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HK Hold North Korea 1-1; South China’s Self-Enforced ‘Relegation’ Marks End of an Era

Hong Kong in action against North Korea. Photo: Ryan Kam

A spirited Hong Kong side held North Korea to a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Hong Kong stadium in their Asian Cup 2019 Group B campaign. After a lacklustre away defeat in their opener against Lebanon, there was a great pressure for Hong Kong to get a decent result to placate fans.

Hong Kong salute the fans. Photo: Ryan Kam

Hong Kong youngster, Tan Chun Lok, justified his selection with a goal in first half injury time. Any thought of a huge upset was cancelled out immediately by Kim Yu Song who made it 1-1 right after the second half break. Hong Kong did have their chances and McKee went close with a point blank header. Hong Kong manager, Kim Pan-Gon, shared his views after the game:

“The game could gave been better and we tried to get three points but North Korea are a very strong team. We are looking forward to getting more points in our away games. From time to time, they pressured us and we tried to change our tactics; anyway I appreciate our players as they followed instructions to achieve and get one point.” 

A decent crowd of around 8,400 at HK Stadium. Photo: Nicholas Ng

Mark Hampson, football writer, also shared his comments on the game.

“Hong Kong versus North Korea was a clash of different styles. Hong Kong set out to make life difficult for the more technical DPRK players by being overly physical. Hong Kong kept looking to release Karikari but he never really threaten the DPRK keeper. Hong Kong took the lead with only their second clear cut chance with a well taken goal on the strike of half time. DPRK equalised within minutes of the start of the second half.”

Hong Kong Football fan, Nicholas Ng, also shared his views on the game:

“Good spirit from the Hong Kong side, especially from Festus and Helio. The game had some poor refereeing though Kim (HK Manager) really has to go as there was a lack of an attacking mindset and indecision in making changes.”

Hong Kong showed a greater mental fortitude and deserved this home draw; with some more sharpness in their finishing, they could have secured all three points. A respectable draw against one of the stronger teams in Asia and a greater emphasis on youth with the introduction of Tan Chun Lok paying instant dividends; Hong Kong are now third in the group with one point and five points off the pace from group leaders, Lebanon.

South China: Former Giants in Decline

South China’s (the ‘grand old team’ of Hong Kong) decision to ‘self-relegate’ themselves to the first division to focus on youth development, is a critical moment in the overall development of the game in the HKSAR. Historically, the most popular and most financially viable team in the territory, South China have struggled to mount a serious challenge for any titles in Hong Kong for the past few seasons.

It maybe a long time before we see South China in a major cup final again. Photo: Christopher Lau

After the departure of previous chairman, Steven Lo, much was expected of his replacement, Wallace Cheung. Despite HKD 50 million being invested into the club, the results has been lacklustre and the huge South China fan base have been left frustrated. Core rivals Kitchee and Eastern have swept all before them and have even played at the highest levels of Asian continental football with South China failing to keep up.

While South China seemed ‘trapped’ by their past, Kitchee have developed on a smaller budget and have been unafraid to play a certain style whilst exhibiting certain hallmarks of an  ever-evolving organization; South China have simply stood still.

With the departure of Cheung and no one willing to fill that financial gap at such short notice, a drop seemed inevitable in order to rebuild from the bottom-up. In terms of support, fans have voted with their feet recently and many have boycotted South China games. A drop into lower divisions would see even the most fervent of fans lose even further interest; it may take a lot to win back apathetic fans and also attract new ones. Given the low number of teams in the Hong Kong professional league; local fans will miss the derby day clashes with Eastern  which have always been highly passionate affairs.

For all the negative talk, this move could revitalise South China who have seemingly rested on their laurels, become complacent and ‘lived’ in the past for many many years. For a team which famously reached the AFC Cup semi-finals in 2009; currently being in the situation of not even being able to challenge for any titles shows a decline and rot within the organization itself. This is reflected in the poor state of South China’s ‘training’ pitch as well as football facilities which hark back to the 1960s. The lack of stadium redevelopment, a project which has seemed to have stretched out over two decades with zero progress, is a living testament to this lax and stagnant attitude.

South China take on Kuwait SC in the AFC Cup 2009 Semi-Finals. Photo: HKFA

Atom Cheung, RTHK radio sports reporter, believes that this reaction from South China is not necessarily such a damaging move and could reap longer term benefits for the “Caroliners”:

“I wouldn’t say it is an end of an era. The launch of the Premier League in 2014 is supposed to be a new era. I think South China’s dropping out, gives local football officials a chance to really look into how to make the Premier League sustainable. South China hasn’t had great form in the last few years, so, if anything, I see this as possibly the start of the Kitchee era. Kitchee has made great strides in making the local game accessible for fans and youth. They play entertaining football and they have established a healthy image in their branding. With Kitchee, I sense a cultural shift, and I hope the likes of South China and Eastern can follow.”

