Since his return to Hong Kong, Andrew Barisić has become one of the key figures behind Eastern’s impressive run in both league and cup competitions. The 29-year-old Croatian-Australian striker has been in excellent form, scoring 9 goals in 14 games with the most recent one being the decider in his side’s 2:0 victory in the Senior Shield final on January 24th.
Starting his professional football career back in 2004 with the Melbourne Knights in the Victorian Premier League, Barisić soon went on an impressive journey that took him across the world, including Germany’s Oberliga (Arminia Hannover, SV Schermbeck), the Australian A-League (Gold Coast United), the Indonesian Super League (Persebaya 1927, Arema), the Indian I-League (East Bengal) and the Indian Super League (Kerala Blasters). In 2013 he made his first appearance in Hong Kong’s (then top-tier) First Division, where he helped South China to qualify for the AFC Cup with 13 goals in 18 matches.
This also seemed to have made a lasting impression on Eastern, who signed him on July 1st, 2015 and have certainly no reason to regret their decision. Currently,Eastern are not only on top of the league, but have also won the Senior Shield and are still in the race for all the other domestic cup competitions. With their recent success, Barisić has become an integral part of the team, which is being spearheaded by Hong Kong’s first ever female head coach, Chan Yuen Ting.
On a drizzly afternoon, Tobias Zuser met Andrew Barisić after his training session at King’s Park, right in the heart of Kowloon, to talk about his first trophy, the disputed pitch at Hong Kong Stadium, the quality of local football, the potential of the Premier League, as well as his club’s ambitious plans in the coming years.
With the Senior Shield victory, Eastern grabbed their first title of the season. How significant was this win for the team?
I think it was really important for us. We are striving to win the league, and that just gives us the confidence at the moment, also for the other cups. Of course, it’s also a big boost for the club. We are not cocky, but we are really confident at the moment. So I think we just need to continue this. Actually we were a bit worried about the following game, that we might relax a bit too much and think we can just keep winning. But we knew it would be hard against Wong Tai Sin, with Kitchee drawing there, and a few other teams who had a hard time with them. So it was good to beat them right after the Senior Shield and keep the confidence up.
The Senior Shield Final was played on one of the coldest days in Hong Kong’s history. Did the weather play any role in that game?
Yeah, people said the weather and the ground played a part, but there are always two teams that play under the same weather, the same conditions and on the same field. But regarding the ground, you could say it matters because we play a different style. With Eastern we love to move the ball around and on not such good pitches that’s a lot harder. But I think the weather can’t really be factored in. Yes, it probably affected the game itself and the number of spectators, but for both teams it was freezing and we just had to go for it. I guess after a while, we just forgot about the temperature, because we were just so in the moment and focused on winning the shield. After all was said and done, I think we proved on that day that nothing was going to get in our way.
The Senior Shield Final was just the second football game held in Hong Kong Stadium after a year-long renovation. What do you think about the pitch quality at this time – has it improved?
I still think it was a bit early to play on it. Every time you would fall over or change direction, a lot of the grass was coming out of the ground. If you go on your knees or do anything else, it just digs up the whole pitch. The playing surface was great, and I have always said that Hong Kong Stadium is beautiful to play on, it’s like carpet. But I think maybe it was a bit premature for a few of the games to be played on there, as I don’t think the ground has actually been given enough time to just sit in its place. As I said, the ground was the same for both teams. But if you give it a few more months, once it settles in, the pitch is gonna be amazing. I think the renovation was great and it really needed it. And it will definitely be beneficial for Hong Kong football, the cup finals, and all the other things to come.
You have played as a professional football player all over the world, including Germany, India, and Indonesia – and in 2013 you also played for a short time for South China. What has drawn you back to Hong Kong?
I actually really enjoyed my first time here in Hong Kong. I came on a short 6-month contract and I think I did really well. I scored 13 goals in 18 games, we won the Shield, and we made it into the AFC Cup (via the season play-off). But with some unfortunate changes to the management, all the foreigners left. That’s football. But it gave me an opportunity to play in different countries and to adapt to different cultures and environments, which I have always enjoyed.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong is Hong Kong. It is very Westernized and that’s what I think drew me back to Hong Kong football. It’s just an enjoyable league to be playing in.
How do you think Hong Kong compares with the leagues in India and Indonesia – regions that local clubs often compete with in the AFC Cup?
I think in regards to the I-League and the Indonesian Super League, I would say it is more professional here, including the training field, the games, the whole set up. A lot of the games in Indonesia for instance were called off or not organized properly. But then again, we had about 80,000 fans at the derby. In India we had 125,000 fans. These countries are actually “sleeping giants”. There is so much potential there, but I think the leagues are just not run very well. Hong Kong on the other hand is run very professionally, but it just doesn’t have the fan base, which is really unfortunate. If it did have the spectator support of India or Indonesia, I think it could be easily among the best leagues in Asia.
