It came as a bit of a surprise, when both South China and Kitchee advanced to the AFC Cup Quarter finals after deserved victories in the Round of 16. Tobias Zuser explains what all this fuss is about and why this is indeed a big deal.
With only one leg, this year’s Round of 16 was an “all-or-nothing” game for the remaining teams in the AFC Cup. As the unbeaten group winners (with a maximum of 18 points out of 6 games), South China was allowed to host the match against the Indian side Bengaluru FC on May 26th.
For Kitchee the pre-conditions were a bit more challenging: After finishing as runner-up behind Johor Southern Tigers, Molina’s men had to face the popular Indoensian club and last year’s ISL champion Persib Bandung in their Si Jalak Harupat Stadium. Wearing their yellow away kit, the “Blues” started aggressively from the very beginning and soon took control of the game.
Since the establishment of the AFC Cup in 2004, it is indeed the very first time that two Hong Kong teams have reached the quarter finals, which not only means that they are among the best eight teams in Asia’s second tier football, but also among the best four within the East Asian region. In fact, Hong Kong claimed its spot ahead of nations with ambitious super leagues, such as India and Indonesia, and could be seen on a same level with Malaysia right now, which has been overshadowing Singapore over the last years.
Leaving Korea, Japan, Australia and China aside for now, there are currently two football associations Hong Kong could catch up to in the long run: Thailand and Vietnam. History shows that this is not entirely impossible: Between 2009-2011 both Indonesia and Singapore played in Asia’s top flight at the expense of the Vietnamese and Thai FAs. Last year, Kitchee lost 4-1 to Bangkok’s Chonburi, which had similar success in the AFC Cup as Kitchee in the previous years (losing against Arbil in the 2012 semi-final).
Even if it’s only enough for a humble performance in the top flight, an advance to the Champions League should be the ultimate goal for Hong Kong’s top clubs. The exposure to Asia’s best teams as well as the outlook of prestigious duels in a highly professional environment could nothing but benefit local football.
The recent performance in the 2015 AFC Cup show that we are not far off from this dream.