Captain Harry McKirdy insists Aston Villa are determined to mount a successful defence of their HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens title as the most diverse edition of the annual tournament kicks-off on Friday at Hong Kong Football Club.
Six-time winners Villa are joined by English Premier League duo Leicester City, who were champions in 2013, and West Ham United, who have finished as runners-up in the previous two editions, for the May 26-28 event.
Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers return, while there is a strong European contingent with Olympique Marseille, Bayer Leverkusen and Cagliari Calcio becoming the first clubs from France, Germany and Italy to appear in the tournament.
New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix and Japan’s Kashima Antlers return, while Singapore Cricket Club complete the international line-up, with six teams also representing Hong Kong, including recently crowned Hong Kong Premier League champions and 2011 winners Kitchee.
“We’ve come back to retain the title,” said Villa captain McKirdy, who is appearing in the competition for the fourth successive year and was the tournament’s top scorer as the Birmingham-based side won a record sixth title in 2016 after beating West Ham in the final.
“It’s a good tournament at the end of a season and it’s good to get out here with the lads, play some football and experience another country.”
After 2015 HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens winners Atletico Madrid became the first side from mainland Europe to participate at Hong Kong Football Club, organisers have continued their drive to boost the tournament’s profile on the continent.
With representatives from the trio of European countries appearing for the first time, the contrasting styles in the 16-team line-up can only add extra excitement for fans that attend the three-day event.
“It’s a big city and very different to Germany – the people are different, the weather is different but we like it here,” said Bayer Leverkusen captain Joel Abu-Hanna.
“I think we are the youngest team here so we can learn a lot from how the other teams play. In Germany the climate is different so training was hard, but I think in one or two days we’ll get used to it.”
The international cast will also offer up new challenges for hosts Hong Kong Football Club.
“We’re looking forward to testing ourselves against top, top players,” said captain Andrew Wylde.
“We’ve been training hard over the last four or five weeks and we are well-organised and well-drilled after a season in the Hong Kong Premier League. The aim is to qualify for the quarter-finals.”
As ever, the Masters tournament promises to deliver much excitement, with the Citi All Stars returning to defend their title and featuring a host of renowned names including former Arsenal defender Lauren, ex-Blackburn Rovers midfielder David Thompson and one-time Chelsea defender Frank Sinclair.
“Really ready to go and looking forward to the tournament,” said captain Sinclair. “There’s no pressure, we come out to enjoy ourselves but we’ll look to try and retain the title.
“I think it’s a great event, the fans come out and support us and it’s a great platform for us to show what we used to be able to do and what we can do now.”
There will also be a first appearance in the tournament for a star-studded playonPROS, an initiative designed to support players after retiring from the game.
A number of former English Premier League players will star for the debutants, including ex-England internationals Emile Heskey, David James and Des Walker.
“We’re well-organised, long in the tooth and looking forward to it,” said former Blackburn Rovers and Scotland defender Colin Hendry.
“We’ve got a lot of players I haven’t played with. We’re from all different eras – 80s, 90s and 2000s, so it’s a good mixture.”