Preview: Masters of the Game

Citi All Stars won the 2016 HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens Masters tournament. Photo by Lim Weixiang/Power Sport Images

Defending champions Citi All Stars will once again face off with USRC after last year’s Masters Tournament finalists were paired in Group A of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, while competition newcomers playonPros have been drawn in Group B alongside 2015 runners-up Wallsend Boys Club.

Citi All Stars have been a regular feature at Hong Kong Football Club for a number of years, but a runners-up spot in 2011 was the best they had managed until defeating 2015 winners USRC 3-1 in the final last year after winning five consecutive games following an opening-match defeat.

Joining the two in Group A are hosts HKFC Masters, Discovery Bay and Singapore Cricket Club Tigers, all of whom will be looking to put on a better showing than in 2016 when they failed to progress beyond the group stage.

In Group B, an exciting new addition will take to the field at Happy Valley as playonPros make their maiden appearance at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens as the side bring with them a star-studded line-up of ex-professionals who performed at the highest level and have since teamed up with the post-football retirement initiative.

But their first taste of the tournament couldn’t have been harder as HKFC Chairman’s Select also put on a strong showing in 2016 by reaching the semi-finals, while Group B’s two remaining teams – Yau Yee League Masters and KCC Veterans – went head-to-head in the Masters Plate final that the former won on penalties after a goalless draw.

“The Citi All Stars won it last year which was the first time since they’d sponsored the event so that was great,” said HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens Organising Committee Chairman Tony Bratsanos.

HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens draw. Photo by Victor Fraile/Power Sport Images

“Frank Sinclair was drinking champagne and jumping up and down – it meant so much to him as an ex-professional to win that tournament.

“The playonPros team will be another chapter in our development. Wallsend will bring a strong team and, of course, USRC always have the Brazilians in their team. So, again some different cultures taking part.”

Always among the tournament favourites, Citi All Stars took to the pitch last year aiming to win a first HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens, only to lose their opening encounter to Yau Yee League Select.

But, boasting a line-up that included former Liverpool and Czech Republic duo Patrik Berger and Vladimir Smicer, ex-Rangers pair Michael Mols and Marvin Andrews, one-time Fulham forward Luis Boa Morte and ex-Chelsea defender Sinclair, the side went on to post a perfect record in their remaining five games.

Two goals from former Blackburn Rovers midfielder David Thompson and another from ex-Derby County striker Deon Burton wrapped up a 3-1 win over local side USRC in the final.

And, continuing the tradition, Citi All Stars will again bring with them another cast of household names to draw in crowds at Hong Kong Football Club with the majority of the 2016 winners returning.

HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens draw. Photo by Victor Fraile/Power Sport Images

USRC, meanwhile, are undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the Masters event having appeared in the last two finals.

In 2015, they became the first side from Hong Kong to win the Masters competition since 2011 when goals from Brazilian duo Daniel Lins Cortes and Paulo Enrique secured a 2-1 victory over Wallsend in the final.

The amateur side will again be among the favourites, but tournament regulars Singapore Cricket Club Tigers will want to improve on the two wins and two losses that saw them ousted at the first stage last year, while Discovery Bay and HKFC Masters both finished bottom of their respective groups in 2016.

While playonPros bring with them something of the unknown, the same can’t be said for Wallsend.

The reputable club, based in England’s north east, has built up a strong relationship with Hong Kong Football Club in recent times and are returning for the fourth successive year.

Famed for producing the likes of Alan Shearer, Steve Bruce, Michael Carrick and Peter Beardsley, the side is another to have brought a host of top class ex-professionals to the HKFC Citi Sevens.

HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens draw. Photo by Victor Fraile/Power Sport Images

Former Leeds United forward Michael Bridges, ex-Celtic midfielder Alan Thompson and one-time Newcastle United defender Robbie Elliott, in addition to Beardsley, have all turned out at the tournament, while forward Daniel McBreen has been a constant thorn in defenders’ sides at Happy Valley over the years.

The pair will start as favourites to advance from the five-team group, but after finishing third in their respective tables last year before facing off in the Plate final, Yau Yee League Masters and KCC Veterans will be confident they can secure a top-two position.

HKFC Chairman’s Select, meanwhile, proved they are a match for anyone after it took a 1-0 semi-final defeat to Citi All Stars to end their run in 2016.

The Masters tournament has long since been a major attraction of the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens with household names from around the world having headed east for the event.

In the competition’s early days, German World Cup winners Jurgen Klinsmann, Pierre Litbarski and Uwe Bein, along with European Cup winner Andreas Moller, all starred for the Lorenz All Stars.

Dutch giants Ajax have also regularly entered teams with the likes of Jari Litmanen, Aron Winter and Kenneth Perez all featuring.

And there is no shortage of former Premier League stars as Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, Darren Anderton, Des Walker, Matthew Le Tissier and John Barnes are among a host of renowned names to have taken to the field.