HONG KONG: Raul Baena cut his teeth in Barcelona’s youth sides alongside Sergio Busquets and was later Mauricio Pochettino’s trusted lieutenant at the heart of Espanyol’s midfield in La Liga.
But it is in Hong Kong that the former Spain under-21 international finally won a league title, and then played a pivotal role in making a small piece of history for the Chinese city’s football.
The 33-year-old defensive midfielder scored the injury-time equaliser for Kitchee in a 2-2 draw with Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe this month, propelling them into the Asian Champions League knockout rounds.
It was the first time that a Hong Kong team got that far in the region’s top club competition. Capping a dramatic evening for Baena, he was sent off in the dying moments.
The Hong Kong champions’ exploits were all the more remarkable because their preparations were badly disrupted by a Covid outbreak that took off in January and largely closed down the city of about 7.5 million people.
“I still think of it every day despite being on vacation,” Baena told AFP from Spain, where he is taking time out because football in Hong Kong is suspended due to the pandemic.
“That goal was a very important moment for me. I know (also) what it means for Kitchee, for Hong Kong.
“It’s a historic goal that helps us to continue to grow, continue to improve and continue to put Hong Kong in a very good place in Asian football.”
Kitchee play Thailand’s BG Pathum United in the last 16 in August.
‘You can’t do anything’
Baena’s career started in Barcelona’s youth teams alongside Busquets, who has gone on to win the World Cup with Spain and three Champions League titles.
Lionel Messi was also coming through the ranks at the Camp Nou at the time.
Baena did not follow them into the first team, instead moving to city rivals Espanyol, where he made nearly 100 appearances and became a mainstay under now Paris Saint-Germain boss Pochettino.
From there followed moves to fellow Spanish sides Rayo Vallecano and Granada, with stints also in Australia and Greece.
And then in December 2020, Kitchee, who in pre-Covid times played in front of a few thousand fans and once had former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan, came calling.
“I liked the fact of playing in the Asian Champions League, being in a strong Hong Kong team and fighting for the titles which I had never won as a professional,” said Baena.
But life and football have not been easy in Hong Kong since an Omicron variant-fuelled surge in coronavirus infections sent the city into a semi-lockdown.
Restrictions are loosening but last season’s domestic competitions were cancelled midway through — a new season is supposed to start in August — and the group stages of the Champions League took place in neutral countries.
Kitchee played in Thailand but prior to that had not been able to practise together properly in Hong Kong. They had to run in masks and Baena was sometimes training on his own.
“It has been difficult physically and mentally,” Baena said.
“We are here to play football, we have been doing this all our lives and suddenly you cannot do anything.”