Do you remember that day back in 2015 when Hong Kong denied China once again the qualification for the World Cup? No matter where you watched the game on November 17th, in Mong Kok Stadium, on a public square or just at home, it was a night not to be forgotten any time soon. 30 years after Hong Kong beat China 2-1 in Beijing, the myth has been revived, and in spite of all the misleading FIFA rankings, we know once and for all: the Hong Kong – China derby follows its own rules. The offside.hk match report by Tobias Zuser.
With all tickets being sold out for more than 10 days before the game, the HKFA expected a highly passionate crowd and decided to open the gates earlier than usual. Starting from 17:30 a long queue was waiting to enter the stadium, leading from the entrance in Flower Market Road all around the pitch to Boundary Street. Along the way, a local TV station was distributing paper masks of the Hong Kong team featuring coach Kim as well as Yapp Hung Fai, Jean-Jacques Kilama and Jaimes McKee. Two hours before kick off, the stands were already half full and with the arrival of the Chinese away fans, who entered the stadium from a separate gate in the east, the hostile atmosphere gradually started to heat up. As both supporting groups were dressed in red, it was fairly difficult to make a distinction on the TV screen, but inside the stadium the lines were drawn quite clearly. The Chinese guests mainly belonged to the official fan club, known as “Chinese Football Fans Association of Team Dragon”, and seemed to be fairly well organized. While refraining from provocative gestures and interactions with the local fans, they mainly focused on their own chants, but also participated in the Mexican wave.
Eventually, the unprecedented media hype for local football reached its peak when both local and foreign press outlets were lurking for the moment of the national anthem. This time the booing was accompanied by sheets and banners, showing slogans such as “Boo!” or “This is not China!”. Surprisingly, both teams entered the stadium much earlier than expected, with the anthem being played almost 10 minutes before kick off. Coincidentally, it seems that consequently the moment was not covered by any live TV station, neither TVB’s J2 nor China’s CCTV nor LeTV. After that, both teams were ordered to waste some time by warming up for several more minutes. Following some confusion about the exact timing, finally all 22 players gathered at the centre circle to commemorate the victims of the Paris terror attack.
Both teams started the evening with a similar 4-3-3 line-up. Alain Perrin put his trust into a pure Guangzhou Evergrande defense, including future Real Madrid player Zhang Linpeng and his current Scolari-trained teammates. Captain Zheng Zhi (Guangzhou Evergrande), Huang Bowen (Guangzhou Evergrande) and Wu Xi (Jiangsu Sainty) had the order to feed their three forwards from the midfield, including Yu Dabao (Beijing Guoan), Wu Lei (Shanghai SIPG) and Yang Xu (Shandong Luneng). Zhang Chengdong, who is currently on loan to Rayo Vallecano in Spain’s La Liga, had to watch the game from the bench.
Hong Kong coach Kim Pan-gon made full use of his newly available naturalized players and shuffled the team line-up quite considerably since the last game against China, with Godfred Karikari and Christian Annan being left out. As usual, goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai was supported by the strong Eastern centre backs and new fan favourites Jean-Jacques Kilama and Festus Baise, as well as Lee Chi Ho and Cheung Kin Fung on the sides. Next to Bai He, Jack Sealy was deployed as the other defensive midfielder, replacing Kitchee’s injured Huang Yang. Jaimes McKee and Paulinho were leading the frontline, while former Brazilian national Sandro acted as more of an attacking midfielder behind the strikers.
At 8 pm, referee Nawaf Shukralla from Bahrain finally blew his whistle and China kicked off the game. Both teams started intensely, with Hong Kong appearing slightly more organized than in their previous World Cup Qualifier matches. Just 3 minutes into the game, Zhang Linpeng received his first booking after tackling Jaimes McKee near the corner flag. China were trying to control the game and were particularly dangerous on the right wing, from where Wu Xi and Huang Bowen delivered some decent crosses. In the 26th minute Yang Xu almost scored for the guests, but the crossbar denied his header. However, in contrast to Hong Kong’s absolutely passive performance in Shenzhen, the home team seemed to have a more elaborate match plan in hand. Bai He was offering long passes to Paulinho and McKee, while Sandro was often seeking tactical fouls in the midfield to slow down the game and give his teammates more time to re-organize for more efficient attacks. And this strategy almost paid off. In the 30th minute, McKee replicated Yang Xu’s effort and placed his header on the bar. Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei would not have been able to intervene. Not much later, the entire stadium held their breath, when Yapp Hung Fai managed to get enough of a hand on a long-range shot by Huang Bowen to crash against the post. However, right before the end of the first half, it was once again the Hong Kong team that increased the pressure on the guests, with Sandro sending Cheung Kin Fung’s corner kick just over the bar.
