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Eastern vs Evergrande: a proper ACL derby

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With Eastern due to celebrate their debut in the Asian Champions League this year, their upcoming clash with Chinese Super League giants Guangzhou Evergrande offers all the nitty-gritty needed in becoming a derby of a very special kind. Tobias Zuser looks at the multiple layers of this promising fixture.

In 2017 clubs from six national football associations will take part in the East-Asian division of the Champions League: Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Hong Kong – and in the group stage no opponents will be closer to each other than Guangzhou Evergrande and Eastern. Just 130 kilometres lie between their two home grounds in Mong Kok and Tianhe, with through-trains offering express journeys of roughly two hours. But it is not just the geographic proximity that makes this derby so special.

David vs Goliath 

Of course, it would be negligent not to acknowledge the underdog role of Eastern in group G of the ACL. Guangzhou Evergrande boast a combined squad value of roughly HK$ 400 million, which is more than thirteen times of what the Eastern squad is deemed to be worth at the moment.

However, when it comes to tradition the Hong Kong side has all the bragging rights. Founded in 1932, Eastern is among the oldest Chinese clubs in Asia. Back in the day, Eastern were also known for having strong ties with the Kuomintang government in Taiwan, but this political era is gone now, and the Blues are in fact one of the less political teams in the league. Currently, the fate of Eastern lies in the hands of eccentric director Peter Leung Shou-chi, who almost seems as visionary as Evergrande’s Xu Jiayin. The existence of the reigning champions was seriously challenged last summer, when former president Lai Tung-kwong suddenly pulled all his financial support. Ironically, it was a Guangdong-based sponsor that saved the club: Real estate developer Nenking Group also owns the Chinese basketball team Guangzhou Long Lions (former Foshan Long Lions) and therefore invested simultaneously into Eastern’s football and basketball team. However, at least for this year the Blues will have to stick to their old name, which they had when they qualified for the ACL: Eastern Sports Club.

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The official kit of Eastern for their 2017 ACL campaign (Photo: Eastern Facebook)

The roots of Evergrande can be followed back to Guangzhou FC, which was established in 1956, and since then the team won China’s top flight six times – doing so consecutively from 2011 onwards. Evergrande have also won two FA Cup trophies and of course gained international fame by winning the Asian Champions League twice (2013 and 2015). Arguably, Eastern have been similarly successful at home. They have won the domestic championship five times and have also collected ten Senior Shield trophies and four FA Cup victories. And while some might say that all the big names are now with Guangzhou, Eastern had the likes of Bobby Moore (as manager), Alan Ball and Graham Paddon in their ranks during the 1980’s.

However, the Blues have never made it far in Asia. During the 1990s all attempts to qualify for the Asian Club Championship, the predecessor of the ACL, failed, which makes their debut this year a truly historic event.

And although a Hong Kong team has never taken on Guangzhou Evergrande in a competitive tournament, some of the opposing players are very familiar with each other.

Yapp Hung-fai vs Zheng Zhi

Two men that will be in the limelight during these games are the respective captains of the teams – Eastern’s Yapp Hung-fai and Evergrande’s Zheng Zhi. Both are known for their emotional outbursts and it certainly wasn’t a big surprise that they also clashed during the infamous World Cup Qualifier game in Shenzhen in 2015, when Hong Kong – against all odds – held the Chinese national team to a goalless draw. This was in part due to Yapp’s impressive performance in keeping a clean sheet that night, which of course also involved some wilful delaying tactics. At some point, a frustrated Zheng seemed to have had enough and supposedly spat in Yapp’s face, with a heated exchange of words duly following. After the game, Yapp shared this incident via Instagram, causing a significant media backlash.

Zheng Zhi allegedly spat in Yapp’s face during the last minutes of the game (Screenshot)

When China returned to Hong Kong in November, Zheng was jeered whenever he got the ball. We probably don’t need to mention at this point that the game ended again in an unlikely nil-nil draw. With this history and given what’s at stake in ACL games, Yapp and Zheng will have plenty of opportunity to revive their rivalry once more. Although their coaches will probably discourage them from doing so.

Chan vs Scolari 

Brace yourself for what will be the top media story during the entire ACL campaign of Eastern. Last year, coach Chan Yuen-ting, aka “Beefball”, claimed a Guinness World Record by becoming the first female coach to win a national title with a men’s team. And in 2017 she will enter the history books again by becoming the first female coach in the ACL. Although her success story shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that football has overcome the gender gap, her achievement has put Hong Kong football on the map, in a time when no one expected it.