Talking of attendances, in the derby against South China you recently played two games in front of almost 4,000 people. How did that feel?
When you play in these kind of games in Mong Kok Stadium, when it’s full or almost full, it feels like there are 20,000 or 30,000 people. It’s really a great feeling. Of course for most of the other games it’s a lot different. Fans just pick and choose whether they want to come, but hopefully they can support the Hong Kong league and come to every game.
Quite a few of your Eastern teammates have been part of the Hong Kong Representative Team and their inspiring World Cup Qualifier campaign last year. What do you think about this development?
Being a part of the Hong Kong Premier League and the set up, I think, they were not only representing Hong Kong as the representative team, but also the league. And I believe a lot of people have stood up now and shown that Hong Kong isn’t just what it was before. They start to acknowledge now that Hong Kong is a place where good footballers are playing and coming out of. And by drawing with China twice, the boys showed what’s possible. Of course some said that China ran all over them, but football is football. You have to adapt to each team. If you know that you’re going to beat the team 6-0, you obviously play an attacking style. If you know you have to defend, that’s what you have to do. We were proud of the boys and what they did for themselves and for the whole league. Because, as I said, it has helped me out as a player, and it’s still helping me out in truth. Other countries have been coming forward now. Even Chinese clubs have taken a whole lot of players out of the Hong Kong Premier League. Also I myself had numerous calls to go, but I am enjoying myself here right now.
Eastern have been investing a lot in professionalizing the club over the last few years and seem to have very high ambitions for the coming years. Do the players in the team feel any pressure regarding these expectations?
I think that’s with every team that has invested a lot and brought in a lot of top players. You see it with the biggest clubs in the world. There is always pressure on Real Madrid and Manchester United. Many people always want to see those teams lose, because they want the underdogs to come out and win. But I think it’s credit to the club and the management for investing the money, the time and the surroundings for the players. I think Eastern is one of the most professional clubs in Hong Kong. They deserve to win the title and as players we need to bring that to Eastern. The main priority is the league, so we can go to the AFC Cup next year. I think that will be a great step for Eastern to show their professionalism on a higher level. But we don’t go into any game just at 80 or 90%. We go out and give 120% and that’s why we won the Shield and have had a good run in the League Cup and the Sapling Cup. The only thing left is the FA Cup, which is coming up soon. But of course we don’t want to look too far ahead.
A few weeks ago, Chan Yuen Ting took over at Eastern as the first female coach of the Hong Kong Premier League – and has since then proved all her critics wrong. Was the transition from Yeung Ching Kwong very smooth?
At the beginning some people seemed to question this decision, but I think she has already shown her ability to everyone. We have continued to win, nothing has changed, and even for us as players out on the field we show the same respect whether the coach is male or female – because she has been showing the same respect back to the players. We have spoken about it in the team, and nothing seems to have changed for anyone. She has been doing an amazing job and the results speak for themselves. The people who questioned her too early just didn’t give her the chance to prove herself and I think these people have all quietened down now.
Regarding our playing style, I think it is pretty much the same as before, and that’s why the club continued with staff that they already had. If we had have brought in new coaches, they might have brought in new players or wanted a completely different team out there. So I think that’s why they kept the faith with the staff they had, and I think it has also repaid the club by doing that.
So far Eastern haven’t lost in the current Premier League campaign. Do you think you can remain undefeated until the end of the season?
To be honest, I think we can. As mentioned before, there is a difference between cockiness and confidence. I have been in places where they are just cocky, and it hasn’t worked. You always end up with one or two losses in the season. But out there the boys work really hard, every training session. Sometimes we feel really tired, and the coaches give us a bit of a rest. But, with the confidence we go into every game – even if we go 1-0 down – we know we can come back. So yes, I think we can go the whole season undefeated, but then again, we are looking quite far ahead. The last two games in the season will be against South China and Kitchee, so I think those two games are gonna be really crucial unless we pull further away from the teams below us in the next couple of months.
We noticed you have been wearing No. 27 for quite a while now. Is there any story behind this preference?
Yes, the 27 has indeed a special meaning. When I got my first professional contract after meeting my wife, I asked for number 27, as that’s her birthday. From then on that’s when all the success started to happen, so I just kept it ever since. So that’s the luck of 27 and being with my wife.
You have moved around quite a bit in the last few years. Is Hong Kong a place to stay?
Yes, definitely. As said before, I wanted to come back before, because I have enjoyed my time here. And now that I am at a great club, with great staff, great management, it’s a place I feel really happy at. My family also enjoys living in Hong Kong a lot. But then again, it’s football. You never know what can happen, but so far everything’s going according to plan. We keep winning and me being among the top scorers in the league. The future is here.
Eastern are next in action on the 21st February, when they take on Pegasus at Hong Kong Stadium at 2:30pm. Tickets will be priced at $80 for adults and $30 for concessions.