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Spanish footballers find work in Hong Kong

By Diego Laje, CNN
September 13, 2012 -- Updated 0624 GMT (1424 HKT)
Hong Kong Southern District player Lander Panera, center, stands with fellow Spanish teammates Diego Folgar Toimil and Diego Gómez Heredia.
Hong Kong Southern District player Lander Panera, center, stands with fellow Spanish teammates Diego Folgar Toimil and Diego Gómez Heredia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Football players from hard-hit Spain are finding new careers in Hong Kong
  • Player: "I've come to Hong Kong because opportunities in my country aren't very promising"
  • Spanish players and coaches brought in to develop the former British colony's talent
  • Hong Kong football is ranked is ranked 154th in the world and 25th in the region

Editor's note: Follow CNN's Diego Laje on Twitter: @d_laje

Hong Kong (CNN) -- As Spain's economy finds new lows, there is one clear winner in the eurozone crisis: Hong Kong football.

The former British colony has had a long tradition with the sport but is ranked 154th in the world, according to FIFA. In the region, the territory ranks 25th, well below leaders Japan and Australia.

Despite the city's low ranking, there are some in Hong Kong with a long-term strategy to import players and know-how from the world's best: embattled football-superpower Spain.

"I've decided to come to Hong Kong because opportunities in my country aren't very promising," former Spanish La Liga player Lander Panera told CNN.

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Panera, 30, was concerned about the economy in his home country and chose this year to settle in a place where growth is robust.

He recently secured a contract with the local team Southern District, where he shares the playing field with fellow countrymen like Diego Gómez Heredia and Diego Folgar Toimil.

Hong Kong's embrace of Spanish footballers doesn't end there.

Ken Ng, head of Hong Kong Kitchee, one of the top local teams, has been working with former Spanish athletes for years to develop local players.

Recently, the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charity Trust donated US$5.7 million to Kitchee to start a football talent development center. The project aims to make stars out of young Hongkongers with potential.

"It's all about youth development, youth training, and hopefully in six, or eight, or 10 years time we'll have a much better group of youngsters coming through our program, and that will help Hong Kong be one of the strongest teams in Asia," Ng told CNN. "[We] will give Japan a run for their money."

Ng brought two Spanish veterans to the Far East to help: Josep Gombau, a veteran of Barcelona youth football education and current Kitchee head coach, and retired La Liga player Roberto "Chino" Losada, also a former Kitchee player.

The project includes international exposure for young players, not only with foreign coaches but also with extensive travel.

"We will give them a view of the world," Ng told CNN, "every year we will take them to Spain." There, the players will compete in events like the Mediterranean International Cup, a top juvenile international tournament held in Catalonia. The Kitchee's team competed there last March.

"It's all about youth development, youth training," Ng said.

In the meantime, Spanish players like Panera are considering Hong Kong as a permanent home.

"If things don't improve in my country, in Europe, I wouldn't have a problem [staying in Hong Kong]," Panera told CNN.

Eudora Wong contributed to this report

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