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Why the HK Soccer Sevens matter

In their first appearance at the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens, the youth selection of Atletico Madrid lifted the trophy of the main tournament, marking the end of a three-day spectacle that had turned the city once again into a small football Mecca. But does this event really matter for local football? While the big names are certainly the main attraction, the significance of this tournament should not be underestimated. Tobias Zuser looked at the Soccer Sevens from the perspective of the Hong Kong teams.

Between 29-31 May 2015 the Hong Kong Football Club (HKFC) hosted the 16th edition of the HK Soccer Sevens at their club house in Happy Valley. Established in 1999, the event might be seen as a homage to the world famous Rugby Sevens, however, with a much more intimate atmosphere. Among this year’s participants were academy selections of Atletico Madrid, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, West Ham United, Leicester City, Wellington Phoenix, Stoke City and the new Chinese powerhouse Shanghai SIPG. Hong Kong was represented in by two HKFA youth teams (U-18 and U-20), two premier league sides (Kitchee and BC Rangers) as well as several amateur clubs.

Molina’s farewell party

Honestly, it wouldn’t be fair to deduct the current strength of a team from their performance at the Soccer Sevens. After all, it’s a game with very different rules (7-a-side, each half 7 or 10 min., sudden death/golden goal, no offside). However, that also doesn’t mean that the tournament is not taken seriously enough. In fact, both Kitchee and BC Rangers fielded parts of their most valuable A-team squad, including players such as Belencoso, Gao Wen, Emmet Wan (all Kitchee) and Hiromichi Katano (BC Rangers) respectively. For Kitchee coach Jose Molina it also became a sort of farewell party, as he had announced his departure with the end of the season after having won the treble with his team. The former Spanish goalkeeper also appeared as field player in the Soccer Seven’s masters tournament for a “Kitchee All Stars” selection in the role as a forward. Interestingly, he also made his debut for the Spanish national team as a left winger in 1996, being the only possible substitution for an injured player.

The HKFA U-18 team included some of the most promising local talents such as captain Wu Chun Ming and vice-captain Remi Dujardin. The U-20 selection also received support from 25-year-old Cheng King Ho, who is in the current squad of Hong Kong’s representative team for the World Cup qualifiers and just transferred to Eastern SC.

Hong Kong teams take on “big names”

All professional Hong Kong teams were seeded into four different groups of the main tournament. Kitchee started with three draws against Shanghai SIPG (1-1), the Captain’s Select of HKFC (0-0) and West Ham United (1-1). While the English Premier League side qualified as group winner, Kitchee had to face Shanghai in a sudden-death game, in which it eventually claimed the runner-up spot for the quarter finals. BC Rangers also finished on the 2nd place in their group, after beating both Leicester City (1-0) and Singapore Cricket Club, while drawing with Newcastle United (0-0).

For the young FA teams, the group stage turned out to be a bit tougher. While the U-20 selection lost all their matches against Atletico Madrid (1-2), Stoke City (0-3) and the Yau Yee League Select (1-2), the U-18 squad managed to secure one point each against Wellington Phoenix (0-0) and HKFC (0-0), losing only to Aston Villa (0-1). Ranked at the bottom of the league, both FA teams were given a second chance in the loser’s tournament (“Plate”), in which they nevertheless faced difficult draws: After a great fight, the U-18 lost against Leicester City 0-1 and soon after the U-20 players were brought down by Shanghai SIPG (0-2).

While both Kitchee and BC Rangers continued in the main tournament, they suffered a similar fate. The BC Rangers were defeated 0-3 by Wellington Phoenix, while Kitchee put up a respectable fight against Atletico Madrid, the later tournament winner. Being two goals down by half time, the Hong Kong champion equalized within the last few minutes, especially thanks to last year’s AFC Cup top scorer Juan Belencoso. The game continued with a sudden-death extra time, played in a 4-a-side mode. Gao Wen took the role as a goalkeeper and Kitchee put indeed great pressure on the Spanish team during the first few minutes. However, after a missed chance, Atletico Madrid stroke back and kicked Kitchee out of the quarter final by a splendid golden goal.

