after he was selected for Hong Kong Under-19s squad after recovering from his injuries. He joined the youth team for their recent matches with Russia and Guangdong.
Robson is determined to do his best in life. 'My family support me; they are my priority - football comes second,' he says.
Despite leaving school to be a full-time footballer, he is still studying. As he lives alongside Kitchee's mainland players, who speak only Putonghua, at the club's Prince Edward apartments, he is adding a fifth language to Portuguese, his mother tongue, Spanish, Cantonese and English. 'Some people read to study English. I think watching films and listening to songs is better. I watch a film once or twice, then look at the subtitles to see if I understood.'
His linguistic abilities sometimes leave him tongue-tied. 'I'll forget some Chinese and English words after being back in Brazil. And I'll struggle to recall Portuguese and Spanish phrases after a long stay in Hong Kong. It shows daily usage is really important to learn languages,' he says. 'I have thought about becoming a translator or interpreter in the future. But for now I only want to focus on being a footballer.'