Chan Yuen-ting received the 2016 Women's Coach of the Year award (Picture: the-afc.com)

Chan Yuen-ting received the 2016 Women’s Coach of the Year award (Picture: the-afc.com)

She not only received honours from the BBC, listing her as one of the world’s most influential women, but also received the AFC Women’s Coach of the Year award. And there couldn’t be a better continuation of the story when 28-year-old Chan Yuen-ting, with one championship in her pocket, will take on 68-year-old godfather grandmaster Felipe Scolari. The media will most likely turn it into a “gender battle”, but gender aside, the ACL will be the proper stage for Chan Yuen-ting to prove her talent, and could help to shift the focus away from the politics lurking behind the corner.

Hong Kong vs China

This derby proposal wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the political discourse that naturally floats above this game. Most will still remember the tense face-off between Hong Kong and China in the World Cup qualifiers, coming just months after one of the biggest protests in the city. The national anthem of China, which is played ahead of every game of the Hong Kong representative team, has been disturbed by jeering and booing ever since, stirring up contention between the different fan groups. Smaller altercations also continued in the recent Guangdong-Hong Kong Cup, perhaps a sign of the friction to come.

Hong Kong team celebrating the 0-0 draw against China at Mong Kok Stadium (Photo: Ryan Kam)

Hong Kong team celebrating the 0-0 draw against China at Mong Kok Stadium (Photo: Ryan Kam)

And if that’s not enough: Just a few days before the game against Guangzhou Evergrande, all 188 Eastern fans, who had purchased away tickets for the Tianhe Stadium, were informed that they wouldn’t be allowed to attend the game. Instead, the club offered a compensation of HK$ 3,000, while blaming it on a “personal mistake”. As of now, the Eastern management still owes their fans a satisfying reason, making their decision appear highly dubious. In addition, no one is quite sure what will happen when the Hong Kong champions host Evergrande at Mong Kok Stadium on 25 April. Following a chaotic ticket allocation, it seems that many Guangzhou supporters were able to snatch up seats in the home sector, which could easily lead to a very tense atmosphere, making crowd-control almost impossible. In addition, Evergrande fans have intoned the national anthem during ACL games before, which could lead to turmoil on the stands.

11 vs 11

Nevertheless, despite all these differences, it comes down to 11 men vs 11 men and what they produce on the pitch during 90 minutes. Still, Guangzhou Evergrande will be the clear favourites and can rely on a star-studded squad, including Chinese national team players Zeng Cheng (#19, GK), Zheng Zhi (#10, MF), Mei Fang (#3, DF), Feng Xiaoting (#6, DF), Zhang Linpeng (#5, DF), Huang Bowen (#15, MF), and Gao Lin (#29, FW). In addition, Scolari nominated his compatriots Paulinho (#8, MF), Alan (#7, FW), Goulart (#11, FW) as well as Korean defender Kim Hyung-il, leaving out Jackson Martinez who will not be part of Guangzhou’s ACL campaign.

Manuel Bleda is currently top scorer of the on-going Hong Kong Premier League

Manuel Bleda is currently top scorer of the on-going Hong Kong Premier League (Picture: HKFA.com)

In fact, one thing both teams have in common is the dominance of foreign aids from Brazil. Eastern will count on Roberto Affonso (#15, DF), Diego Eli (#3, DF), and not forgetting Spaniard Manuel Bleda (#9, FW), who will be joined by former CSL player Josh Mitchell, who – as Australian – takes up the AFC spot. The odd one out here is definitely Roberto Affonso, who is actually a naturalised player and has already represented Hong Kong on the international stage in 2016. However, according to the current ACL rules, the player must hold the new passport for at least one year. Therefore, Chan Yuen-ting has to do without three of her most valuable attacking players – Miroslav Saric, Michel Lugo, and Giovane da Silva.

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Nevertheless, Eastern’s starting eleven will build on a 4-2-3-1 system, which they have also mastered in the Hong Kong Premier League. Aside from Yapp Hung-fai (#1) in goal, Josh Mitchell (#2) and Roberto Affonso (#15) will act as centre-backs. The full-back positions have probably caused Eastern the biggest troubles this season, but recently Chan showed her preference for Tsang Kam-to (#21) on the right and Wong Tsz-ho (#30) on the left. The latter just returned from a half-season loan to Rangers. Eastern are also one of the few teams in the league that usually play with a double six, where former Shijiazhuang Yongchang defender Bai He (#4) teams up with Diego Eli (#3). Manuel Bleda (#9), currently top scorer of the league, will take up the role as lone centre-forward up front, while naturalised Jaimes McKee (#23) could start on the right and Lee Hong-lim (#17) on the left. With Xu Deshuai (#7) and Leung Chun-pong (#29) Eastern have also two versatile players that just returned from injury breaks and therefore might only start off the bench. For a detailed squad preview check out our introduction article “All about the ACL newcomer from Hong Kong”.

With all that said, what more proof do we need to call this the first proper “China Hong Kong Derby” (中港打比) in the Asian Champions League.

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