An evening that was celebrated as a historic event for Hong Kong football and gender equality, has been overshadowed by a depressing result, that saw Guangzhou Evergrande thrashing Eastern 7-0 at Tianhe Stadium. At the end of the day, Chan Yuen-ting and her players have learnt an important lesson. Sadly, the AFC has not.
The match between Guangzhou Evergrande and Eastern, which we have labelled as a proper derby elsewhere, has created a lot of media buzz in recent weeks. Unsurprisingly, everyone seemed to be glowing with confidence that came off the back of the recent World Cup qualifiers and Kitchee’s outstanding performance against K-League side Ulsan Hyundai. After all, this optimism was maybe a tick too much…
First, there is no real need to blame a particular player – or the team itself. Of course, the mistake of Wong Tsz-ho, who was sent off for a probably unintended hand ball in the 3rd minute, was an absolute game changer, but with just 22 years Wong was also the by far youngest player on the pitch that night – and there is no doubt that fans will forgive him as quickly as his teammates did. With Goulart scoring the following penalty and Guangzhou continuing with one man more, the game was basically decided. Chan Yuen-ting could realistically only follow one match plan, and that was to keep a clean sheet as long as possible – but after just three minutes any tactical comeback was basically impossible.
These moments of despair – reflected in the faces of Yapp Hung-fai, Wong Tsz-ho, and Chan Yuen-ting – were hard to watch for any local football fan, not yet knowing there was still worse to come. In the 22nd minute, Guangzhou defender Wang Shangyuan made it 2-0 for the hosts, and just a few moments later, Evergrande was awarded another penalty. It was 34-year-old defender Wong Chi-chung who found himself guilty of a completely unnecessary hand ball, which also saw him booked. But this time Brazilian forward Alan was denied by Yapp Hung-fai, who showed some incredible saves that night and definitely kept the damage lower despite some insecurities earlier in the game. Unfortunately, that didn’t have much effect on Guangzhou’s dominance. In the 33rd minute, Zheng Zhi delivered a beautiful pass to Goulart who crossed it to the centre, from where Liao Lisheng just had to smash the ball into the empty goal. Soon after, the crisis reached its peak when Eastern were down to 9 men. Despite an earlier booking, Wong pulled Zheng by his shirt, giving the referee – to be honest – not much of a choice than sending him off as well.
From that moment on, the game was basically over and lost any competitive edge. Especially the second half looked more like a friendly between two unequal teams. Guangzhou seemingly tried to pull off some more Hollywood for their 38,500 fans who came to watch their first game of the season. But from a Hong Kong perspective, nothing really warrants a great deal of detail here. The additional goals for Guangzhou – all beautifully executed – came from Liao Lisheng (47′), Alan (65′), Paulinho (83′) and Wang Shangyuan (85′), making the final score 7-0.
The decisions of Australian referee Christian Beath were harsh, but definitely justifiable. The only thing he could be really blamed for is his lack of discretion, disregarding any “benefit of the doubt” for the obvious underdogs that night. But he is not unknown for his red cards in the A-League either.
From 5-4-1 to 9-0-0
So what to take away from such a game? After the match, Chan Yuen-ting acknowledged that it was a disappointing loss, but also an important lesson for her and the team. Mistakes in a debut like this are not uncommon, and it was a good reminder that the Asian Champions League has indeed a much higher standard than the domestic league or the AFC Cup. For the remaining games in the group stage, Eastern must learn to adjust to the new pace while fully concentrate on the tasks ahead. Looking back, it was probably the toughest possible start to play away to Guangzhou Evergrande, and the Eastern players were understandably nervous. If they would have kept a clean sheet for the first 10-15 minutes, however, it could have been a tick more competitive – and that will most likely be the plan for the next big challenges.
Much has been speculated about how Chan would line-up her team, and on the night she eventually decided on a 5-4-1. Given how the game unfolded, any substantial critique of the system would definitely be premature. After being down to just nine men, there was not much of a formation to retain except for a 9-0-0, although the Eastern players still fought until the end and were even willing to commit men forward during sparse counter-attack attempts. Altogether, there was probably only one coaching decision that would deserve some scrutiny.
For followers of domestic football, it was not really understandable why Chan chose Wong Chi-chung as the third centre back in the starting XI. So far, Wong only appeared in two league games this season (one of which as a substitute), and has always been a fringe player in the squad since he joined Eastern in 2014. Arguably, Tsang Chi-hau, Ng Wai-chiu, and even Leung Chun-pong would have been a much more reliable choice. But after this game, it is rather unlikely we see Wong again during the ACL campaign.
Fan farce undermines integrity of ACL and AFC
While Guangzhou Evergrande won the game fair and square on the pitch, the murky situation of a – de facto – ban of away fans has seriously undermined the integrity of both the Asian Football Confederation as impartial authority and the Asian Champions League as first-class competition. In an article by ESPN, an AFC spokesman suggested that Guangzhou Evergrande supplied tickets to Eastern – and therefore it does not constitute a breach of any regulation. However, the AFC just seem to take the club statements at face value, without investigating any further. At the same time, the management of Eastern still refuses to give any proper reason why they decided not to give out any of the 188 sold away fan tickets, claiming it is “club policy” not to reveal internal issues. This remains an absolutely unacceptable response, which shows not only disrespect to their fans, but even their own players, who would have deserved to be backed-up by their most loyal supporters that night.
While Mainland media cited security reasons for the decision to discourage fans from Hong Kong to make the journey to Guangzhou, Eastern still denied that cancelling the tickets had anything to do with it, trying to ease the critique by offering a generous compensation of HK$ 3,000 – most likely hoping that no further questions would be asked.
However, the entire fan farce reached its peak on match day, when it was revealed that Eastern’s Guangzhou-based sponsor has sent company staff to Tianhe Stadium to pose as “proxy fans”. As several sources have confirmed, buses arrived at the away sector, where people were handed free meals and shirts. When asked about the event, one of the visitors allegedly said that she is not sure what the whole thing is about, but the company invited her to join.
So yes, a 7-0 defeat to Guangzhou Evergrande is painful, but it never hurt local football as much as this disgraceful behaviour of the Eastern management towards their very own fans, who – let’s be fair – just wanted to see the historic ACL debut of their favourite club live from inside the stadium. Shockingly, even the AFC just tries to sit this issue out by avoiding any comments. Unfortunately, by doing so they also ridicule their supposed role as the guardian of Asian football.
The slogan for this year’s Asian Champions League is “One Asia, One Goal”. Maybe we should add “One Fan” to it.