Kobe Jae Chong has packed more into his 18 years than most can lay claim to in a lifetime.
From early on, his abundance of talent with a football at his feet marked him out as being a bit different to the other kids. At the age of 6, he was immersed in a futsal academy in his home city of Birmingham, harnessing his natural ability and developing his close control and speed of thought. The youngster was training morning and night under the watchful and encouraging eye of his father and was soon attracting the attention of scouts from professional clubs.
His first association came with West Bromwich Albion at the age of 9, but he seemed destined for greater things. At the age of 11, the player went AWOL from Albion to take up the opportunity of a trial with Sporting Lisbon’s famed academy. Unfortunately for Chong, things didn’t work out in Portugal and upon his return to Birmingham, the Baggies took the principled rather than sporting decision to sever their ties.
Chong’s father has been a key protagonist in the youngster’s journey; as a former professional basketball player, he knows exactly what it takes to succeed in sport. He was the architect of those early morning training sessions and the trial with Sporting Lisbon. And it was one of his father’s homemade highlight reels that caught the attention of Serie A Cagliari in 2016.
Chong was initially invited over to Italy for them to assess him in the flesh. It was a dream come true for Chong as he worked under the observation of Cagliari’s under-15 coach and former-Inter legend David Suazo. He was thrown straight into the fray of a junior tournament in Lombardia against the likes of Juventus. At the time, Chong knew the trial had gone well, recalling: “I was doing things they’d never seen before”. A formal offer was duly made and he signed on the dotted line.
Chong arrived in Sardinia feeling optimistic about the next chapter in his fledgeling career. However, as he prepared for his first pre-season game against Cesena, the news was broken to him that an international clearance problem would prevent him from making his debut. At this point, presuming this was just a temporary glitch, Chong was unaware that the same issue would persist throughout the entirety of his first year in Italy.
Despite this setback, Chong kept working hard in anticipation of the bureaucratic knot being unwound. His father moved out to Cagliari with him and helped him to settle into the new lifestyle. Chong recalls the culture shock of moving not just to a new country, but an island province: “It’s different to Italy, even living in and around Cagliari has the feel of a village. It’s a quiet life. There’s no 24 hour-culture and nothing happens very quickly”.
Life as an outsider on the island was not without its difficulties either. Born to a Malaysian-Chinese father and British-Jamaican mother, Chong’s diverse heritage certainly contributed to the challenge of settling in. Along with an American and a Guinean, Chong was one of a very small number of foreign players in Cagliari’s academy. Nonetheless, he embraced the challenge, working diligently to develop his grasp of the Italian language.
On the pitch, Chong used that frustrating first season to size up the stylistic disparities. Similar to other British players, Chong was struck primarily by the highly tactical nature of Italian football: “There was a strong counter-attacking ideology at Cagliari. As a smaller club in Serie A, that way of playing ran from the first team right down through the age groups. Opponents were always well-organised and we had to be patient to break them down”.
The 2017/18 season brought new hope for Chong, with the clearance issues finally resolved he began to get opportunities in the Campionato Nazionale under-17. Chong made a series of appearances from the bench in the early part of the season, featuring against the likes of Lazio, Inter and Atalanta. Chong was up against a cohort of players, several of whom are now beginning to break into Serie A first teams, such as Sebastiano Esposito (Inter), Daniel Maldini (Milan) and Amad Traore (Atalanta).
But as the season progressed, the game time began to dry up. Chong recalls feeling locked out of coach Martino Melis’ plans: “The coach wanted to stick with his preferred team. He only made a few changes week-to-week, even against weaker opposition. If you weren’t in his first 13 or 14 players it was hard to get a look in”. In a results-based business, Cagliari’s under-17s were performing well against the larger clubs and the coach rarely diverged from his formula.
Chong made several personal sacrifices to take the up opportunity in Cagliari, leaving behind friends, family and his education back home, but has no regrets. “It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I definitely improved technically as a player at Cagliari. It also developed my character and I grew massively as a person”. Chong reflects on the challenging routine for away games experienced by a player on the fringes of the team: “We had to be up at 5 am on Sunday to catch the plane to the mainland, so it was early to bed on Saturday. We’d get back late on Sunday and there was no training on a Monday. That was the focus of the week and you were putting so much into it, so it was hard when you didn’t get off the bench”.
At the end of the 2017/18 season, and still just shy of his 17th birthday, Chong returned to the UK to continue his footballing journey. Since then he has been involved with the Solihull Moors academy, training full time whilst gaining his qualifications. He’s also had his first taste of senior football with Banbury United and Redditch United. “You learn a lot playing at that level, against grown men. It’s a different intensity; they’re fighting to keep their place in the team so they can pay the bills”.
From that early apprenticeship on the futsal court, Chong has blossomed into an athletic and technical midfield player. “My key strength is in reading the game, I’m very forward-thinking. I can use both feet and I’ve got a good passing range”. Chong’s ambition to make it as a professional footballer burns as bright as ever and he has stated his ambition to represent Malaysia internationally. The player allies a deep faith in his own ability with a steely determination to succeed. As we spoke, he’d just returned from a solo 5km run in the pouring rain, ensuring he is primed and ready for whenever football restarts.
Last summer, amidst interest from a host of league clubs, he spent time training with Brentford, only for a promised deal to fall through at the eleventh hour. But still not quite 19 years of age, and with a wealth of experience already under his belt, time is still very much on his side.
A huge thanks to Kobe for taking the time to answer my questions.
Title image credit: Atlante del Calcio Italiano, D’Andreta