On Tuesday, 17 March 2015, Kitchee was taking on Johor Darul Takzim (aka Johor Southern Tigers) in the 3rd group match of the 2015 AFC Cup. Given the previous performances of both teams against East Bengal (India) and Balestier Khalsa (Singapore), it was going to be a fight at eye level between the Hong Kong side and the Malaysian champion of last season. In the end, the Kitchee supporters could celebrate a solid 2:0 victory, but the biggest impression was left by Johor’s committed ultra group that followed their team all the way to Mong Kok Stadium.
Being one of the most popular teams of the Malaysian Super League, where up to 30,000 fans find their way to the stadiums on a weekly basis, Johor Southern Tigers were certainly not intimated by the atmosphere they found in Hong Kong, where only about 2,300 people came to the game. But backed by a respectable crowd, they stuck to their usual pre- and after-game rituals, when they acknowledge the presence of their fans by a moment of total standstill. The constant drumming and cheering by the “Boys of Straits” filled the air of the stadium and challenged Kitchee’s “Blue Wave” to respond adequately.
The starting line-ups were mainly as expected, except maybe Molina’s decision to leave Xu Deshuai on the bench might have taken some by surprise. However, with Belencoso, Annan and Jordi, Kitchee definitely followed an offensive game plan on their home turf. Only a few minutes into the game, Hong Kong national player Christian Annan found his first opportunity to score, but his shot was not a big challenge for Mohd Marlias, considered to be one of Malaysia’s best goalkeepers these days. The guests tried their best to find into the game, with a shot by Safiq Rahim missing the Kitchee goal only by a few metres. However, soon after, Kitchee got more and more in control of the game and in the 27th minute Belencoso showed once more why he was last year’s AFC Cup top scorer, when his strong header hammered the ball into the goal of the visitors. With the scoresheet now opened, Johor-still enthusiastically supported by their ultras-appeared a bit more nervous than before and after a grave mistake in the mid-field Jorge ‘Jordi’ Tarres found himself running towards the Malaysian goalkeeper without another defender in sight and placed a flat shot into the right corner. With 2 goals in the lead, Kitchee scaled back a bit and tried to play it safe. This also didn’t change much in the second half. Although the appearance of Xu Deshuai (substituting Annan in the 64th minute) the Hong Kong champion showed a little bit more drive, it was now Johor Southern Tigers that were putting increasing pressure on the home side – and it almost worked out. In fact, it was rather with fortuna’s help that Kitchee survived the last 30 minutes without conceding another goal. Kunanlan Subramaniam, Safiq Rahim and Jasazrin Jamaluddin missed at least 5 promising chances that could have turned the game at that point. However, in the end Kitchee survived the final minutes and bagged 3 points. Nevertheless, it seems that both teams stay on track for the “Round of 16”.
All in all, it was a great night, in which Kitchee showed its current quality on the pitch. However, at the same time, it was also a great lesson for local football fans, revealing how little Hong Kong is exposed to true ultra fan culture, which exists all across Asia (and even in China). Could that maybe one of the reasons for Hong Kong’s low fan attendance? Seeing what’s possible with a committed fan group (and what they add to the live atmosphere), we truly hope that Hong Kong does not only walk away with a win, but also with some kind of enlightenment. The applause and standing ovations for the “Boys of Straits” was certainly a good sign.
Author: Tobias Zuser
Photo Credits: Christopher KL Lau