Hong Kong correspondents Christopher KL Lau and JRP Borthwick bring their regular round-up of all the very latest news, developments and other footballing points of interest from the SAR.
Hong Kong Launch Brave Fightback in Five Goal Thriller against Qatar – Hong Kong 2 Qatar 3
The Hong Kong faithful turned up to Mong Kok Stadium in fine voice with the lads in red returning to their home ground hot on the heels of their solid defensive display against China just five days earlier.
The commendable 0-0 away result, achieved just across the border in Shenzhen’s Bao’an Stadium, secured HK a valuable qualification point, but the Hong Kong crowd knew that they needed to get behind the team with another major challenge facing them in the form of a solid Qatar squad.
The press corps laid their cards on the table early, primarily clustering at the HK end, expecting Qatar to pile on the pressure from the onset! Each game in this series of matches is doubly important with results contributing towards qualification of both the 2018 World Cup in Russia and also the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the UAE.
The media were proven correct with HK being forced to weather an early storm with HK’s first choice keeper Yapp Hung Fai called to the fore, being put under early pressure and in turn seeking to instigate counter attacking play with rapid redeployment of the ball. This had to be part of the HK strategy against the powerful Qatari side.
Hong Kong were limited to seeking out scraps of breathing space, utilizing breaking football wherever possible, but just weren’t allowed to get into any real rhythm. Qatar had clearly done their homework with HK striker Jaimes McKee rarely allowed any time at all on the ball before being closed down in numbers.
The Qatari pressure eventually told as Qatar No. 20 Karim Boudiaf headed in at the near post off a corner in the 22nd minute. Their tempo didn’t let up at all following the breakthrough as they continued to surge forward, putting the HK defense under constant pressure.
It was not all one-way traffic, however, with some decent breaking play bringing sporadic opportunities for the team in red. Unfortunately the breaks weren’t going Hong Kong’s way this time. Jean Jacques Kilama came close for HK with a strong header from 8 yards but was left to watch replays on the big screen as his attempt was left wanting.
The first half finished with HK 0-1 down. As the teams returned for the second half, Hong Kong continued to press and created chances but the Qataris remained the dominant side creating the better of the chances as they seemed able to conjure up more time and space than the Hong Kong players.
As time wore on with HK still hanging in there with just the single goal deficit, it was the turn of Qatar to break quickly from defence. In the 62nd minute Abdelkarim Hassan doubled the Qatari lead with a solid strike as they broke from their end following a fierce Cheung Kin-Fung blast at the Qatar goal in the previous minute.
The game looked to have well and truly slipped away from Hong Kong in the 85th minute as the Qatar Number 2, Mohamed Mousa, stroked the ball into the back of the HK net as he found himself in space on goal as HK keeper Yapp Hung Fai parried the ball into his path following a stinging Abdelkarim Hassan shot. Mousa’s goal brought large scale celebrations from the Qatari side and a thumbs up from Qatar coach Jase Carreno.
As the night wore on, with just minutes left to run, Qatari keeper Amine Claude Lecomte was looking forward to hitting the showers with a clean sheet. He could not have foreseen the rampant and nail-biting finale that the teams were to face in the closing moments of this match.
With the game slipping towards a disappointing end for HK, a spark was ignited. HK number 4 Bai He headed the ball back into the back of the Qatari net in the 87th minute. He then grabbed the ball out the back of the net and made a beeline back to the centre spot. Spirit had been reinjected and the home fans finally had something to celebrate.
And then in the 90th minute; cue havoc, as what had previously been looking like being a consolation goal in a 1-3 loss had turned into the first goal of a home side fight back. Godfred Karikari latched onto a loose ball in the box to take the match to 2-3 and send every set of eyes training on the 4th official as he prepared to signal time added on. 4 minutes. Would it be enough?
