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AFC Cup preview special: South China’s 2009 brush with continental glory

Hong Kong football stands on the cusp of one of its greatest achievements – Kitchee are just 90 minutes away from the AFC cup final following an away 1-1 draw to Iraq’s Erbil this week. With the second leg of the semi at Mong Kok stadium just two weeks away, Hong Kong correspondent Christopher KL Lau looks back to the city’s last huge night in continental football when South China fell at the final hurdle.

The local media first issued the simple yet effective battle cry “Wear red and go and support South China”. From there the momentum stirred and the message was repeated and drummed in. On October 21, 2009, something truly amazing happened, local Hong Kong fans heeded the call and descended to Hong Kong stadium in their tens of thousands. The occasion ? The rare opportunity to see the most popular team in the city, South China, attempt to overhaul a 2-1 first leg loss to Kuwait SC in the AFC Cup semi-finals 2009. For local fans starved of truly meaningful and competitive matches, this was basically an once in a lifetime opportunity to savor a grand occasion and urge (scream) the people’s club to reach the final of an Asian-wide competition. Hong Kong fans may support club teams in nations thousand of miles away but the domestic game still stirs interest and many are still emotionally and spiritually tied to the teams they watched before the ascent of cable TV and live overseas games saw a dramatic drop in attendance.

The first leg of the semi-final saw South China fall 2-1 but they secured the crucial away goal; it was now simple; win 1-0 at home and they would be guaranteed a place in the AFC Cup final and be the first Hong Kong team to reach the final in the competition’s history. South China had navigated the group stages with relative ease and scored some dramatic victories in the knock out stages. With each win, the crowds grew exponentially larger and when the “Caroliners” won their quarter-finals, the anticipation and expectations exploded beyond all belief and expectations and the ingredients for a grandstand finish were all in place; home advantage, city’s most popular team and a very achievable target of at least scoring one goal.

Crowds outside Hong Kong stadium before the AFC Cup semi against Kuwait SC

Crowds outside Hong Kong stadium before the AFC Cup semi against Kuwait SC

To top it all off, 40,000 South China fans packed out the stadium and except for handful of Kuwait SC fans, the noise echoed and reverberated from the stands. The stadium was a sea of red and the infamous South stand of the stadium was pretty much standing room only as the most hard core of fans stirred up a frenzy. Thousands of fans were unable to get tickets at the gates and had to rush to the nearest bar or restaurant showing the game. Sure, there have been sell out crowds in the past though the majority were for friendlies where the stakes were low and the results ultimately rendered meaningless. On this night, thousands of fans were locked outside; unseen and basically unheard of at a Hong Kong game whereby normally fans can have entire rows or sections to themselves if they so wish. That night, there was not a single seat left empty; from the corporate boxes to the east, west, north and south stands, everything was taken and a simple ‘full house’ sign was placed up outside when the final ticket was sold.

(Highlights)

The match itself was tight given the end prize at hand. Kuwait SC had a pressing passing game which caught South China short a few times but for some fine saves from Zhang Chunhui, the game would have been out of South China’s reach. Throughout the rest of the first period, South China’s Brazilian striker Leandro Carrijó had several half chances and a disputed penalty claim  but nothing which threatened to break the deadlock. Carrijo had been decisive in the quarter-final second leg win over the Uzbekistan side, Neftchi, and Kuwait SC tracked him closely. Kuwait SC knew they could break away and counter attack as South China needed to get that decisive goal to bring the tie back to 2-2 to progress on the away goal. In the second half, chances fell to striker Leandro Carrijó who had the chance to be a national hero and write himself into Hong Kong sporting folklore but luck was not on his side. Each attack, corner or shot was greeted with bated breath with the normally hard to please fans urging the home side to press forward.

Kuwait SC on the attack in a packed Hong Kong Stadium

Kuwait SC on the attack in a packed Hong Kong Stadium

Carrijo was also involved in the most decisive moment of the game; in the 70th minute, he backed heeled the ball in the Kuwait SC penalty area to his teammate Li Haiqiang who toe poked the ball past the Kuwait SC goalkeeper sparking scenes of total yet short lived pandemonium and joy. The goal was deemed offside by the closet of margins much to the severe indignation of 99% of the stadium. This lead to the linesman unfortunately running the gauntlet of being pelted by water bottles. South China were unsettled and Kuwait SC’s Ismail Sulaiman scored the decisive blow and placed the visitors ahead 1-0 on the night and 3-1 overall. The stadium fell into a deathly silence as the fans knew the game was beyond them. Yet, after the initial shock the fans gathered themselves and continued to drive the home team forward but it was too little too late and upon the final whistle many still hung around safe in the knowledge that they had been part of and witnessed something unique and special. Fans knew South China had gone beyond expectations and their own limits to stage the grandest of shows and cheered the team off the pitch.

A few weeks later, the Hong Kong Olympic side won the East Asian games title (against Japan) again in-front of a packed out crowd at Hong Kong stadium while this victory sent the city into wild celebrations yet, for many, this semi-final loss still endures and remains in the collective memory much longer; it could have been the long-meandering journey that South China took to that fateful night, it could have been the fervent and frenzied full house atmosphere or it could have been the many what-ifs that were played out that night or it could have been the honorable way that South China fought and were ultimately defeated that stirred people’s emotions. For many fans, it is very hard to quantify and discern and each to their own opinions but for many who have seen the slow and gradual decline of local football, this marked an example of what could be achieved and the potential to reach greater heights. This match also represented something rarely seen in the city in a sporting, social, economic or cultural sense; for a city which has slowly developed its own unique identity, there are still  many divisions. On a daily basis, politics and the ever-widening economic gap between the  ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ threatens to polarize society but here, for once, all opinions were seemingly set aside with everyone uniting behind one cause.

Kitchee look to the first Hong Kong to reach the AFC Cup final

Kitchee look to be the first Hong Kong club to reach the AFC Cup final

On September 30th, local champions Kitchee will play their AFC Cup semi-final 2nd leg (1-1 after the first leg) at the much smaller capacity Mong Kok stadium. Kitchee for all their titles do not have the long storied history that South China can boast of but for the sake of the local game, hopefully the fans will come out, fill Mong Kok to capacity and cheer them onto the final.

Will Hong Kong sports ever again witness and experience such a night like the delirious, frenetic and soul stirring one seen at Hong Kong stadium on October 21st, 2009? Once in a lifetime and never again……..

All pictures courtesy of the HKFA 

Follow Chris Lau on Twitter

Christopher KL Lau was born in England and grew up in both England and Hong Kong, and has a background in media, education and non-profits. He also is a freelance writer / photographer and has written for a number of magazines, websites and newspapers around the world on many subjects ranging from the arts to travel.

Chris is passionate about sports and its place in society and is keen to promote both Hong Kong and Chinese football to a wider audience.

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