South Korean Kim Pan-Gon, the 'Magician from Jinju', is back in Hong Kong with a goal - to prove Hong Kong can make it to the top. He took up the position of head coach of the Hong Kong Youth Team (18 or under) in December.
The 42-year-old is no stranger to the city. He led the Hong Kong Under-23 team to its historic East Asian Games gold medal win in 2009. 'Many people didn't believe the Hong Kong team could become high achievers,' Kim says. 'Even the players in the East Asian Games didn't. But I told them we should strive for a medal. Step by step we made it to the final and won the gold.'
Kim is known for his focused, intense training methods and admits he is a demanding coach.
Many local football fans wonder why he picked the youth team this time. And Kim has an answer for them. 'When I left Hong Kong because of my health, I promised I would return and help in any area of local football,' he says. 'As soon as I recovered, I stuck to my promise. This time I have been assigned to make the boys a better team. They are the foundation of the sport.'
The former player's post-athletic career is tied up with Hong Kong football. He retired in the late 1990s from K-league club Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and enrolled in an AFC Football Coaching Class taught by Hong Kong team veteran Kwok Ka-ming. Kwok invited Kim to play for Hong Kong's Instant-Dict Football Club. He did and later he played for and coached the Rangers, another local First Division club.
Kim left Hong Kong in 2004, but returned to become head coach of the South China football team in 2008. Under Kim's leadership, they claimed two First Division league titles. But in December 2010, a stomach complaint forced him to go home to South Korea.
'The pressure took its toll on my health,' he says. 'I realised the top priority for my coaching career was to stay healthy. I could do nothing if I was sick.'
Many people have said the youth team lacks fitness and Kim agrees. But he sees many positive aspects as well. 'The boys are smart and clever,' he says. 'They understand my instructions easily and are willing to adapt to my coaching. They are not as fit as South Korean youngsters, but they have stronger minds.
'When I coached the seniors, it was difficult to get them to try something new. But the teenagers are different. They are like clay and I can reshape them. They have a lot of possibilities.'
Kim says it may take years to restructure the youth football training system and get the boys ready for new challenges.
But he has confidence in his young team. 'Why can't Hong Kong win a medal in international youth tournaments?' he asks. 'The boys and I are going to realise that dream together.'