Dale Tempest, who starred for South China in the nineties, was saddened by the news of South China’s decline:

“As an ex player, it is obviously very disappointing to hear that South China will no longer be in the Hong Kong Premier league. It is difficult to comment on the politics involved as there has always been politics involved in Hong Kong football but for the fans, South China were always the main supported team in the whole city so for the fans, it will be huge disappointing.”

Tempest has always been an advocate of a Hong Kong team playing in the Chinese Super league (or least working their way up in the Chinese leagues) and feels that certain individual’s self interests are hindering the development of the game in Hong Kong both on and off the pitch.

“On a general basis, Hong Kong needs a team; the national team, basically playing in the Chinese Super league. It is the only way Hong Kong football is ever going to really progress. Yes, have a youth development league and have a feeder league but Hong Kong need a team in the Chinese Super League and it is as simple; it is ridiculous that they are not represented; the reason why and it has been political all the way through is because, if Hong Kong gave up their status at FIFA then they would no longer play in the World Cup and therefore, all the special privileges that the HK officials receive from being FIFA members would disappear. As I understand it, I am not 100 percent correct; part of the articles, when the 1997 handover happened, Hong Kong would remain a national team. The best outcome for Hong Kong football would be if they had a team in the Chinese Super League. It is as simple as that and if that happened then the issue for South China would not have come about in the first place.”

The AFC Cup now seems a long way away. Photo: JRP Borthwick

Tempest also recalled the organisational management of South China when he was with the team.

“South China were always dependent on the generosity of rich benefactors who helped the club compete and pay the wages because there wasn’t really television revenue as there is in a lot of world football and maybe just gate receipts so it was really just down to football fans who wanted to get involved in the club. A lot of big teams around the world have been mismanaged and gone down and come back up and a perfect example would be Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. They obviously had to fall to the Scottish second division and that was though a very very different situation to South China where the club have taken the decision themselves to relegate themselves.”

Tempest also discussed the management style and organization structure when he played for South China.

“When I was there, it was always really well run and officials and the committee got the best out of the coaches, players and we were always competing for honours. Fingers crossed that it will get sorted and hopefully South China will take their place back in the Hong Kong Premier league. There is no place for South China anywhere but the top league.”

Tempest stressed that relying on wealthy individuals as a sole stream of financial income was always risky and teams should diversify their revenue streams.

“Local football basically has always survived because of rich benefactors and that is going to be a dangerous business model for future success.”

Fan will miss South China’s big clashes. Photo: Chris KL Lau

Gregory Suen, a keen Hong Kong football fan, believes South China’s decline has been marked by the rise of teams like Kitchee whose fans are from a younger generation.

“Although South China’s self relegation will be a meaningful loss to HK football and clearly shows the difficulty of running a professional football team in HK, I do not think this alone suggests an end of top tier professional football in HK. I would think it is a changing of times and moving on to a new era. While South China is, for sure, the traditional powerhouse in HK football and has a loyal fan base, other teams, such as Kitchee and Eastern, have gained a lot of popularity especially among the younger generations as opposed to the older generation of football fans that South China has.”

Suen continued and stressed that a changing of the guard is taking place in Hong Kong football.

“With these other teams’ continued success, I believe they (Kitchee) will bring HK football to a new era with their new fan base. It has happened in the past before in HK too with the “Seiko dynasty” in the 80s and the “Eastern dynasty” in the 90s. It is just a matter of keeping these teams successful for a longer period of time.”

Another Hong Kong football fan, Nicholas Ng, stated that South China’s current first team players could benefit from joining clubs with a more forward thinking vision.

“I think South China has been playing very poorly in recent seasons, they have some good players but a pretty bad coach I would say. Their opt out might be a chance for those players to join a club with better tactics and vision like Southern. Young players with good potential could possibly gain more game time as well in smaller clubs, which could be beneficial overall.”

Mark Hampson, a youth football coach and sports writer, mentioned South China’s focus on youth development and how South China have dominated the lower age groups but feels South China could have done this but remained at the top level.

“Over the last few years South China have set the bench mark for teams competing in the Hong Kong Junior Jockey league, however we haven’t seen anyone (from SCAA youth teams) make any real progress into breaking into the first team. This could benefit the Hong Kong national team in the long run but I personally would of liked to have seen them take this approach while staying in the top flight.”

South China will hopefully seek to reinvent themselves, stream line their organization, cease being complacent about past successes, stop living solely on their history or this could mark an end of an era. Fortunately, things can only get better yet decisive decisions and forward-thinking leadership is required for South China to regain their place as one of the biggest teams in Asia.  Two steps backwards for one giant leap forwards for the ‘grand old’ team of Hong Kong football; Hong Kong’s long suffering football fans will definitely hope so.

Hong Kong Say Farewell to Chan Wai Ho

Chan Wai Ho, the long serving defender,  recently called time on his long international career last week against Jordan. Mong Kok stadium bid a fond farewell to the popular defender and the national team held visitors Jordan to a respectable 0-0 draw.

 

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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