During half time both coaches decided to stick to their guns and didn’t make any changes. 6 minutes into the game, it was Hong Kong who almost broke the deadlock. From a free-kick right outside the Chinese box, Cheung Kin Fung plucked up courage and almost surprised Wang Dalei with a precise direct shot. With China seemingly losing their ideas on how to get around the strong defense, the game was then overshadowed by two controversies on both sides. In the 54th minute, Festus Baise found the back of the net, but the frenzy of the home fans was immediately stopped when the referee disallowed the goal due to an alleged foul by Paulinho. The decision was arguably the correct one, although other adjudicators could have interpreted this differently. However, luck was not on China’s side either that evening. In the 77th minute, a half volley from Yu Dabao forced Yapp into one of his more spectacular saves of the evening. The ball rebounded, Yu had another effort on goal and this time he scored…well, in theory. As photographs have shown, the ball seemed to cross the goal line before Yapp quickly fished it out. Neither the linesman nor the referee were able to confirm the goal, and with 10 minutes left on the clock at that point, a goalless draw seemed to be once again in reach for the Hong Kong team. After 3 minutes of stoppage time being signalled, coach Kim became more and more agitated on the sideline and had to witness another Chinese goal attempt that was rejected by the goal post. But in the end, China’s efforts were fruitless, and with the final whistle Mong Kok Stadium turned into a party zone.
Against all odds, Hong Kong did it again. After drawing with China in Shenzhen on September 3rd, many were still convinced that the Hong Kong team was just lucky. But despite having Fortuna on their side, this draw was undoubtedly well deserved.
After the game China captain Zheng Zhi, who himself produced a less than convincing performance that night, lamented the absence of luck and the rather small pitch size at Mong Kok Stadium. However, as memehk.com pointed out, it is perhaps a rather poor excuse to blame the size of the ground. While FIFA requires a length between 90 and 120 metres, and a width between 45 and 90 metres, the ground in Mong Kok measures a perfectly average 105 x 67 metres, putting it in similar size with Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium (105 x 68 metres) and Liverpool’s Anfield (101 x 68 metres). The disallowed goal, on the other hand, is something that will enter history books and haunt China for the following decades, similar to England’s nightmare against Germany in the 2010 World Cup. But bad refereeing decisions, as painful as it might seem, have always been part of football, as Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai also pointed out after the game.
Clenching another unexpected point, Hong Kong remain in second place of their World Cup Qualifier group. At least for now. With 6 wins out of 6 matches, Qatar has already qualified for the next round (as well as the Asian Cup tournament in 2019). China are currently ranked third, 3 points behind Hong Kong, but still with one game in hand, taking on Maldives at home early next year. This means that the decider will be held during the final week, when both Hong Kong and China take on Qatar in March 2016. However, even if Hong Kong can hold onto the second spot, they might still not qualify for the next World Cup Qualifier round, as only the best four runner-ups will go through. Currently, Hong Kong are in 5th spot, competing with considerably better nations such as Iraq, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Syria. In the more likely event that Hong Kong will either finish as (5th best) 2nd or 3rd in the group, the team will definitely advance to the Asian Cup Qualifiers, which will include 6 groups of 4 teams. Out of these 24 teams, 11 or 12 (depending on host UAE) will then qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup.
After four stunning home games, the hype may have finally reached its peak. With no meaningful China derbies in sight (except for the annual Hong Kong-Guangdong Cup in December/January), it is time to look for other ways to bring more attention to local football, especially the fully professional Premier League, where the Hong Kong team heroes have earned their spurs. In the end, politics won’t be enough to develop the “people’s game” in the long run.
1 Yapp Hung Fai (C) — 2 Lee Chi Ho (33′: Yellow Card), 3 Festus Baise, 5 Jean-Jacques Kilama (67′: Yellow Card), 13 Cheung Kin Fung — 4 Bai He (89′: 6 Tan Chun Lok), 14 Jack Sealy, 16 Leung Chun Pong — 11 Sandro (86′: 7 Chan Siu Ki) — 17 Paulinho (79′: 9 Alex Akande), 22 Jaimes McKee
23 Wang Dalei, 3 Mei Fang, 4 Zou Zheng , 5 Zhang Lipeng (3′ Yellow Card), 6 Feng Xiaoting, 7 Wu Lei (81′: 13 Zhang Chiming), 9 Yang Xu (45’+1′: Yellow Card), 10 Zheng Zhi (C), 15 Wu Xi (64′: 21 Yu Hai), 16 Huang Bowen (73′: 11 Wang Yongpo), 22 Yu Dabao
OFFSIDE.HK’S MAN OF THE MATCH: Paulinho