On the back of an impressive performance at the East Asian games, football in Hong Kong is booming
Confidence in football is fragile and it is not something the footballers of Hong Kong have ever had in abundance.
And yet, after securing a penalty shoot-out victory over Japan in the Final of the East Asian Games in December, there is a buoyancy within the game in the former British colony that has not existed for years.
Not even three straight defeats at the East Asian Championship, held two month’s later, could shatter the feel-good factor that has filtered into the sport in Hong Kong since August 2009.
That was when coach Kim Pan-gon oversaw a 0-0 draw with World Cup-bound North Korea – a game in which Hong Kong striker Chan Siu-ki also missed a penalty and an open goal – to record their most impressive result in almost a quarter of a century.
The draw – Hong Kong’s most notable result since defeating China 2-1 in Beijing in a World Cup qualifier in 1985 – ensured Hong Kong qualified for the finals of the East Asian Championship.
But it also sparked off a remarkable chain of events that has raised the profile of the local game.
Hong Kong, like many of the lands previously ruled by the British, remains in the thrall of the Premier League and blanket coverage of the English game on cable television has stifled interest in the local game.
Where once the city’s leading clubs could pull in crowds of 25,000 for major matches, in recent years those figures have dropped to an average of around 10 per cent of previous highs.
In the second half of 2009, though, that all changed.
South China, the city’s leading club, reached the semi-finals of the AFC Cup – the first time a team from the territory had made a significant impact on a continental tournament since the same club lost in the Final of the 1994 Asian Cup Winners Cup.
A crowd of almost 25,000 turned out for the second leg against Kuwait Sports Club but, despite seeing their team slip to a 3-1 defeat on aggregate, it was a sign of things to come for Hong Kong football.
By December, the city was hosting the East Asian Games, a biennial, multi-sports event that features a football tournament which features up-and-coming players from Japan and China as well as North and South Korea.
Hong Kong’s prospects, as is usually the case when facing off against the powerhouses of the region, were minimal at best but, after wins over South Korea, China and North Korea, Kim and his team met Japan in the final.
Once again the fans flocked to Hong Kong Stadium and, amid an atmosphere of patriotic fervour rarely seen a city that has long had issues with its identity, the home side prevailed on penalties.
Interest in the sport soared and players such as Chan – who had flown back from a week’s trial in England with Tottenham Hotspur to play in the Final and scored Hong Kong’s equalizer with his first touch after coming off the bench – became heroes overnight.
Not even the disappointing East Asian Championship results dampened the mood after Kim used the opportunity to blood a new generation of players following his older hands’ 5-0 defeat by South Korea in the opening game.
Against eventual champions China and World Cup-bound Japan, 19-year-old goalkeeper Yapp Hun-fai shone, impressing on his debut with his shot stopping and positioning.
And yet Kim is under no illusions regarding the future of the team and of Hong Kong football in general.
“We are still too far from Korea and Japan and, just because once you get the gold medal, you can’t change much,” said the South Korean coach.
“It has just given us confidence, but now we need to invest more than before. Given the quality of our football and the football culture in Hong Kong, we still are too far behind these countries.
“It’s not going to take 10 years, it’s going to be 20 or more if we want to catch Korea or Japan. We have to change the league system; everything has to change.
“One gold medal can’t change it but I hope it can start because of that.”
Over the last eight months, though, things have definitely moved in the right direction.