Hong Kong teams’ Asian adventures prove they are still some way off the region’s best (but it’s not all bad).
This article was initially published in May 2017 in the print version of the “Hong Kong Football Podcast Season Review”. You can download the PDF version of the magazine here.
Despite the trauma of the two games against Guangzhou Evergrande (we’ll get to that bit later), Hong Kong’s two biggest clubs had two matches in the AFC Champions League this season that gave reason for optimism. Kitchee’s match against Hanoi FC was one of those nights that reminded us why we all love watching football.
The amazing thing was that the first goal in this frenetic 3-2 win didn’t come until the 72nd minute, when Hanoi hit Kitchee with a slick sucker-punch. But what followed – Kitchee equaliser, extra time, taking the lead, getting pegged back and down to 10 men because Alex Akande went off injured – put the compact army of Kitchee fans in the Hong Kong Stadium on the edges of their seats.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, Kitchee coach Chu Chi-kwong kept going for the win. And when Lam Ka-wai, Kitchee stalwart, cramping up after more than 120 minutes of play, met Fernando’s cross to nod it in for the winner, Chu got his deserved reward, and the fans in the stadium went nuts. Strangers hugged; one guy ripped his top off; one woman was crying. What a moment.
Kitchee’s next game was for a place in the group stage. Away at Ulsan Hyundai, on a bitterly cold night at the bottom of South Korea, it brought them so close to glory.
During a stale first half, Ulsan looked like they had underestimated Kitchee, who adapted their usual attacking style to a more defensive one. They played with a back five, and organised themselves well. Fernando and Sandro were the only real attacking outlets, but the likes of Krisztian Vadocz and Huang Yang managed to get the ball to them in good positions. It was defensive without being fearful.
After conceding a horribly unlucky first goal and equalising through Kim Bong-jin, Kitchee took Ulsan all the way to extra time and penalties, but Akande and Fernando missed their kicks to send the Blues out.
The fact that Kitchee got so close, losing so unluckily, was a testament to their performance in the competition, and bodes well for next season, when they will represent Hong Kong in the group stage.
Eastern’s task was always going to be tougher than Kitchee’s, with six matches against teams from Asia’s biggest leagues. The first fixture, away at Chinese champions Evergrande, was about as tough as it ever could have been.
They also had to play without any real fans, after Guangzhou authorities barred Eastern supporters on vague security grounds. The fact that Eastern itself then paid supporters HK$3,000 compensation for tickets that had only cost HK$170, claimed it was the club’s own fault without any explanation, and declined to report the incident to the AFC for a blatant breach of the rules was a betrayal of their most loyal fans. And that their sponsors then sent Guangzhou-based employees to the Tianhe Stadium to sit there pretending to be Eastern fans added insult to injury.
On a night when Chan Yuen-ting’s men would need luck on their side, conceding a penalty and having a man sent off for a handball on the line in the second minute was not ideal. Going down to nine men made things even harder, as the 7-0 final score suggests. It was a horrible night for the Hong Kong champions.
But two home games against less terrifying opposition came next. And the high point for Eastern (the second of those memorable nights from this season) came in the first of these, in a 1-1 draw with Japan’s Kawasaki Frontale. Eastern’s back four was well protected by Bai He and Diego Eli in midfield, and withstood a lot of pressure, before Kawasaki defender Tatsuki Nara brought down Manuel Bleda in the box. Nara was sent off, and Eastern got a penalty, which Bleda scored. Both the penalty and the sending-off were dubious decisions, suggesting maybe luck was on the Hongkongers’ side this time.
From then on Eastern were happy to let Kawasaki have the ball. They only had 26 per cent possession in the match. But when they had the ball they looked so much more decisive and assured, getting it up the pitch at the right moments, for Bleda, Jaimes McKee and Lee Hong-lim to chase, making good use of the wings.
But in the second half, Eastern goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai made a rare error in judgment, coming for a ball that he didn’t have to, and ended up jumping over Kawasaki’s Itakura Kou as he knocked the ball home to equalise.
It was a solid point for Eastern to take, and proved that they could compete on the same pitch as some of Asia’s finest, when at their best (and with luck on their side.)
The next game, against Suwon Samsung Bluewings, of South Korea, could have got Eastern another point. But they had to play without the injured Bleda and Eli, leaving them to park the bus even more than they had against Kawasaki. And it could have worked, except for the arrival of Suwon’s forward Johnathan, who took advantage of a lapse in concentration in the Eastern defence to slip into the box and nod the ball into the goal.
After the first-match humiliation, the two games in Mong Kok showed massive progress, even though any hopes of getting into the next round were over. But when the ACL returned a month later, it all went wrong again.
A 5-0 walloping away at Suwon preceded the 6-0 Mong Kok Massacre at the the hands of Guangzhou. This time Eastern couldn’t blame red cards or bad luck. They were just outclassed by their near neighbours, as the militaristic drums and chants of the Evergrande fans echoed into a warm and humid sky over Kowloon. After an improved performance in the first half, which ended only 2-0, the floodgates opened, with Alan and Paulinho the stars for the Chinese giants.
The Evergrande fans, who were given an extra-large away section because so many of them sneaked their way to tickets in the home end (thanks to a flawed ticketing arrangement), also made their mark. After repeatedly singing the Chinese national anthem, they unfurled a banner which read “Annihilate British dogs, extinguish Hong Kong independence poison”. Hong Kong fans responded with equal venom and no more restraint, chanting anti-China insults and maternal slurs. Some waved British colonial flags. It was an unedifying sight for all concerned. For the banner, Guangzhou were fined US$22,500 (less than two days’ wages for Paulinho), and if they do anything like that again they’ll have to play two games in an empty stadium.
