In soccer, as in chemistry, a heady, heterogeneous mixture can be amazingly potent, but also precariously volatile. So, if we add some seasoned professionals to a fresh bunch of amateurs and stir it up, what do we get? The Yau Yee League - a "friendship" league forged of players, coaches and match officials of varying abilities, cultures, experiences and talents.
The Yau Yee League is, according to its website, the "premier amateur football league" in Hong Kong, and was formed in 1979. It has grown into a popular league, which today comprises four divisions and 50 teams. There are a plethora of other amateur leagues in Hong Kong but none come close to matching the YYL as an established, and respected, local competition.
Its amateur status belies its quality, especially when compared to the second, third and fourth divisions of the Hong Kong Football Association. Since players are not permitted to register concurrently with both leagues, they have to choose one or the other.
Tellingly, former professional players seek refuge, redemption and a return to past glories in the YYL. Coaches at the HKFA who wish to play soccer at a decent level ply their trade in the YYL, too. The YYL even boasts the HKFA general secretary and a director of the HKFA board as registered players. There is also Deputy Secretary for Home Affairs Jonathan McKinley, who does his talking on the pitch, as well as off it, by being a model supporter of the game.
The HKFA recognises the importance of the "friendship" league. Prior to the start of this season, it proposed fielding an under-15 youth team in division four. The idea being that, with expected promotion and greater exposure to increasingly competitive matches over several years, by the time the team become Hong Kong's under-19 representatives they will have progressed to the YYL's top division. The HKFA considered this proposal, because it cannot provide young players with sufficient development opportunities within its own league. Unfortunately, mired in its own restructuring upheaval, the HKFA never followed up on this good idea.
By and large, the majority of YYL players have only played the game at an amateur or schoolboy level. Therefore, the league's heady, heterogeneous mix can cause problems. Some talk of a clash of cultures being a problem. Others say it is a social league, which conflicts with what some insist is a serious competition. All of this is true, but when things get heated it is usually due more to the difference in players' abilities.
An ex-pro or a competent coach will become frustrated when playing or managing a disparate group of players at the amateur level. What they see as an obvious defence-splitting pass, an intelligent run, or an understandable act of gamesmanship, a clueless amateur will think otherwise. Some players will tolerate certain shenanigans, while others may feel slighted, leading to increased tensions. Former professionals naturally have higher standards and greater cynicism.
However, amateur players who do not take the game too seriously can produce wonderful and unexpected passages of play, and incredible goals that would surprise the pros.
In some ways, being a match official in amateur leagues is more difficult than performing the same duties at higher levels. Anticipation is replaced by unpredictability. Advantage play is forfeited for minor injury concerns. Spectators and substitutes stand too close to the pitch. Preventable cards are awarded when naïve players do not understand what a referee is telling them.
In one recent YYL match, a team were clearly running down the clock. At goal kicks, a defender would rummage around looking for the "perfect" spot to place the ball on the goal area line and then slowly walk back, pause, breathe heavily, and then casually jog to take the goal kick. After a couple of times, Rational Ref stepped in and told the defender to hurry up.
A seasoned professional teammate then shouted: "Give him time to catch his breath, Ref." Then, when the team found themselves a goal down with about five minutes left, the defender sprinted to retrieve the ball and took the goal kicks as quickly as possible. "He doesn't need to catch his breath now, does he?" I observed.
The YYL is a wonderful amateur league that provides many great challenges to players, coaches and match officials. Its organisers deserve much praise in making the league relevant to so many passionate people - past and present.