HK Team

After painful Asian Cup end: Was it all worth it?


After Hong Kong’s respectable performances in the first two games against UAE and Iran, hopes were high that the team could eventually clinch victory in their final group stage match against Palestine.

When China finished their group on 3rd place with just two points on Monday, some enthusiastic fans were even speculating that Hong Kong may qualify for the Round of 16 if they could finish as second runners-up, albeit still relying on the help of other teams.

The long anticipated “final” for Hong Kong was also manifested in an impressive fan turnout, similar in size to the previous crowd at the Iran game, but with plenty of experience and a week of bonding, the fans were even more united. They first met in Doha’s old town Souq Waqif, where the HKFA also handed out a limited number of fan scarves. From there the supporters march together (via metro and shuttle bus) to the Abdullah Bin Khalifa Stadium, one of the smallest venues in the city, which belongs to a local football club and was also not featured in the World Cup. On the way, the opening of train carriage doors were met with cheers, the positive atmosphere only interrupted when Syria scored against India, as Hong Kong would have mostly benefitted from a draw in that game.

For the last group stage match, coach Jørn Andersen made a few changes to the starting XI. What was already expected, Tai Po’s Tse Ka-wing replaced Yapp Hung-fai in goal, which was also a symbolic handover to who will most likely be Hong Kong’s future #1. Up front, Michael Udebuluzor got his chance ahead of other forward options (Previously, Max Poon Pui-hin started against UAE, and Sun Ming-him against Iran).

Right from the start, though, Hong Kong appeared to be on the back-foot, unable to perform their hard pressing they became famous for in the last few weeks. Palestine on the other hand, looked well organized and efficient. Instead of the mightier sides like UAE and Iran, who both wanted to control the game, Palestine didn’t shy away from putting Hong Kong under pressure with fast counters and dangerous crosses, clearly identifying their advantage in aerial duels as a main strategy for that evening. Meanwhile, Hong Kong supporters used the 6th minute to clap and cheer for the absent legend Huang Yang, who recently announced his retirement from the team.

Frankly speaking, Hong Kong looked tired and exhausted, which may also be one of the biggest lessons from the tournament: a lack of squad depth, which was further aggravated by numerous injuries prior to and during the tournament.

Unfortunately, the worst case scenario soon unfolded, with Hong Kong already conceding after just 12 minutes, when Oday Dabbagh netted in a well placed cross by Mus’ab Al Battat. Despite the drawback, the travelling fans, who took over an entire stand in the stadium, became even more vocal to show their support.

However, things just didn’t want to go according to plan. 25 minutes into the game, Hong Kong captain Vas Nuñez had to leave the pitch on a stretcher and was replaced by Li Ngai-hoi. It was heartbreaking to see Nuñez own disappointment after the gam, knowing he was unable to help his teammates, but he proved once more in this tournament what a backbone he has become for a rejuvenated Hong Kong side.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong still struggled to find back into the game, and apart from an Everton shot into the hands of the goalkeeper right before half time, there were not too many positives.

Given the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, the match became again a show of solidarity for Gaza and the majority of the crowd cheered for the Palestinians with occasional “Free Palestine” chants. But the final attendance only came to around 6000 people despite tickets having been unavailable for several weeks. Apart from minor altercations between fans, it needs to be pointed out that match attendees were very accommodating and readily swapped seats to allow Hong Kong fans to unite on one single stand, making it a peaceful atmosphere off the pitch.

In a show of unwanted repetition, the second half started in the worst way possible, with Palestine increasing their lead to 2-0 after just three minutes, forcing Andersen to quickly react. But then again, there are not too many options on the bench. Wong Wai replaced Philip Chan Siu-kwan, and Walter Junior made his Asian Cup debut after sitting out the previous two games due to injury, coming in for Wu Chun-ming.

Still, Hong Kong, while finding a bit better into the game, was still unable to connect effectively in front of goal, which again shows a certain lack of balance in the team, particularly when it comes to a creative midfield (or better the lack thereof). Unfortunately, the final blow came in the 60th minute, when Oday Dabbagh scored his second goal of the night, and making it a 3-0 lead for Palestine. By then the game was decided, yet Hong Kong kept at least fighting.

Stefan Pereira and Sun Ming-him were sent in to add more firing power, with Chan Shinichi (injured) and Michael Udebuluzor being taken off. But despite ongoing efforts, the tides just didn’t want to turn, as Palestine, seeing a chance to snatch the 2nd place from UAE on goal difference, remained dangerous on the counter and would have probably even scored more goals were it not for some brilliant saves by Tse Ka-wing.

In the end, Hong Kong was indeed almost rewarded with a consolation goal, following a hand ball in the penalty area. Finally, the VAR review came out in favour of Hong Kong, but Everton’s penalty only hit the bar, keeping the team’s goal tally at the tournament at just 1 – Chan Siu-kwan’s infamous 1000th Asian Cup goal in the opening match against UAE.

After the final whistle, the team – visibly disappointed and beaten down – came over to the Hong Kong fans, and stayed for a long time listening to the chants and thanking everyone for the incredible support. For many this also seemed to be quite an emotional moment, and especially Vas Nuñez, who was injured in the first half, was fighting back his tears. Wong Wai eventually grabbed the megaphone and expressed gratitude to the fans, and so did Jørn Andersen as well a few moments later. After the coach explained how amazed he was by the support, and that the team has taken an important step forward, he was celebrated with “stay” chants, as more and more rumours indicate that Anderson may already eye another coaching opportunity somewhere else.

What is left from this Asian Cup tournament? Finishing last in the group with zero points, is definitely not an outcome anyone could wish for. But that also shouldn’t take away from the courageous performances against Iran and UAE, which were even acknowledged by foreign media (so definitely not entirely rested in fan bias). There is always a bit of brutal realism of what could be reasonably expected from a team like Hong Kong, with more structural issues in and around the local football scene.

But the target should be clear now: qualifying for the Asian Cup on a regular basis, because after all, the Hong Kong team did look like it could belong here. In the hours after the match a common question between fans grappling with the mixed emotions, was: Do you think it was worth it to come all the way for this? The answer came always right away, and without a shred of doubt: Absolutely!

From our entire team (four of us made the journey to Doha) a few more words of shamelessly biased appreciation: Thank you to the players, team staff, and especially the fans for making this an amazing memory. Just let’s not call it a “memory of a lifetime”, okay?

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