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HONG KONG, May 26 — Raul Baena cut his teeth in Barcelona’s youth teams alongside Sergio Busquets and later served as Mauricio Pochettino’s trusted lieutenant in the heart of Espanyol’s La Liga midfield.

But it was in Hong Kong where the former Spain Under-21 international finally won a league title and then played a pivotal role in marking a small piece of the Chinese city’s footballing history.

The 33-year-old defensive midfielder scored the added-time equalizer for Kitchee in a 2-2 draw with Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe earlier this month, propelling them into the Champions League knockout stages. Asian champions.

It was the first time a Hong Kong team had made it this far in the region’s top club competition. To top off a dramatic night for Baena, he was sent off in the final moments.

The Hong Kong champions’ exploits have been all the more remarkable as their preparations have been severely disrupted by a Covid outbreak which took off in January and largely shut down the city of around 7.5 million people.

Raul Baena chases Lionel Messi during a Spanish league game in 2012 © AFP / JOSEP LAGO

“I still think about it every day despite my holidays,” Baena told AFP from Spain, where he is taking time off as football in Hong Kong is suspended due to the pandemic.

“This 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 continue to grow, improve and continue to place Hong Kong in a very good place in Asian football.”

Kitchee will face BG Pathum United of Thailand in the Round of 16 in August.

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– ‘You can not do anything’ –

Baena’s career started in the Barcelona youth teams alongside Busquets, who won the World Cup with Spain and three Champions League titles.

Lionel Messi was also rising through the Camp Nou ranks back then.

Baena did not follow them into the first team, instead moving to city rivals Espanyol, where he made almost 100 appearances and became a mainstay under current Paris Saint-Germain boss Pochettino.

From there he followed trips to other Spanish teams, 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 loved playing in the Asian Champions League, being in a strong Hong Kong team and fighting for titles that I never won as a professional,” said Baena.

But life and football have not been easy in Hong Kong since a rise in coronavirus infections fueled by the Omicron variant plunged the city into semi-lockdown.

Restrictions are loosening but last season’s domestic competitions were canceled midway through – a new season is supposed to start in August – and the Champions League group stages have been played in neutral countries.

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Kitchee played in Thailand but before that he couldn’t train properly together in Hong Kong. They had to run masked and Baena sometimes trained alone.

“It was tough physically and mentally,” Baena said.

“We’re here to play football, we’ve been doing this all our lives and suddenly there’s nothing you can do.”