On the afternoon of Boxing Day, December 26th, offside.hk was among the first to announce the breaking news of Kim Pan-gon’s unexpected resignation as both head coach and technical director of the Hong Kong men’s national team. Kim has been appointed as chief of the National Team Supervisory Committee for the Korean Football Association, starting from January 2018. Despite his original contract ending in June 2018, the HKFA accepted Kim’s request for an earlier departure, which also puts an end to his 18 years in Hong Kong. Some local football fans might consider the news as their Christmas present, while others are more than reluctant to say good-bye. Still, no matter what camp you were on, most people were still shocked by the news, as the resignation came before the decisive Asian Cup qualifying match against North Korea in March 2018.
18 years in Hong Kong
Starting as a left winger in Korea’s top-flight, Kim failed to make a mark in the K-League, but he gradually earned his fame when he arrived in Hong Kong to play for the ambitious side Instant-Dict (aka Double Flower) in 2000. His managerial career followed soon, when he became the player-manager of Rangers in 2003, and eventually he was appointed as manager for South China in 2004. Kim’s football philosophy was based on a physical stamina approach, which is a characteristic of Korean football, as well as a strong “never give up” mentality. Under his guidance, South China and the Hong Kong team notably improved their physical fitness. With the exposure of media and advertisement, most Hong Kongers would also recognize Kim for his slogan “Die for Hong Kong”, which summarized his passion and influence on and off the pitch.
Making history in 2009 and 2015
In the next decade his career was taking off, with big achievement both domestically and internationally. In 2009 he led South China to the semi-final of the AFC Cup, where the home leg against Kuwait SC attracted a crowd of 37,459 people to Hong Kong Stadium, a record that still stands for an official match of any Hong Kong team. Following this success, Kim also started to manage the Hong Kong National Team alongside his position at South China.
The unexpected Gold Medal at the 2009 East Asian Game football fournament – hosted on home turf – remains to be one of the most heroic stories in Hong Kong’s long football history. Under the guidance of Kim, the Hong Kong U23 team skipped past the likes of Japan, South Korea and China to clinch the title (albeit it should be mentioned that South Korea only fielded semi-professional player, while Japan and China sent their U20 teams). Despite being a less regarded tournament in Asian football, the road to the gold medal was still not easy, as there were notable talents from the other teams, including Yuya Osako, Pak Kwang-ryong, and Zhang Linpeng. The enthusiasm of the victory also kick-started “Project Phoenix” that set out to reform and boost Hong Kong’s football development with government subsidies.
In 2010, the Hong Kong team managed to edge out North Korea (with Jong Tae-se) on goal difference to win the preliminary round 2 of the East Asian Football Championship, advancing to the Finals for the first and only time. However, his first stint with the national team was short, as Kim resigned from all his coaching positions in 2010 due to health reasons and temporarily left Hong Kong.
In October 2011, Kim returned to Hong Kong as both academy manager and acting head coach for the men’s national team, after Ernie Merrick had resigned. His promotion to head coach was made permanent in November 2012. During these five years, Hong Kong’s FIFA ranking climbed from 169 in 2011 to 144 in 2018. The highest place was achieved in 2015, when Hong Kong was the 135th strongest FIFA member association and which was also the highest position since 2007. The home and away draws with China during the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers in 2015 not only lifted the ranking, but has also helped to put Hong Kong football and Kim himself in the public spotlight.
Coming under fire
Overall it has been a successful reign for Kim and he has certainly played a part for many highlights in local football over the past decade. Few would doubt his passion for Hong Kong despite being a foreigner. Nonetheless, the results of the national team slipped since 2015, and there have been an increasing number of voices that called for a replacement, and sometimes you could even spot a “Kim Out” banner during home games in 2017. Some of the critics questioned the preference for naturalized and old players instead of local talents regardless of their abilities, while others were simply dissatisfied that Kim ignored some in-form players in the league. After a fall-out in 2017, midfielder Bai He resigned from the national team, but would consider a return under a new head coach.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that naturalised players such as Festus Baise, Itaparica and Paulinho were a crucial part of Hong Kong’s run in the World Cup qualifiers. The most recent debuts of Jordi Tarres, Fernando Recio and Dani Cancela, also led to improvements in the squad. It was a difficult balance to strike for a coach, whether to strive for the best results or to build for the future. Kim went for the former, but just did not get the results he would have wished for. As the current squad ages, the resignation of Kim and the finale of the Asian Cup Qualifying stage would provide the perfect timing for a new era with a new crop of players. However, the dilemma of picking naturalised, experienced players or the local, younger talents would remain the same for any new head coach.
For the crucial upcoming final fixture of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifier away at Pyongyang, North Korea, where Hong Kong would need a win to proceed, it is likely that team manager Liu Chun-fai will lead the team, while the HKFA will conduct an extensive search for a permanent successor for Kim.
This task will not be straightforward. Although the HKFA might consider a foreign recruitment, the previous experience with Ernie Merrick proved that tactical knowledge might not be enough for this hot seat. The best candidate would need to be familiar with the Hong Kong football environment, and able to form good relationships with clubs, players, and staff, while showing tolerance for pitch conditions and limited training hours. Nonetheless, as soon as the news of Kim’s resignation broke, a couple of names started to circulate as the most likely candidates.
Liu Chun-fai: As both executive manager and acting head coach, Liu is the next in line in the current coaching team with a wealth of playing and coaching experience in Hong Kong. The former goalkeeper was already caretaker in 2011, and although he might be a suitable candidate, many fans would hope for a fresher face at the helm.
Kevin Bond: Recommended by Harry Redknapp to join Pegasus, Bond had two brief stints with them in the Hong Kong Premier League. The somewhat magical double-cup win in his 1.5 months in 2015-2016 is still highly regarded by many fans. While remaining as a consultant for Pegasus, Bond still has his connection with the local football scene. Although there would be no doubt on his managerial abilities, some might question how permanent he could stay in one position, as his recent appointments only lasted for a few months each.
Chan Yuen-ting: The AFC Women’s Coach of the Year 2016 is probably the most well-known name in Hong Kong football to the outside world. At the tender age of 27, “Beef Ball” guided Eastern to the league championship and Senior Shield double in her her inaugural 2015/16 season as head coach, losing only one in 15 league games since her takeover. She is currently an assistant coach for Eastern whilst completing her AFC Pro License. Whether she would be appointed for this occasion or not, she would undoubtedly be a critical managerial figure in Hong Kong for many years to come, and would once again be a global ambassador for gender equality.
Roberto Losada: The ex-Real Valladolid and Kitchee player has been in Hong Kong since 2010 and has stayed with Kitchee as an assistant coach after hanging up his boots. “El Chino” is without a doubt one of the most successful foreign players in recent years and has shown his love and passion for the town by choosing it as his permanent home. He has not managed a team yet, but a lot of coaches have kick-started their careers in Hong Kong. Losada should have the wealth of knowledge and connections that equip him to start off better than someone who is completely new to Hong Kong.
Josep Gombau: As former Barcelona youth team coach and technical director of FCB Escola, Gombau first became a men’s head coach at Kitchee, where he introduced the Spanish style of play in 2010 and gave Kitchee their first league title in 47 years. After four successful seasons with Kitchee, Gombau wentto Australia where he was appointed as the head coach of A-league outfit West Sydney Wanderers in 2017. The Wanderers have not had a great start into the season and Gombau has been under criticism by media and fans. However, with the vacancy in Hong Kong, many local fans have been calling for Gombau’s return.