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Fruits of hard (wood)work: historic draw against China

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On September 3rd Hong Kong achieved the unexpected thanks to a phenomenal effort from the entire team,  particularly goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai – as well as the goal post. After 90 minutes (plus 10 minutes of stoppage time), coach Kim and his squad celebrated their goalless draw like a victory. And it sure was. Offside.hk accompanied the local fans all the way to Shenzhen to give our readers a first-hand report about everything that happened on and off the pitch during this highly anticipated “derby”.

It was the first time that an official game between China and Hong Kong took place right across the border in Shenzhen. In the view of recent political tensions, the decision by the CFA to host this important home game in such proximity was somewhat surprising, but also indicated a certain degree of assurance that this “derby” could be taken care of without much fuss. Of course the Chinese side didn’t want to leave anything to chance and their governing body made sure they had full control over the ticket sales. In fact, away fans had to overcome several challenges in order to get hold of one the few allocated seats. The sole distributor, mypiao.com, accepted only Mainland-based phone numbers and payment methods, not to mention that all tickets had to be registered with a valid ID number. That said, however, it was certainly not impossible to get there and probably still far easier than getting an away fan ticket for a top game to watch a European national team (which is often only given to official fan club members on a quota basis).

ON THE ROAD TO SHENZHEN

Thanks to the public holiday in both Hong Kong and China, the journey to Shenzhen was very convenient, with most away fans making their way to the Bao’an Stadium in the Western part of the city in the late afternoon. Border controls appeared certainly tighter than usual, with Chinese immigration picking out individuals and foreigners for more thorough checks, but usually without any further complications. The walk to the stadium from the nearest subway station was smooth and there was no sign of hostility, even when wearing Hong Kong memorabilia. Nevertheless, the police presence around the stadium was enormous and the spectators for the away stand had to enter the venue from the South gate. Upon arrival, it seemed hard to miss the strange sight of “Hong Kong” fans queuing up for the security check – the majority were people in their fifties and sixties of a kind usually not seen at football games in Hong Kong. While we don’t want to join in speculation, it seemed quite unlikely that these people would easily overcome the “online purchase” requirements and be willing to spend HK$600 (plus transportation costs) for a football game on a public holiday. The people we encountered when waiting in line all held a “Home Permit”, so they certainly were proper Hong Kong citizens, but when asked who they would be supporting tonight, some also answered “China and Hong Kong are the same”. Patriotism aside, a World Cup qualifier shouldn’t be treated as a friendly game…

The security personnel, assisted by police men, were once again thorough and especially kept their eyes open for banners or flags, of which most were confiscated before, during and after the game. While it would be easy to interpret this as a repressive tactic against Hong Kong fans, that’s actually not unusual in China. As a regular visitor of Chinese Super League games, we can confirm that there is always a general sensitivity towards fan equipment, especially flags, so the police behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary.

However, inside the stadium the situation was indeed a bit different. Staff (once again assisted by police men) were advised to make sure that everyone sat in their assigned seat as shown on the ticket. Members of “The Power of Hong Kong” fan group initially intended to group together in the first row, but were soon forced to disperse among the above mentioned random crowd. Only after a lot of seat-swapping, especially with families, could the away fans somehow form what looked like a proper crowd. In anticipation of the national anthem, the foreign media appeared to have gotten overly excited, but thankfully there was a smart consent among Hong Kong supporters not to do anything provocative.

COACH KIM PARKS THE BUS

Hong Kong’s match plan for this crucial and highly anticipated game against China was no surprise: defending with 11 men behind the ball and trying to carve out a draw. Despite starting with two strikers, coach Kim fielded a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-5-1), with both Bai He and Huang Yang playing as very deep defensive midfielders. With the bus being firmly parked at the back, the main plan was to slow down the game during breaks as well as getting the ball out of the danger zone. McKee’s role at the front was largely restricted to hoping for a lucky ball or a mistake by the Chinese defense. While this strategy might not sound very ambitious, it was definitely the only viable way to go into such a game. China has by far the better squad, with most of the players taking up key roles in the best Chinese Super League sides. Their recent performance at the Asian Cup in Australia also showed what the team can be capable of these days. However, on that night in Shenzhen, the luck was definitely with the Hong Kong side…

FIRST HALF – THE FRIENDLY POST

China started into the game with intensive and quick attacks, using both their superior individual skills as well as tactical experience to put the Hong Kong team under enormous pressure. Beijing Guoan striker Yu Dabao put his first dangerous header just wide of the post, and China’s captain Zheng Zhi could only manage to hit the post with a shot from more than 20 metres out. 5 minutes into the game, Hong Kong captain Chan Wai Ho suffered from an injury after colliding with another player and was substituted by Eastern centre-back Jean-Jacques Kilama. This turned out to be a crucial change, as the Cameroonian-born defender somehow managed to clear a goal-bound effort by Yu Hanchao off the line just a few minutes later, deflecting it onto the post and avoiding giving away an early 1-0 lead for the hosts. In the 27th minute, it was Festus Baise’s turn to make a vital interception at the last moment.