Despite their best efforts and continuing to surge forward, frantically searching for one more goal, it was not to be. Agony for Hong Kong as the shine was taken off the Qatari win as they clawed their way on hand and knee to the final whistle with some frantic defending.
A damaging 2-3 loss for HK. Next home game is China on 17 November but two tricky need-to-win away games in the meantime in the form of Bhutan (13 October) and Maldives (12 November). But it ain’t over yet.
Hong Kong Hold On Against China in Shenzhen
For all that has gone on in Hong Kong recently in a social and political context, the anticipation levels for the game against China were higher than usual to the point of frenzy; Hong Kongers with seemingly no interest in football seemed to now seamlessly name the entire starting eleven without hesitation; after decades of apathy, the national team are the talk of Hong Kong again and for all the right reasons. Hong Kong have played China in the past without hype or interest but now circumstances had changed and now it was more of a matter of pride for both teams to do well.
With the match being played on a national holiday to celebrate victory against Japan in World War Two, you could not ignore the wider context and implications of the game. Given the added spice of “Poster-gate” whereby the Chinese Football Association pointed out the diversity of the Hong Kong team compared to their own squad then added tension was in the air; sports and politics are not supposed to mix but inevitably always do and this was not lost on the Hong Kong media who had been hyping up the game and had the match as their front covers and lead stories in the days leading up to the game. This was more than just your run of the mill football game.
China were always going to dominate their World Cup qualifying game against Hong Kong and the statistics told the story of game with China hitting the post an incredible four times and having a staggering 41 shots on and off target. To say that Hong Kong goal keeper Yapp Hung Fai was busy was probably the understatement of the century as he pulled off save after save with the woodwork coming to his rescue on several occasions.
Hong Kong barely left their own half and defended deep and managed to withstand waves of China’s attacks; eventually China were reduced to taking long distance shots and were increasingly frustrated with their lack of success when doing so. In the end, Hong Kong held on for one well-earned and valuable point to the delight of the 2000 away travelling supporters (and many who watched on TV) who followed them north to Shenzhen. The over stretched and exhausted Hong Kong squad were immediately lauded as heroes by both the Chinese and English language media in Hong Kong but they did not have time to rest on their laurels; in a few days they would face the 2022 hosts, Qatar in the cauldron of Mong Kok stadium.
November 17th Versus China – Hong Kong Stadium or Bust
The much anticipated visit of the Chinese national team to Hong Kong in November has been mired in controversy as the venue of the game has yet to be finalized and decided. Given the added furore of the booing of the Chinese national anthem at Hong Kong home games then this saga has taken a series of twists and turns which could either result in either a FIFA led financial penalty or the game being played behind closed doors which has been speculated before. There is also the small matter of the pitch being ready after the stadium’s renovations and a rugby tournament being played it on first as well as alternative venues such as Mong Kok and Siu Sai Wan simply being too small. Regardless, the only option has to be Hong Kong stadium given the scale of what could be Hong Kong’s greatest single sporting event ever.
If the game was to be played behind closed doors then it would be a crushing blow to Hong Kong football fans who have been gripped by it’s often ignored national team and to those who truly want to experience a rare meaningful competitive game in Hong Kong. Demand for tickets has far exceeded supply with seemingly every person in Hong Kong wanting to ride the wave of the rejuvenated national team.
Tickets for the recent Qatar match sold out online in about 17 minutes and it seems the entire city is simply ready and waiting for the announcement of sales for the China game in order to snap them up. Capacity crowds for football in Hong Kong are few and far between and often encompass soulless friendlies with glamour teams so it would be great to see a truly crucial fixture played out in front of a sold out crowd.
Recent full houses for football were recorded for Hong Kong’s famous East Asian games win against Japan as well as South China’s defeat to Kuwait SC in the AFC Cup Semi-final. Both were at Hong Kong Stadium and both were incredible occasions never to be forgotten.
Those whose memories stretch far back enough will remember the full houses for the Chinese Lunar New Year Tournaments when national teams such as Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Colombia, Poland and many more used to grace the city and take on Hong Kong’s League XI.
