There was a hint of a smile pulling its way onto his face as he made his case, but Maxime Lestienne’s wild commitment was crystal clear.

It was only a game of rondo and possession had been conceded, but the Lion City Sailors winger was not about to surrender – at least not without a fight.

“He touched (the ball), I swear!” bellowed the Belgian, his competitive streak bubbling to surface.

Maxime is part of the 23-strong Sailors’ squad that arrived in Hong Kong on Monday (2 October) ahead of Wednesday’s Group F Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) clash against Kitchee SC.

And across what was the Sailors’ first training session at Hong Kong’s Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground – and indeed, from the moment the squad gathered at Changi Airport before dawn broke on Monday – it was clear that Aleksandar Ranković’s men mean business.

This was the first time that the Sailors Class of 2023 travelled together for a competitive fixture, and while some were understandably excited, there were older heads who seemed to retain their focus throughout the day, their stoic faces framed by headphones.

After the four hours it took to traverse the 2,805 kilometres from Changi to Hong Kong International Airport, the Sailors were surprised with some fanfare.  A few local fans gathered to catch players for autographs and photos with some continuing onto the team hotel, waiting for the Sailors to appear before – and even after – their training session.

The session may have started some jokes, some ribbing and Maxime’s emotive outburst, but at the Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground – a venue that witnessed goals from Italian legends Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo in a Chelsea 3-2 win over South China in a 1997 friendly – Ranko made his charges work hard.

Alongside Brazilian defender Pedro Henrique, who threw himself into every challenge and every drill at the session, the likes of captain Hariss Harun and Rui Pires were dripping with sweat by the time Ranko blew the final whistle to close the session.

Indeed, even off the pitch the Sailors’ commitment to the cause was all too evident.

Hafiz Nor had missed the team’s morning flight due to the birth of his third child on Sunday evening, but after ensuring that both mother and baby girl were good and comfortable, the Sailors vice-captain rejoined the team, sprinting straight from Hong Kong’s airport to the Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground for training.

From Maxime’s exasperated appeal, to the broad smiles of third-time father, Hafiz, the Sailors closed their first day in Hong Kong brimming with positivity that was equally matched in the excitement of the members of the Crew. 

The 10-strong Crew assembled at Changi just before midnight to prepare to stand alongside their beloved Sailors in the Hong Kong Stadium on Wednesday for the task at hand, an ACL battle against Hong Kong champions Kitchee – and they could not ask for more positive vibes in and around the Sailors camp.