Hong Kong champions, Eastern, will embark their first ever Asian Champions league group stage match this coming Wednesday without any of their supporters to cheer them on despite the game taking place less than 130km away in Guangzhou.
The ACL debutants take on the seasoned Asian Champions League veterans in the imposing surrounding of Tianhe Stadium, but in an exceptionally bizarre and unexplained development, Eastern will now face a crowd of around 50,000 with no away support at all.
For the match itself, in theory, the odds are overwhelming in favour of Guangdong Evergrande who have dominated the Chinese Super League with six successive titles in a row (from 2011 to 2016) with years of experience in the continent’s top club competition. On paper, the game should be quite one-sided though Evergrande’s seasoned coach, the Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, believes the game will be quite close.
Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou Evergrande Manager: “You need to be the best team in the 90 minutes”
Felipe Scolari, who has led Evergrande to four titles (including two league titles and the 2015 edition of the AFC Champions League), stressed that Evergrande respect all opponents they face and that Eastern will be a tough team to break down and beat.
“In soccer, there is no way to win before the match. We (Guangzhou Evergrande) respect all the opponents (in the Asian Champions League). If we can perform well on match day then we have got a great chance to win the game. But again, to win any match, you need to be the best team in the 90 minutes”
When asked which of the Eastern players would pose a significant threat to Evergrande then Scholari stressed that Evergrande would be tracking Eastern as a whole and that every player could cause Evergrande some issues. In Scholari’s view, the tie is far from won.
“Our way is to take care of every player from the opponents, as a team. All the opponents (Eastern) are good players and important”
For years, there have been whispers and talk of Hong Kong teams joining the Chinese domestic leagues in order to boost interest in the local Hong Kong games and for Hong Kong club teams to experience a consistent higher level of play. Rarely do Hong Kong club teams have the chance to take on their Chinese counterparts in any form of competitive fixture so the Evergrande versus Eastern game will be a perfect platform, for those both for and against Hong Kong club teams competing in the Chinese league, to gauge the standard of play and how competitive a local club team could fare against their mega-rich Chinese counterparts.
Eastern themselves are covering new ground as they venture into the new arena of continental football and aside from pressure to attain a good set of results, there will also be the added pressure of representing Hong Kong football well on a much higher stage. Eastern’s manager, Chan Yuen Ting, who garnered global acclaim as the first female manager to win a men’s professional league, will be looking to prepare Eastern for their ACL group stage debut.
Chan will be under no illusions that the ACL group stages are far and away a much greater challenge than any Hong Kong domestic and cup game can ever provide. Chan will be locked in a tactical battle with Scholari with the latter having won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and managed the Portuguese national team amongst his many achievements. It will be intriguing to see if the fresh-faced newcomer to the group stages will be able outsmart one of the shrewdest and most experienced managers in the game.
Eastern’s appearance at Asia’s premier club competition is a far cry from a time, not long ago, when the club was mired in mediocrity and apathy as the once giants slipped to the lower reaches of the domestic leagues. After almost a twenty year slumber, Eastern have risen back to the top of the domestic Hong Kong game. In the early to mid nineties, Eastern and their arch rivals (notably South China) used to play in front of crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 and for three successive seasons from 1992 to 1995, Eastern were the domestic league champions.
This success was never built on further and Eastern fell from their perch and for the next two decades struggled and their fall from grace was compounded by subsequent relegation and demotion to the third division in the 2006- 2007 season.
To see Eastern step out against the finest in the Chinese Super league, J-league (Kawaski Frontale) and K-league (Suwon Samsung Bluewings) would have a been a fantasy a few years ago but now this whimsical dream is about to become full blown reality.
Jaimes McKee of Eastern: ““I think in football anything is possible”
Eastern striker and Hong Kong international striker Jaimes McKee, a veteran of Hong Kong’s highly intense World Cup qualifying games against China, is confident that Eastern will be able to recreate and replicate the same siege mentality that served the national team so well.
McKee cites that the simple fundamentals of discipline and organization could see Eastern surprising their more illustrious opponents; as with all games, it is simply eleven against eleven and adopting the correct psychological approach fused with a winning mentality could pay dividends.
