Everyone said no – even her body objected – but Wong Wai-yee is determined to become a professional soccer player
Wong is first woman from Hong Kong to gain a full athletic scholarship at a US university, but crippling knee injuries are stalling her progress
A 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic posted a video of himself doing spinning back kicks with either leg, captioning it “which knee?” in reference to a career-threatening ligament injury he suffered last year. Haters doubted the Manchester United striker would return, but it’s now a question of when, not if.
Hong Kong footballer Wong Wai-yee has been through worse – and she has only just turned 18.
Her parents told her to become a doctor, her school told her to focus on her exams; even her body said no.
“I tore both my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial cruciate ligament (MCL) when I was training with Hong Kong in Japan last year,” said Wong, who was 16 at the time.
Hearing the abbreviation ACL or MCL is an athlete’s worst nightmare; it essentially guarantees at least a year of prolonged recovery.
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Wong learned she had torn both at the same time and that it was a grade three injury – the highest severity.
“I was the youngest – it was my first time getting into the national team. Of course, they were disappointed and had to give up on me. I cried for a week.”
Surgery, check-ups and physiotherapy lasted for more than a year. Wong continues to do extra gym sessions to strengthen her muscles to protect herself and avoid further injury.
“I had surgery last July so I’m still healing. I do a gym session and juggle the ball in the morning. I train in the afternoon and play matches as night,” the striker said.
Such devastating injuries only reinforced her parents’ reluctance for their daughter to pursue a career in football. They had envisioned a more traditional path – a more “Hong Kong” one.
“My parents want me to be a doctor. My dad thought it was rude for girls to play football as their legs would become thick,” Wong said.
“I don’t want to be a dentist, doctor or nurse right now; you can study for that anytime. I have a plan.
“I want to be a professional football player, and when I finish my career, I want to become a doctor.
“My mum is so confused by that, but I’m 18, I want to chase my dream and prove to the world that women can make something from football.”
It’s all well and good to dedicate oneself to chasing a dream, but Wong still had a lot to prove to her sceptical parents. And that is exactly what she did.
Wong has played for the Hong Kong U15, U16, U18 sides and was the youngest player to play for the senior women’s team.
She played against the Manchester United women’s foundation through a Hong Kong Jockey Club youth football scheme.
Last season, she played for Chelsea FC Soccer School Hong Kong, and this season she joins the newly formed Happy Valley AA women’s team.
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Perhaps most impressive is that Wong goes down in Hong Kong women’s football history as the first to gain a full athletic scholarship from a US university. She studies biology and pre-medicine at Harris Stowe State University in Missouri.
“I went abroad so that I could study medicine but also have time to play. My parents realised [the dream] was possible when I went to the US,” said Wong, who is back home indefinitely to receive treatment for a minor injury on her other leg.
“It’s amazing. Their preseason was so difficult. Women’s football is not well-developed in Hong Kong – you’d have to bring your schoolbag to the pitch because there is no time to rest.
“I never had the chance to go for a morning run, but they have all of this high intensity beep tests and [technical] training in the US.”
Despite the jam-packed resume, it seems Wong has to prove the doubters wrong wherever she goes.
“I’m the shortest in the team, and [my teammates] thought I was too short to play at first,” she said.
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“Due to jet lag, I was one of the last in the running drills. They laughed and told me not to bother playing – just study – so I trained my core and physical every day. After three or four days, I ended up third out of 24.
“Everyone treated me nicely after that because I proved that despite being an outsider, I could do it.”
Having finally won her family and friends over, Wong gives a lot of credit to her favourite footballer: Eastern midfielder Xu Deshuai.
“He has given me a lot of guidelines,” she said. “He encouraged me to go overseas to play because of the state of women’s football in Hong Kong.
“He also messed his knee up but continues to run on the field now, just like me. Injuries are inevitable – we are athletes and there are always going to be consequences.”
At just 18, Wong has taken remarkably brave steps to follow what she believes is her true calling. It takes guts, something she feels her fellow Hongkongers have been forced to suppress.
“Let’s not talk about the rubbish Hong Kong education system. It pushes students too hard. You can’t do both football and studies if you can’t even find enough time to study in the first place,” she said.
“This is Hong Kong. Don’t be controlled. Put 120 per cent [towards] your dream.”