Despite China’s advantage on the pitch, the Hong Kong team stuck to their guns. China coach Alain Perrin ordered his team to drag the game across the entire width of the pitch and seek a breakthrough over the wings, but Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai, who took over the role as captain after Chan’s early substitution, was in inspired form for his team. While he performed some extraordinary saves, he did his utmost to slow down the game whenever possible. By making use of common delay tactics before goal kicks and after fouls, he increasingly frustrated the Chinese team and also earned a yellow card for this later on. However, with his invaluable experience he was able to strike a perfect balance between keeping the game flowing and keeping the clock ticking. It should be mentioned that generally, the Australian refereeing officials under A-league regular Strebre Delovski had the game well under control and showed impartiality for both sides. In the 35th minute, another effort from Yu Hanchao could only come back off the woodwork. Hong Kong’s only chance during the first half was an attempted shot by Lam Ka Wai from a direct corner kick, which definitely surprised China’s goalkeeper Wang Dalei. At the other end, a shot from Zheng Zhi hit the bar once again. By then, the signs of growing frustration between the Chinese players were already starting to creep in.

ACCEPTING THE FATE

After a tough first half, it still seemed only a matter of time until China would open the scoreline, but the moment never materialised. In fact, the accuracy and force of the Chinese attacks decreased and their efforts on goal often seemed to be acts of desperation rather than well-worked pieces of play. During the last 10 minutes and the 5 minutes of additional time, it started to appear as if China had accepted that there was no way through and that the match would end goalless. After some more magic between the goalposts from Yapp, Zheng Zhi eventually lost control and apparently both spat on the Hong Kong keeper and called him a “dog”. Zheng denied his involvement after the game, but circulating videos largely backed up Yapp’s version of events, who posted the incident on his Instagram account. Hong Kong on the other hand stood firm and became even more confident. It perhaps wouldn’t have come as a surprise if Hong Kong had even won the game in the end with a lucky punch. And it almost happened. In the 79th minute McKee had the best chance for Hong Kong in the game, but his long-range shot went over the bar.

With the sound of final whistle, the unthinkable became reality. Hong Kong drew with China in one of the crucial games of the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers. Unsurprisingly, both players and fans celebrated that moment like a victory. While the police seemed to be worried about the possible consequences and also snatched a few more flags from the away sector, the atmosphere remained friendly on both sides. The Hong Kong fans chanted and cheered to commemorate this historical moment and the team players came to the away stand right away to thank their supporters.

The showdown between China and Hong Kong also proved that both sides could be indeed ready for proper “derbies” in Shenzhen. Whether or not we see a Hong Kong club in the CFA cup or Chinese leagues in a few years time, or another clash between the two representative teams, football in Hong Kong would nothing than benefit from a bit more drama, excitement, animosity and exchange across the border.

By the way, out of 21 games between China and Hong Kong, this was just the 6th draw. China won 14 times and lost only once (back on May 19th, 1985, in Beijing).

 STARTING LINE-UPS

China
23 Wang Dalei, 2 Ren Hang, 3 Mei Fang, 4 Jiang Zhipeng, 5 Zhang Lipeng, 7 Wu Lei (59′: 11 Wang Yongpo), 10 Zheng Zhi, 15 Wu Xi, 19 Zheng Long (63′: 9 Yang Xu), 20 Yu Hanchao (69′: 16 Sun Ke), 22 Yu Dabao

Hong Kong
1 Yapp Hung Fai (Yellow Card) — 2 Lee Chi Ho, 15 Chan Wai Ho (5′: 5 Jean-Jacques Kilama), 3 Festus Baise, 14 Jack Sealy — 4 Bai He, 6 Huang Yang — 10 Lam Ka Wai (72′: 7 Chan Siu Ki), 16 Leung Chun Pong, 11 Gofred Karikari (Yellow Card; 82′: 8 Xu Deshuai) — 22 Jaimes McKee

ATTENDANCE: 26,173

OFFSIDE.HK’S MAN OF THE MATCH: Yapp Hung Fai (that probably doesn’t require any further justification)

 


HOW TO QUALIFY

Second Round:
Hong Kong are currently competing in the 2nd Round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019 AFC Asian Cup joint qualification.  In total there are 40 participating AFC members, divided into 8 groups of each 5 teams. Only the winner of each group as well as the four best ranked runner-ups will advance to the 3rd Round of the World Cup qualification while directly qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup. The remaining 4 runner-ups, the 8 third-placed teams as well as the 4 best fourth-placed teams will qualify directly for the 3rd Round. The other teams (the 4 weaker fourth-placed teams as well as the last in each group) will fight in a play off for the remaining 8 spots in the 3rd round.

Third Round:
The 3rd Round of the Asian Cup qualifiers will consist of 24 participants, divided into 6 group with each 4 teams. They will compete for 11 or 12 Asian Cup spots (depending on the performance of the United Arab Emirates in the qualifiers, as they will host the next Asian Cup).


Next games:
8 Sep 2015 – Hong Kong vs Qatar (8 pm, Mong Kok Stadium)
13 Oct 2015 – Bhutan vs Hong Kong
12 Nov 2015 – Maldives vs Hong Kong
17 Nov 2015 – Hong Kong vs China (8 pm, Hong Kong Stadium)
24 Mar 2016 – Qatar vs Hong Kong

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