HK Team

Full house in Mong Kok but Hong Kong outclassed by Uzbekistan

On Thursday night, 21 March 2024, the Hong Kong representative team suffered a 0-2 loss to Uzbekistan in the 2nd round of the 2026 World Cup qualifiers. Despite a decline of form since the Asian Cup, fan support for the team has gained momentum and allowed for an impressive atmosphere in the sold-out Mong Kok Stadium.

Ticket sales for the match have proven once again that the Hong Kong team has outgrown the Mong Kok turf by now. Within a few hours, all of the 6000 tickets on sale were gone, making it a return to the Kowloon venue that closely resembled the hype and glory of 2015, when the team played some of their most memorable games there. The HKFA also used this occasion to recognize the achievements of recently retired representative team legends Huang Yang and Ju Yingzhi.

That all said, the task on hand was always meant to be a difficult one. Uzbekistan, since 2021 under the steady tutelage of Slovenian head coach Srečko Katanec, have joined the ranks of top sides in the region. At the Asian Cup in January they held Australia to a 1-1 draw in the group stage, and almost knocked out the later tournament winners Qatar in the quarter final, losing only on penalties.

But it is also a kind of team that Hong Kong particularly struggles with: focusing on fast and efficient attacks instead of building up dominance and playing out from the back. The latter tactic is arguably more susceptible to aggressive pressing, which Hong Kong lately knew to impress with against considerably stronger opponents such as Iran. Against Uzbekistan, however, the team felt similarly helpless at times as it was the case against Palestine.

Coach Jørn Andersen, who still has a contract until May 2025 but is rumoured to depart soon, started with Oliver Gerbig and Helio in the back, flanked by Yue Tze-nam on the right and Sun Ming-him on the left. Tan Chun-lok, Wu Chun-ming and Philip Chan Siu-kwan made up the midfield, while Junior, Everton and Matt Orr were placed up front. Li Ngai-hoi, Tsui Wang-kit, Michael Udebuluzor, and Max Poon Pui-hin were left on the bench.

In the first half of the game, it almost looked like if Hong Kong would invoke the spirits of the legendary 0-0 draw with China in 2015, with some incredible defending, brilliant saves by Yapp, and an extra portion luck. What was lacking once again were ideas to create actual goal chances at the other end of the pitch.

Unfortunately, dreams for the home side to hold on to a draw again were smashed a few minutes into the second half, when AS Roma striker Eldor Shomurudov tapped in from close range. However, despite the score, the home side actually looked slightly better qualification. Michael Udebuluzor and Max Poon came in for Matt Orr and Everton respectively, a like for like change with unfortunately quite limited impact.

Any hopes to find back into the game with a quick equalizer were entirely destroyed by Rustam Ashurmatov in the 66th minute, who just had to nod in the ball from a corner after what could only be described as woeful defending. Andersen threw in Jesse Yu, Stefan Pereira and Tsui Wang-kit, but with no avail. Was it not for Yapp Hung-fai, Hong Kong’s loss that evening would have definitely been more depressing.

However, despite trailing the away team by two goals, the home support was all but silent. The common chants have found their way across the stadium, and were not limited anymore to the well-known fan sectors, arguably a result of the mesmerizing fan support that emerged in Doha. The positive atmosphere was certainly reflected in the effort on the pitch, where players chased after every ball and fought until the very end – with 7 minuted added in injury time.

Compared to the games at the Asian Cup, the stamina level of most Hong Kong Premier League players has visibly decreased, paying testament to the low intensity in local competitions at the moment, which should provide further motivation for top talents to gain experience abroad.

After three of six games in Group E, Hong Kong find themselves on third place, with just one point previously earned in the 2-2 draw with Turkmenistan, while Iran and Uzbekistan are first and second with seven points each. This will mean the (very) likely end for Hong Kong’s 2026 World Cup journey in a few months time, after which the team will continue in additional qualification rounds for the 2027 Asian Cup in Saudi Arabia, regardless of their results in this group.

Following injuries of Everton and Leon Jones, the HKFA has called up Jordan Lam to join the team for the upcoming World Cup qualifier game in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on 26 March, which will be an even more challenging task. The 2nd qualification round will then be completed in June with a home game against Iran (6 June) and an away game in Turkmenistan.

Probably the best way forward would be an early decision on the future of Andersen as head coach, who also hasn’t made it a secret that he is very open to new challenges elsewhere. It is not particularly helpful if this uncertainty dominates the discussions of every game these days. If Hong Kong indeed needs to recruit a suitable new head coach, they should be in a slightly better position now after ex-Brighton academy head John Morling has assumed his role as Technical Director at the FA. The more time a new coach would have to work with a team towards the big goal of qualifying for the 2027 Asian Cup, the better, with the crucial 3rd qualification round scheduled to start in March 2025.

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