40 years young, record scorer Dejan Damjanovic still "feeling like a kid" leading Kitchee's AFC Champions League quest

For a man whose career is now into its 24th year, spanning 14 different teams, Dejan Damjanovic could be forgiven should his legs be feeling a little weary by now.

Instead, just three months away from his 41st birthday, the prolific striker, who has called Asia his home for the past 16 years, still feels -- and performs -- as youthful as ever as he embraces his latest challenge of firing Hong Kong's Kitchee to greater heights in AFC Champions League 2022.

Arguably best known for his time in South Korea with FC Seoul, where he won three league titles and reached the final of the ACL in 2013, Damjanovic is now into his second season with Kitchee and was part of the side that came excruciatingly close to a maiden knockout round appearance last year.

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Kitchee's exploits in the 2022 campaign have thus far reaped an opening-day win over Chiangrai United followed by an honourable loss to Vissel Kobe, with the team then enjoying an eight-day break before their next game due to Group J featuring just three teams following the withdrawal of Shanghai Port.

The gap in between matches did afford the Kitchee players what would have ordinarily been a rare off day, given the nature of the centralised group stage sees all six games completed in a 16-day period.

And with the off day also came a reminder for Damjanovic as to just why he continues to show no signs of slowing down.

"We had an off day with no training -- the next day when we were out on the pitch again, I was like a kid! Just running around and grabbing the ball..." a grinning Damjanovic told ESPN.

"I'm still enjoying football. I'm taking care of myself and thankfully my body is listening. This is the best job ever so I cannot complain at all.

"I want to enjoy every day, every training and every game... I still get nervous before the games and I'm very emotional. I know it hasn't been easy to get to this situation and now I'm going to enjoy it.

"I'm going to take it season by season, as long as I feel I can still make some different on the pitch and bring positives to the team. Of course, in the end, it's the club who will also decide if I'm still doing well but as long as it's not difficult to wake up for double sessions of training or running, I'm going to keep playing."

The presence of Damjanovic, who humorously revealed that his family no longer believes him when he suggests he might hang up his boots after previously telling them he would retire before 40, has been a huge asset for a Kitchee outfit looking to take the next step competing in Asia's premier club competition-- which their evergreen spearhead can claim to being the all-time record scorer of with his 40 goals.

Rather than just being in the team as the present source of experience and goals, Damjanovic is also aware of the role he plays nurturing the next generation of local talent for the long-term benefit of Kitchee -- and Hong Kong football in general.

"When you look at teams, the core comes from the players from 24 to 28. It's not us (the older players)," he explained.

"We're here to show a good example on how to behave, perform and work on your own body, but the younger guys are the engine of the team that set the tone. And they are performing excellently.

"We're very happy with their attitude and performance and I hope -- in the future -- we can have more of them in the team to give us more options, especially competing at ACL level when you play every three days and it's not easy.

"We need more younger, local players because in the end they are the future of the Hong Kong national team. They must understand they need to be the leaders, not maybe now exactly, but in the future for Hong Kong and Kitchee."

For Damjanovic, who hinted at a slight regret of having never went all the way in the ACL, the present goal of taking Hong Kong football further than it has ever gone is one that could be equally rewarding for him at this stage of his career.

"Last year, we had an unbelievable campaign," Damjanovic added. "We were really unlucky to not qualify (for the Round of 16) just because of goal difference, but we showed everyone in Asia we can be competitive.

"And I'm so happy that it's not only Kitchee. We've seen teams from Singapore (Lion City Sailors) and Malaysia (Johor Darul Ta'zim) being very competitive -- even the team from Philippines (United City) performed really well in their first game.

"I'm happy to see the difference between the 'smaller clubs' and teams from South Korea, Japan and Australia is getting smaller and smaller, and it's going to make the ACL more interesting for everyone.

"What we did in 2021 was not an accident. We set some bars and now in 2022 we want to move it a little bit higher for Kitchee and future teams from Hong Kong in the ACL."