Goalkeeper Issey Maholo works for JP Morgan while fighting to get his club promoted to the Hong Kong Premier League
|Photo: Santiago Kwok|
After a summer playing goalkeeper for the Ocean City Nor’easters (then known as the Ocean City Barons) of the Premier Development League, Issey Maholo graduated from Boston College in the spring of 2007. Maholo expected his management degree, and his strong ambition, to make a successful career in the business world.
However, what he didn’t expect was traveling to the other side of the globe to find success in business and also to find a job as a professional soccer player.
Most college athletes reach a point in their lives where they have to decide between trying to make a career playing the game that they love. For Maholo, he has found a way to do both.
Maholo was born in Tokyo, Japan to a Congolese father and a Japanese mother. He developed his goalkeeping skills at a young age, playing for Kawasaki Frontale’s (J-League) Under-18 team.
|Photo: Oriental Daily|
After sending out highlight reels to dozens of colleges, Maholo earned a scholarship from Boston College where he was a regular starter for most of his time with the Eagles. He left his mark on the Boston College program as he still holds the single-season school record for goals against average (0.49 in 2004) and shutouts (10 in 2004). He also ranks in the top 10 in school history in wins (13), shutouts (11), and goals against average (1.16). He was also an All-Big East Second Team selection in 2004.
Ahead of his final year at Boston College, Maholo spent the summer of 2006 in Ocean City, playing for the Nor’easters (Barons). He split time with Adam Edwards and Danny Cepero, playing in eight of the club’s 16 games.
“It was great experience playing football for the first time in the PDL and also having the opportunity play with kids from other schools in Ocean City,” said Maholo. “The summer league set up is definitely not something you get during the season back at your own school. I was also surprised with how much commitment Ocean City's management had on the franchise at all age groups. It's a blessing for these youngsters to be able to play football in this type of environment.”
After graduating in the spring of 2007 with a double degree from the school of management, Maholo returned to Japan where he still had ambitions to play professional soccer. After he was unable to secure a contract after a couple of tryouts with a few J-League teams, he decided to focus on his off the field career.
“The timing [of the tryouts] wasn’t the greatest, given that college graduation is in spring and that is right in the middle of the season for Japan,” said Maholo. “And with all of the teams already having three or four goalkeepers on the roster, I was training with a local college team at 6 a.m. every day and doing my own workout in the evening while checking all the football news online to see if there were any teams that had an injured keeper.”
So Maholo returned to Boston College and completed his masters degree in the summer of 2008 and soccer officially “took a backseat” when he landed a job working for Barclays Capital in Tokyo.
“In my mind, I was done chasing that dream as a pro and focused on my banking job,” said Maholo.
After a few years working at Barclays Capital, Maholo was relocated to Hong Kong in June of 2011. When he arrived, a friend introduced him to Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC), one of the oldest sports clubs in the region, dating back to 1886.
After a one month trial with the Hong Kong FC’s first team, he was signed to help the club try to achieve promotion to get back into the Hong Kong Premier League for the first time since the 2010/11 season. Maholo became a regular starter for HKFC.
“The level of play in the [Hong Kong] Premiership, I would say, is a mix of MLS, NASL, and USL,” said Maholo. “This is a small league so the standard can vary with a handful of teams being considered the powerhouses finishing at the top of the table every season.”
In his fifth season in 2015/16, Maholo helped Hong Kong FC finish with a 17-3-6 record, which was good enough for second place in the First Division, which sent them back into the Premier League. Maholo’s defense was the best in the league that year, allowing just 21 goals in 26 matches.
Playing for HKFC was far from normal. According to Maholo, the club was the only one in the Premiership that trained in the evenings. Since most of the players on the team had day jobs and had to juggle their careers and their passion for the sport.
“There were times when I had to sneak out of training, or run into the bathroom under the stands to get on a conference call with New York, or simply miss practice due to client dinners,” said Maholo. “You just need to know what your priorities are, and for everyone on the team, it's your day job.”
“Life takes some funny turns,” Maholo added. “I would have never thought I would have been in this situation. I have my day job as a banker but after work I’m back on the pitch training. In a way, I’m still living that student-athlete life.”
According to Maholo, none of this could be possible without a strong support system both with the club, at home and at his latest job at JP Morgan.
“I have been very fortunate to have a manager and colleagues at work who are supportive of my football commitment,” said Maholo. “I also can't thank my wife and kids enough for putting up with my schedule. I am not going to lie, it's selfish in a way. I am always at the office or on the pitch and during the season I only have one of the weekend days to spend with the family. If I am making millions or even a couple hundred thousand playing football, I am sure they would understand, but that is obviously not the case so I owe them.”
The challenge with getting promoted was that HKFC was not a full-time professional club. By moving up to the Premier League, HKFC had to increase the team budget to $1 million to try to compete in the professional league. They would need that extra money to compete against full-time professional teams like South China that reportedly have a budget in excess of $25 million, or defending champion Kitchee who just signed former World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan.
The following season in the Premier League, which runs from September to May, saw HKFC overmatched in nearly every game, finishing with a 2-18-0 record, which left them in last place in the 11-team league, four points behind 10th place R&F. They were relegated back down to the First Division.
“My character was definitely tested week in and week out because it was the first time I experienced playing for a team fighting relegation,” said Maholo.
|Photo: Sing Pao Daily News|
After six seasons with Hong Kong FC, Maholo signed with Kwun Tong Football Association (KTFA) where he has maintained the starting job. Unfortunately, he has gone from one relegation fight to another as KTFA are beginning the 2018 calendar year with just one win in their first 15 games (1-11-3) and are in the relegation zone, second from the bottom of the table.
“I wanted to leave my comfort zone and take on a new challenge,” said Maholo about his move to Kwun Tong FA. “I’m still eyeing another return to the top flight as I feel that I have unfinished business. But I’m still genuinely enjoying the game.”
It will be an uphill climb as KTFA will be fighting to stay up in the First Division.
While goalkeepers are often ageless, this 32-year-old goalkeepers aren’t usually working full-time as a VP at a major financial institution in addition to being a husband and father of two young children.
“It's tough. I won't pretend it isn't,” said Maholo. “There is a reason why you don't hear about a banker who is also a footballer. But then again, I am blessed to be able to do what I am doing.”
While Kwun Tong FA only trains two nights a week, Maholo finds time to train on his own, sometimes multiple times a day. This includes skill training in addition to fitness training so that he remains in top shape for gameday. This begs the question: How much longer can he keep this up?
“It is my job that brought me to Hong Kong, not football,” said Maholo. “Therefore, all I can say is that I wish to play here as long as I can if my work allows me to and I am fit enough to play. I definitely do think about returning to the US one day, maybe as a college goalkeeper coach. I really do enjoy coaching kids at that age group. But that is an idea for years down the line. For now, I think Asia will be my home for the foreseeable future.”