BC Rangers take revenge

As losers of the main tournament, BC Rangers and Kitchee eventually met each other in the semi-final of the “Shield” trophy. In fact, this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to take revenge for the premier league season, in which the Rangers lost both games against Kitchee (1-2 and 0-5). And indeed, with seven players on the field, the Rangers were the more efficient team, celebrating a 2-1 victory over the treble winner. In the final, the BC Rangers squad took on the amateur selection of the Yau Yee League, which had a great run in this tournament, beating big names such as Stoke City (2-0) and kicking out Aston Villa after a thrilling penalty shoot-out (7-6). However, for the Rangers this final also meant the last chance for grabbing a trophy after a rather unsatisfying 2014/15 season, and that seemed to be motivation enough. Beating Yau Yee League Select with a straight-forward and disciplined performance, the Rangers stemmed the “Shield”.

While not a fully professional team, the performance of the HKFC squad is also worth being acknowledged. The squad, which finished the season in Hong Kong’s 1st Division as runner-up behind Metro Gallery Sun Source (but with no intention to join the Premier League under AFC conditions), drew with the HKFA U-18 selection and Aston Villa, but lost to Wellington Phoenix. Hence, they advanced to the losers’ tournament, in which the club turned things around. Under the guidance of coach Paul Foster they beat Singapore Cricket Club in the quarters, before facing the HKFC Captain’s Select in a true derby, which the 1st Division team won 1-0. The “Plate Final” against Leicester City had to be decided via sudden-death penalty shootout, with the luckier end for the host of the tournament.

But, while the local teams definitely presented themselves in respectable shape, does this international showcase of young talents really matter to Hong Kong football?

A proof for unused potential

Yes, it does, and even if it’s just for the experience. The atmosphere throughout the three days of the tournament was indeed very pleasant, with visitors occupying up to 90% of HKFC’s 1,500 seats capacity during the most prominent games. Of course there were many die-hard fans of the well-known European clubs, but the local teams generally received a very warm welcome from the mixed audience, with expat kids cheering for local stars like Belencoso more so than for the British youngsters.

For a city like Hong Kong, intimacy is arguably an integral part of football experience, where players, coaches and teams are much more approachable when compared to other professional leagues. The Soccer Sevens take this closeness to the extreme, while showing that Hong Kong has definitely the potential (and audience) for exciting and atmospheric football events. But it is up to the clubs and the HKFA to incorporate this in all their activities. The Hong Kong Soccer Sevens are definitely a great opportunity to connect with fans usually not seen during local games, but they are also a proof that the commonly heard “We don’t come, because football here is sub-standard” is nothing more than an excuse.

In 2016 we not only hope to see more “Hong Kong” in the Soccer Sevens, but also more of “Soccer Sevens” in Hong Kong.

 

Hong Kong Soccer Sevens Winners since 1999: 

Year Team Nation
1999 Blackburn Rovers England
2000 Instant Dict (Double Flower FA) Hong Kong
2001 Arsenal England
2002 Aston Villa England
2003 (cancelled due to SARS)
2004 Aston Villa England
2005 Urawa Red Diamonds Japan
2006 Urawa Red Diamonds Japan
2007 Aston Villa England
2008 Aston Villa England
2009 Glasgow Celtic Scotland
2010 Aston Villa England
2011 Kitchee Hong Kong
2012 Newcastle United England
2013 Leicester City England
2014 Manchester City England
2015 Atletico Madrid Spain

Hong Kong Soccer 7s titles according to nation:
England (10x), Hong Kong, Japan (both 2x), Scotland, Spain (both 1x)

Besides the victory of Double Flower FA (now active in the 1st Division and then known as “Instant-Dict”) in the year 2000 , Kitchee is the only other team that has ever lifted the trophy after defeating Celtic FC 1-0 in the 2011 final.

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