Atletico came back from two goals down to beat England’s West Ham United 3-2 after extra-time in the 2015 final after the 2014 La Liga champions and UEFA Champions League runners-up were the first Spanish side to compete at the annual event.
The La Liga side boasted the tournament’s seven-goal top scorer Samuel Saiz last year, and with the club’s famed academy renowned for producing the likes of David De Gea and Fernando Torres, Atletico are again expected to challenge later this year.
“We always want to holders to come back and defend their title the following year. They are second in La Liga and are a high profile team with a high profile manager,” said HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens Organising Committee Chairman Tony Bratsanos.
“Last year they were a breath of fresh air because we have had lots of English Premier League teams over the years, but never anyone from La Liga. They also didn’t know what to expect when they arrived so to have them return is great.”
Japan’s Kashima, meanwhile, are set to make their first appearance at the HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens since 2004 when the 17th edition of the event returns to Hong Kong Football Club from May 20-22.
And despite their prolonged absence, clubs from Japan have enjoyed a strong history at Hong Kong Football Club after Urawa Red Diamonds claimed back-to-back wins in 2005 and 2006 before winning the Shield two years later.
Kashima are only one of three teams to have competed in Japan’s top-flight since its inception as a professional entity, and are one of the most successful having claimed the J.League title seven times as well as six J.League Cup’s and four Emperor’s Cup’s, having initially been founded in 1947.
And their youth system has produced the likes of current Japan international Gaku Shibasaki, while Germany-based defender Atsuto Uchida made his professional debut for the club aged 17 in 2006.
Former Japan international Mitsuo Ogasawara, a one-club man apart from a brief loan spell in Italy, has played for Kashima since 1998 and appeared at the FIFA World Cup in both 2002 and 2006.
Ogasawara, who has made over 600 appearances for Kashima, was also named J.League MVP in 2009 before helping Japan win the 2004 AFC Asian Cup.
“Because the J.League starts around this time of year, it’s always difficult to get a Japanese presence. But Kashima played in 2004 and Urawa Red Diamonds won it in 2005 and 2006,” added Bratsanos.
“Kashima got to the final when they last played in the tournament, losing to an Aston Villa side that featured Gabby Agbonlahor, so it’s great to have them back.”
And like Atletico, New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix will also return following a successful debut last year having been edged out by the Spanish side 1-0 after extra-time in the semi-finals last year.
“It’s nice to have a team from New Zealand be part of the competition; we have had a few from Australia in the past, but Wellington are the first from New Zealand,” said Bratsanos.
“Ernie Merrick, their coach, used to be the head coach of the Hong Kong national side so that is how we got their contact. Last year they had an impressive first tournament by getting to the semis.”
The remaining sides in this year’s 16-team Main Tournament and teams competing in the over-35 Masters Tournament will be confirmed soon.