“I think in football anything is possible, just look at Leicester winning the English premier league last season. The Hong Kong team also showed this with the two draws we achieved against China.”
Eastern have also been playing a successive number of games in both the domestic cup and league so have the momentum in terms of match readiness and fitness. Given the Chinese Super League will not start until early March then much will depend on the intensity of Evergrande’s pre-season training and friendly games. McKee, stressed that how Eastern are organised and set up with a game plan could see a surprise in the works.
“Any team that is disciplined, organised and works hard is going to make it tough for their opponents. This is what the Hong Kong team did and what we aim to do in the upcoming match again.”
Josh Mitchell of Eastern: “A successful campaign would mean we do Eastern club and Hong Kong football proud”
The seasoned Australian Eastern defender Josh Mitchell, who has experience in both China (Liaoning Whowin F.C.) and Europe is also confident that Eastern’s preparations in the lead up to the game will pay dividends. Given that Evergrande is brimming with Chinese internationals and some of the most consistent foreign players in the CSL, Eastern have ramped up their preparations to face the huge task in front of them.
“The team has been preparing as always, the coaching staff doing their homework and communicating with the players as to how we can defend and attack against our opponents. We have more time to prepare for this game than a usual league game so hopefully that can help us.”
Eastern’s campaign goes beyond the realms of a football match. This is the first time a Hong Kong club has participated in the Asian Champions League and for so long football fans in the city have been starved of truly top-level football. Aside from sporadic internationals, glamorous friendlies and the AFC Cup, local fans have not seen meaningful games which have sparked the imagination and passions of fans.
Having the Asian Champions League come to Hong Kong would raise the profile of the game which would have a trickle down effect of greater fan attendance which could spark interest in a new generation of fans, garner higher levels of sponsorship which in turn could see more top-quality players coming to Hong Kong.
Mitchell touched upon the significance of Eastern representing Hong Kong to the best of their ability in terms of pride for both the club and Hong Kong football as a whole. The repercussions are far-reaching and Mitchell is aware of this:
“A successful campaign would mean we do Eastern club and Hong Kong football proud. It will be difficult in these games but we are champions of Hong Kong, we have a strong team with strong players and can compete and fight till the end.”
Mitchell has been the cornerstone of the Eastern defence and will have to face (along side Roberto Affonso) the challenge of shackling one of the most potent attacks in Asian football. Mitchell will face down Evergrande’s Paulinho, Alan, Goulart and Gao Lin whom scored 7, 14, 19 and 7 goals respectfully in all competitions last season. The threat from the Evergrande midfield will come from seasoned and tough tackling professionals like Huang Bowen and Zheng Zhi and Eastern will look to counter it with a packed midfield of five including Bai He and Diego Eli. If Eastern can maintain their shape then counteracting Evergrande’s wealth of attacking experience is possible.
Ricardo Rambo (Mainstay of Hong Kong Football): “The gap is still big but Kitchee’s outstanding performance against Ulsan will provide some hope”
Long term Hong Kong football mainstay (as player and manager), Ricardo Rambo also weighed in with his view on the game and stressed that Kitchee’s excellent away result against Ulsan (South Korea) in a previous qualifying game raised hopes that Eastern could also push Evergrande all the way.
“For me, it is a very difficult task for Eastern. The gap is still big but Kitchee’s outstanding performance (against Ulsan away) will provide some hope to see if Eastern can do the same against one of the larger expanding clubs from Asia. The game will be good for Hong Kong football and lets keep our fingers crossed that Eastern can get some results in the group games.”
Guangzhou Evergrande and Eastern could not be a more mouth-watering prospect for both sets of fans. It goes beyond a game, regional and cultural pride is at stake and in these types of game then anything can happen. Eastern will never have a better chance to truly represent what Hong Kong football’s potential can reach and achieving a result in the cauldron of Tianhe stadium would be one of the greatest results in their and Hong Kong football’s history.
Ticket Chaos Mars Guangzhou Evergrande Versus Eastern Game
On the eve of the what could be a season defining match for both Evergrande and Eastern, the game has been over-shadowed with chaos and confusion over Eastern’s away ticket allocation with mixed messages being issued by all parties involved.
