In ‘s first foray away from the mainland and into covering Hong Kong, Christopher KL Lau takes a look at the rich footballing heritage of the SAR and one of its greatest rivalries.
The crowds are smaller, the star names are gone and the glory days seem like a distant memory yet when historical rivals South China and Eastern clash; the passion, intensity and sense of revulsion between the bitter rivals remains. Any competition between two of Hong Kong’s most storied and historical teams is always a high tempo and fiery affair. Geographically, Hong Kong is considered way to small but have any true derby match, as technically, all division 1 games could be considered a derby!Given their historical enmity towards each other, this is the closet Hong Kong football fans can have to a full blooded, studs up derby game. Furthermore, South China’s other great rivals such as Seiko SA, Sing Tao FC and Bulova FC are now defunct and long consigned to history.
Derby Day in Hong Kong?
At present, Kitchee FC may be the only real challengers to South China in terms of financial clout and silverware but it when it comes to victories, the “Caroliners” (Nickname for South China) love to put one over Eastern. South China are known as the team of the people and are historically the most popular team in the city. Formed in 1910, the Caroliners have won the league a whooping 41 times; when compared to Eastern’s 5 titles, this is an incredible amount. Though it was three of Eastern’s title wins which formed the foundation of the mutual loathing and apathy. Through the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, South China enjoyed unparalleled success and enjoyed endless victories and near total domination; Seiko and Happy Valley provided a few blips though aside from that, South China ruled the roost. A revolution came in the early nineties, the last golden period of Hong Kong football. From nowhere, an upstart Eastern team entered the fray and knocked South China off their perch and went on to win three successive titles (1992–93, 1993–94, 1994–95). This last truly great period of domestic Hong Kong football saw the two teams slug it out and each team’s respective players became household names.
The Nineties – “Are you South China or Eastern?”
Seasoned professionals and journeymen such as Dale Tempest, Lee Kin Wo, Paul Nixon, Ross Greer, Tam Siu Wai and Iain Hesford formed the basis of the all conquering early nineties Eastern team; wearing the red and white of South China were notable players like Trevor Morgan, Steve Neville, Au Wai Lun, Wu Qunli, Werner Kooistra and Leslie Santos. The games between them were titanic clashes and the presently unseen crowds of 25,000 to 30,000 used to watch the two go head to head. The once invincible South China team lost their aura and it took them a while to regain their foothold on Hong Kong domestic football. On one incredible Sunday in 1993, the two teams combined, for an one off friendly, to defeat Sao Paulo FC of Brazil 4-2. Dale Tempest scored a memorable hat-trick. In true Hong Kong fashion, Eastern players like Tempest and Lee Kin Wo ended up playing for South China. Eastern’s brief moment in the sun came to an end and they began to drift back to mid table averageness. Their slide down came full circle when they were relegated to the third division in the 2006/2007 season. Eastern have worked their way back up to the first division and now are managed by Cristiano Cordeiro, who of course used to play for South China!
Trophies came again for South China but they had lost their edge. This came to a head when they were relegated in the 2005-2006 season for the first time since 1983. A huge financial injection allowed them to stay in the first division (Money talks!) Overseeing the new look South China is the ambitious and current chairman Steven Lo who has utilized cutting edge marketing and social media to rebrand the team. In recent times, South China enjoyed a magical run through to the semi-finals of the AFC Asia cup 2009/2010.
Marquee signings like Nicky Butt and Kezman who were used to bring some big name glamour to the Hong Kong league ultimately failed; Kezman played his last ever professional match in Hong Kong and ironically, smashed his penalty into the North stand of Hong Kong stadium.
The Present – Golden Memories
This past January 5th, South China took on Eastern AA in a Division 1 match played at Mong Kok stadium. Eastern were looking for revenge after their thrilling 3-2 defeat to South China in the Canbo Senior Shield. Eastern are off the pace in the hunt for the first division title race but placing a dent in South China’s title hopes would give them great satisfaction. The match was a stale mate with Eastern’s strikers having the better of the chances in the second half with three to four clear cut scoring chances. Half time saw Eastern’s management team Au Wai Lun and Cristiano Cordeiro argue with the referees due some tackles and decisions against their players which they deemed unjust.Yes, both Au and Cordeirio used to play for South China.
The most notable incident of the match was an injury to Hong Kong national team striker, Chan Siu Ki who was injured following a harsh challenge in the second half. With both side’s set of fans desperate for a goal, Eastern no doubt felt more disappointed with the nil all draw following their many chances.
Hong Kong football fans know the golden days of domestic football are long gone yet when South China play Eastern, they can truly hark back to the good old days when Eastern came from nowhere to reshape the landscape of Hong Kong football. People should look to the future but sometimes golden memories should always be cherished; those three seasons in the early nineties will live forever by all those who witnessed them and have written themselves in Hong Kong sporting folklore.
Christopher KL Lau is a freelance writer who was born in England and now works in Hong Kong.
He has figured out twitter and can be found here: https://twitter.com/Chris_KL_Lau
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