AT 20 YEARS OLD, rising talent Kobe Jae Chong has already been around the block.
Become one of the most talented futsal players in the country? Check.
Sign for West Brom as a nine-year-old before going AWOL in a bid to land a spot at the Sporting Lisbon academy that made Cristiano Ronaldo? Check.
Join Serie A side Cagliari and take on the best youngsters from Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan? Check.
Yet for many, his name will not ring any bells, nor will his face.
He laughs: “It seems that after all of this, I’ve somehow slipped under the radar.”
But after missing out on a senior contract with Brentford, Kobe Jae Chong is determined not to become a forgotten could-have-been.
Born on the streets outside Birmingham’s St Andrews Stadium, Kobe – named after the late, great Kobe Bryant – saw his early years dominated by the reach for footballing stardom.
Kobe was mentored and coached obsessively by his father – a former professional basketball player for Birmingham Blues – and was taken to Strike Soccer Schools as a two-year-old before attending Brazilian Futsal camps age six.
Dad was over the top with me. He made me train at 6am before school, doing 1000-odd kick-ups in the kitchen.
Kobe Jay Chong
He said: “Dad was over the top with me. I trained at the Futsal schools all week. He made me train at 6am before school, doing 1000-odd kick-ups in the kitchen.
“He made me do it, but it benefited me in the end because it gave me an advantage over the other kids.”
That advantage – a technical level unique in a boy so young – saw West Brom take a chance on the unorthodox Kobe, snapping him up as a nine-year-old without even a trial.
“That transition was crazy,” admits Kobe, “I was going from 5-a-side Futsal to 9-a-side academy football.
“The other kids around me were not on my level technically; I was ridiculous, outstanding. I wouldn’t say I was years ahead but I was different.
“But they were good at the simple stuff like passing and moving, so I had to learn from them. It took me time.”
Two years passed, and Kobe was progressing with the Baggies. But his dad, with a contact at the Sporting Lisbon academy, had other ideas.
“When you are that age, it is not down to yourself,” explains Kobe.
“If I knew what I know now then I would have tried to handle it differently, and if my dad was correctly advised, he would have got Sporting to get in touch with West Brom.
“We should have at least informed West Brom that I wouldn’t be turning up to training.
“My dad didn’t take them seriously. For him, it was more of a: ‘F**k it let’s go’.
“He was so excited because of Ronaldo and it being the best academy in the world. He got a rush of blood and didn’t think about how it could affect me if it didn’t go to plan.”
And it didn’t. Two weeks of trying to impress and ultimately failing left Kobe feeling “overwhelmed”.
Unsurprisingly, on return to West Brom, he was released – accused of taking his privileged position for granted.
He spent time with Kidderminster in the Junior Premier League before another chance with Sporting aged 15.
“My dad sent off videos of me playing to Lisbon and they asked me over again,” said Kobe. “But this time I struggled physically playing in 35 degrees heat every day. I wasn’t up to it.”
And then came the chance with Cagliari, who had got hold of Kobe’s footage and invited him over to a tournament where he would be coached by former Inter great David Suazo.
“Then they invited me to train with them in Sardinia,” he continues. “I was ripping it up, dribbling through players and doing crazy stuff they had never seen before.
“They told my dad I was going to be the next big thing. So, I came back to England, finished Year 10 and then skipped my GCSE year to sign a contract with them.”
Kobe spent three years at the club, representing the U16s and U17s and testing his mettle against the best talent from Italy’s elite academy systems.
But it wasn’t all easy for the teenager. International clearance problems saw him miss a lot of football in his first season, while his Jamaican and Malaysian heritage also caused issues.
Kobe said: “It’s not a great place to be a foreigner. You can be treated quite badly.
“You are forced to accept it and get used to it, people staring at you. I couldn’t speak the language at that time and I felt like an outcast.
“My success out there was staggered. Our U17 coach would keep the same team week in week out. He was a bit like Maurizio Sarri – he believed in the starting XI until the end of time.”
He returned home aged 18, but with no agent and struggling with socialising after spending his prime years abroad, he went back to local football to regain the love of the game.
“I realised out in Italy that it wasn’t what I wanted. I needed to be full time in England,” he admits.
“I spent a year on a Solihull’s full-time footballing college course but I always knew I was good enough to play for an academy. And then I went to a Non-League Gems showcase event.”
The event, which featured 40 professional scouts, paid off.
Kobe attended trials with Huddersfield, Middlesbrough and Brentford – the latter earning him a contract before the plug was pulled at the last minute.
most popular football stories
It was an agonising blow that resorted Kobe to tears, but it has only spurred him on to become Malaysia’s very own Jadon Sancho.
Playing for non-league Redditch United before lockdown, and continuing to earn trials for top clubs, he said: “It is definitely something that makes me work harder every day.
“Jadon Sancho is one that I have always followed and looked up to.
“There are not many Malaysian stars in this country and to have them follow and be inspired by my journey over here would be incredible.
“At the end of the day football works in mysterious ways. A week down the line I could be playing at any level or I could disappear.
“But I am very confident I will go far in football and make a living and a name for myself.”