Hong Kong football has finally seemed to have turned the corner after nearly twenty years in the doldrums punctuated by those looking to advance their own agenda instead of enhancing and developing the game from the grassroots up.
Hand in hand with this, after years of social and cultural transition, the national team are becoming a symbol of collective identity and sense of community to a city and people who are often caught in two worlds and cultures and who have sought to find a true team they can identify with and for heroes to cheer. Yes, it is easy to cheer for an entity like Manchester United or Liverpool from afar and there is nothing wrong with that though where do the cultural and historical links truly lie?
The city’s glaring social and economic gap does not mask the fact that football is the most popular viewing and participation sport in Hong Kong as all segments of society from blue collar workers to the billionaire tycoon’s have been discussing Hong Kong football’s mini revival and the implication of each result. Yes, it is true that trends come and go in Hong Kong with alarming fashion but long may this one continue for the benefit of all who seek to promote the local game.
Those fortunate to have been at Hong Kong’s World Cup home games will have witnessed a drive and passion for the game never seen before with the levels of noise reverberating around Mong Kok and beyond. When Hong Kong scored their second goal against Qatar, scenes of what can only be described as joyful chaos erupted; a Hong Kong team which would have normally been resigned to its fate and succumbed to defeat were fighting back with pride and hope and the fans responded in kind.
Hong Kong football has finally found it’s heart and soul again and may it long continue. For the entire city to shut down when China come down and take to live screens and cheer across the territory would be an incredible experience which is normal across the world (Think outdoor screenings during world cups) but a rarity in Hong Kong.
Roll on November 17th at Hong Kong stadium and for cheers for a Hong Kong goal (being hopeful) to be celebrated from the homes, bars and offices across Hong Kong’s diverse districts and communities; China and Hong Kong are intertwined and yet seperated in so many ways with pride always at stake; the social, cultural and economic context of this game and all the drama involved could just make this the greatest single sporting event in Hong Kong history.
South China and Kitchee Out of the AFC Cup
Hong Kong’s interest in this season’s AFC Cup came to an abrupt end with both Kitchee and South China crashing out of the competition. Kitchee faced an impossible task as they had already lost the first leg against Kuwait SC 0-6 and only had pride to play for while South China were in a much stronger position after drawing away to the Malaysian Champions Johor Darul Ta’zim.
AFC Cup semi-finalists last year but this time around Kitchee overcame the shock of their nightmare first leg to draw 1-1 at a sparse Mong Kok stadium with the Brazilian striker Paulinho scoring in the 10th minute with a header.
Fahad Al Hajeri got the equalizer for the Kuwaitis and that was how the score remained until the final whistle for an overall aggregate score of 1-7. Pride was somewhat restored but Kitchee will seek to learn from their experiences to mount another successful attempt at the top of Asian soccer.
South China fared no better infront of a packed Mong Kok stadium the following night and had high expectations to prevail after such a strong away showing. Both sets of fans made for a sterling atmosphere. What could have been a night of celebrations and joy for the home team turned into a nightmare as a sluggish South China simply did not show up and ended up losing 3-1 to a Johor Darul Ta’zim which played the majority of the game with only ten men. Man of the night was the Johor striker, Safee Sali, who tormented the South China defense and scored a brace. There was hope for South China when Mahama Awal equalized to make it 1-1 and when Johor were reduced to ten men soon after but what should have acted as impetus to go for the win somehow turned on its head and Johor raced to a 3-1 away lead. South China kept pressing and were soon awarded a penalty in the second half which could have brought the game closer but this was also wasted as the penalty was sent high over the bar. South China’s AFC Cup adventure which began so well was over.
Photos from JRP Borthwick and Ryan Kam
Christopher KL Lau is a freelance writer and photographer. Follow him on https://twitter.com/Chris_KL_Lau