Eastern’s last match, away at Kawasaki, didn’t change the overall outlook. Eastern had a generally torrid time in the ACL group stage. Scoring only one goal – from a dubious penalty – in six matches tells its own story.
Some have said it would be better if Hong Kong teams were still in the AFC Cup, Asia’s secondary competition, rather than the ACL. Then they could compete on a similar level against teams like Johor and Bengaluru, and stand a chance of making the latter stages. Those people might get their way pretty soon, if Hong Kong teams do as badly in the future as Eastern did this season.
In 2018 Kitchee will play in the ACL group stage. Their games in qualifying this year, especially away at Ulsan, suggest they might stand a better chance than Eastern did. They also have to drop fewer stars because of foreign player rules, as their top striker and holding midfielder, Sandro and Huang, are both locals. The loss of Matt Lam, Jared Lum and Lam Zhi-gin (permanent residents but not passport holders) will hurt though. There’s a chance they’ll get more than the one point Eastern got. But it is still a massive challenge.
傑志對河內 FC 當晚便提醒了我們熱愛看足球的原因。
最令人驚訝的是，這場震撼地以 3：2 完場的賽事，要去到第 72 分鐘才由河內來一個十分順暢的冷箭射入全場第一個入球。其後由傑志追和，到補時階段反超前，再被河內追和，最後因艾士力傷出而被迫以十人應戰，這一切都令香港大球場內的傑志球迷大軍坐立不安。
賽事去到超過加時 120 分鐘時，傑志中場球員林嘉緯仍然能在最後一刻接應費蘭度的傳送成功用頭破網絕殺河內，最後還因體力透支而不禁抽筋。朱教練得到應得的回報，場內的球迷同時也瘋狂地慶祝－陌生人互相擁抱，有人激動得扯去上衣，在我身旁的女士在哭泣，這是一個多麼震撼的場面。
廣州市的相關部門以保安理由禁止東方球迷入場後，東方要在沒有真球迷支持下出戰。球隊其後向每位已付港幣 170 元購票的球迷各賠償 3000 元，聲稱事件為球會內部失職並拒絕提供任何解釋，又拒絕向亞州足協舉報恆大公然違反相關足球條例，這種種行為都出賣了東方最忠實的球迷。令球迷更加傷心的是，他們的主贊助竟派出來自佛山分部的員工扮成東方支持者到天河體育場去觀看球賽。
當晚，由陳婉婷領軍的隊伍需要一點運氣才能有勝出機會，可惜在開賽兩分鐘便有一名球員因犯手球而被驅逐離場，繼而被射入十二碼而落後。後來只得九人應戰為球隊帶來更大打擊，導致東方慘敗 7：0 。這一晚，是東方的一場惡夢。
接著在主場迎戰的兩隊對手都不如恆大可怕，當中以 1：1 逼和日職球隊川崎前鋒更是東方今季的高峰（也是今季最令人難忘的一夜）。東方在這仗的四位後防球員有中場球員白鶴和迪高伊利罩著，直至川崎的後衛奈良龍樹在禁區內將洛迪古斯踢跌之前，兩名中場球員都幫球員抵擋了不少攻勢。奈良龍樹被逐離場，洛迪古斯則為東方射入十二碼。這球十二碼和紅牌都是十分有爭議性，不過運氣這次是在香港人的一方。
東方領先後一直讓川崎控球在腳，他們的全場控球比率只有 26％ 。但當他們搶得控球權時便變得十分果斷和有自信，在精準的時間傳球給前線的洛迪古斯、麥基和李康廉，令兩翼能夠得以發揮。
東方繼作客水原慘敗 5：0 後，接著又在主場慘吞恆大六蛋。這次他們不能再以紅牌或欠運為輸波藉口。東方被技高一籌的恆大技術性擊倒，伴隨恆大的還有來自作客球迷發出恍如軍隊般齊整的鼓聲和打氣聲，在九龍又熱又潮濕的天空下迴響。上半場東方的表現雖然有改善及只失兩球，但之後球隊有如中門大開，恆大的球星阿倫和保連奴都能取得入球。
很多恆大球迷靠著東方售賣門票的漏動而購得主場門票引起保安問題，最後恆大被獲分配更大的作客球迷區，球迷在場內的表現十分突出。恆大球迷在不斷唱出中國國歌後拉起「殲英犬、滅港毒」的標語。此刻，香港球迷不再克制，以同樣惡言回應作客球迷，叫出帶有侮辱性的反中國說話及問候對方的母親，也有球迷舉起英屬香港旗。這個場面令所有人都覺得不快。恆大後來因為球迷的標語而被罰 2 萬 2 千 5 百美元（比保連奴的兩日薪金還少），及被罰閉門作賽兩場但緩刑兩年。
在 2018 年，傑志將會出戰亞冠分組賽。他們今年在外圍賽的表現，特別是作客蔚山一仗，都顯出他們能夠比東方表現得更好。但根據亞洲足協的外援條例，傑志必須棄用幾位重心球員。傑志的神射手辛祖和中場黃洋屬本地球員，但失去林柱機、林恩許和林志堅（雖有居港權但未有香港護照）將會是對傑志的一大打擊。傑志的確有機會能夠比東方奪得更多分數，但這仍然是一大挑戰。
Author: James Legge
The Hong Kong Football Podcast is your weekly round-up of news, scores and chit-chat from around local football. It is out every Wednesday, and has just completed its first full season, which included interviews with players like Eastern’s Josh Mitchell and Southern’s Paul Olivier Ngue. You can listen on Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, or any other of your favourite podcast applications.