Eastern’s Hong Kong based fans will not be able to attend the away game in Tianhe stadium, despite buses and tickets being previously allocated, with fans providing their personal details to further enforce security arrangements. The latest news is that Eastern fans who shelled out HKD 170 ( USD 22) for their tickets to Tianhe will be reimbursed for their tickets way over the odds of what they paid; fans will be paid HKD 3000 dollars (USD 387) for their troubles.
Initially Eastern were said to have made an administrative error but now it has emerged that this move was most likely instigated by Evergrande themselves with security concerns the reason behind the move. Furthermore, Eastern representatives have denied that Evergrande or other organizations were behind the ticketing confusion and stressed that it was an ‘internal’ issue.
This move is a controversial one as according to AFC rules, at least five percent of the net saleable capacity of a host stadium, must be open to away teams fans. A counter move has supposedly seen the parent company which owns Eastern FC, a Guangdong sponsor Real estate developer Nenking Group, looking to send some of its employees to support Eastern in Tianhe stadium; this in turn would in theory, fulfil the AFC criteria. A few behind the scenes moves have resulted in what could have been a grand occasion, being reduced to a much lesser affair.
Eastern fans will have to make due with watching the game at home whilst ‘fillers’ with little to no interest in the game will replace them which thus resulting in an eerie and subdued atmosphere. Many games around the world are labelled as “high risk” and with the correct stewarding and ticketing, most pass off without major incident so this is a disappointment.
This is another incident where the contentious relationship between Hong Kong and China, has overshadowed a sporting event, which in turn has inadvertently made everything but the game itself a talking point. In the end, loyal Eastern fans will feel this little piece of sporting history will slip past them.
Ticketing has also become an issue for Eastern’s home game at Mong Kok stadium against Evergrande. There were few restrictions on who could go online to buy tickets and this having resulted in many Evergrande fans snapping up ‘home’ tickets which could result in Mong Kok stadium having more Evergrande ‘away’ fans than Eastern ‘home’ fans which would not only provide for a lop-sided atmosphere but also a security and policing headache as fans ‘mixing’ together in such close proximity could provide for a volatile situation. A solution for Eastern’s home game has to be addressed soon and measurements have to be placed to ensure that the stewarding of the Suwon Bluewings and Kawaski Frontale games pass without incident. More should be done to ensure that these ticketing situations do not arise again as it does not play out well in this era of commercial professionalism.
Kitchee Miss Out on AFC Champions League Group Stages
Recently, Kitchee came within a whisker of reaching the Asian Champions league group stages after having the misfortune of enduring a penalty shoot out against Ulsan Hyundai. The lottery of penalties ended 4-3 to Ulsan after Kitchee’s brave and battling performance saw them hold out for a 1-1 draw in South Korea.
Ulsan Captain Kim Sung-hwan struck the decisive blow deep into first half injury time; normally goals before half time can break a team’s mindset but Kitchee manager, Alex Chu Chi Kwong, strong motivational message clearly worked as South Korean player, Kim Bong-jin, header home the Kitchee equalizer two minutes after the break which sent Kitchee’s small band of travelling support into raptures.
Both teams had half-chances with the closet being Kitchee’s Sandro when he subsequently hit the post in extra time with the ball kindly bouncing back into the arms of Ulsan keeper, Kim Yong-Dae. In the shoot out itself, Kim Yong Dae proved to be the hero with a crucial winning save. It was heart breaking way for the game to end and it meant Ulsan have progressed through to the group stages while Kitchee will now have to focus on the domestic league cup and titles and launch another attempt on continental trophies next season.
Kitchee’s performance was impassioned, full of fight and showed Hong Kong football at it’s best. Kitchee will feel proud of this result and their 3-2 win over Hanoi FC in the previous round was one of the most memorable games in Hong Kong so far this season.
Soccer Sevens in Hong Kong
Liverpool, Newcastle United and England greats Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott were in Hong Kong recently to help announce that this year’s HKFC Citi Soccer Sevens will include “the most diverse” line-up in the 19-year history of the seven-a-side event with teams from Germany, Italy and France set to head to Hong Kong Football Club in May.
Photo credits: Dennis Lo, JRP Borthwick, Kitchee FC Facebook, Eastern Facebook, Getty Images (Lead Photo)
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