Neither the rain, nor COVID, nor the result on Tuesday could stop Hong Kong from qualifying for the Asian Cup for the first time in a half-century. In a city that obsesses over the past, a fanbase now has reason to smile about the present.
Emerging from a rainy night in Kolkata after his side had been handed a 4-0 loss by hosts India, Hong Kong head coach Jörn Andersen could not hide his disappointment with the result. Still, he tried his best to not miss the forest for the trees as his side had clinched its first appearance in the Asian Cup since 1968 thanks to the Philippines’ defeat to Palestine earlier in the day.
“Everyone who watched (the match against India) saw a wonderful game. Both us and India played well,” the Hong Kong boss said. “We played well especially in the first half, but unfortunately we conceded two goals from set pieces. After halftime, we tried to chase the game, but unfortunately, we conceded two more goals. No problem, I’m still proud of this team and we played a good game.
“We try to press, we try to win, but we don’t have as much experience in the squad as India. Okay, it’s inexperience, but my team will learn from it.”
What a difference a year has made for this Hong Kong team. In former head coach Mixu Paatelainen’s final match, six players in the starting XI were over the age of 30, compared to only three in the starting XI against India. In the past, Hong Kong managers tended to rely on older players but the squad that Andersen selected included some new faces, as well as others who were peripheral players under Paatelainen.
Granted, there were several external factors that played a hand in the selection of the squad. The collective refusal of Chinese clubs to release players for international duty meant that Andersen could not choose talents such as Tan Chun-lok, Vas Nuñez or Leung Nok-hang. Presumptive starting left back Shinichi Chan was barred from representing Hong Kong for a year due to disciplinary issues and starting centreback Hélio was unavailable due to family reasons.
In addition, the players suffered from a lack of match fitness due to the temporary closure of sporting facilities at the beginning of January and the subsequent cancellation of the Premier League season. While Kitchee and Lee Man players were afforded the privilege of travelling to Thailand in mid-March to prepare for their respective Asian competitions, players who remained in Hong Kong did not return to training until late April. The players’ rustiness showed in their final pre-qualifier friendly against Malaysia, where the Hong Kong team were second best and, in many ways, were fortunate to leave Kuala Lumpur with a modest 2-0 loss.
Compounding the problem was the HKFA’s announcement a day before the first match against Afghanistan that two players had tested positive for COVID. Due to the AFC’s protocols, the two players were forced isolate for seven days, ruling them out for the entirety of the qualifiers. The problems did not stop there for Hong Kong as a source told Offside that 14 players woke up on the morning of the Afghanistan match with fever, including all three goalkeepers who travelled with the squad. Hopes for Hong Kong were not high to begin with after the defeat to Malaysia and one could argue that it would have been a success for Hong Kong to even complete their three qualifying matches without needing to withdraw.
But whereas past Hong Kong teams may have capitulated, this was a new Hong Kong team. Newer players in the squad stepped up and older players led the way.
Wang Zhenpeng, who had not played for Hong Kong since October 2018, was the keeper deemed least sick on the day of the Afghanistan match and held the Middle Eastern side to a single goal.
Matt Orr and Sun Ming-him, who between them had ten caps going into the qualifiers, led the line well for Hong Kong and were involved four of the five goals scored by the team.
Yue Tze-nam, who had only moved to right back at the beginning of the season, played well in the first two matches before missing the India game due to injury.
Law Tsz-tsun carried on his fine form from the Champions League and showed that the growth he had made since last June was no mirage.
Wong Wai, who had struggled to find his feet since joining Eastern and had been loaned to the Hong Kong U23 team this season, looked lively off the ball. He got Hong Kong off to a flying start in the 23rd minute against Afghanistan with a goal from outside the box which gave the team a much-needed lift.
And then, there is Philip Chan. The Kitchee midfielder missed out on last June’s squad and was the subject of a public relations nightmare when an HKFA staffer labelled his performances as “disastrous” on the HKFA’s own Facebook page. Though illness prevented him appearing as a starter in any of the three matches, his performances off the bench were far from disastrous as he gave the midfield a spark each time he played.
Arguably the greatest share of the credit should go to the head coach, who, though early in his tenure, has begun to revolutionize the team’s approach. After the HKFA reopened the head coaching job to applications in July 2021 – a process which the HKFA stated was necessary due to the fact that the government funds the salary of the head coach – Paatelainen declined to reapply for his job. Up stepped over 100 applicants from around the world and in Hong Kong itself. But, as a source told SCMP in October 2021, local candidates lacked the “vision of coaching a national team for (the Asian Cup).” In contrast, Andersen’s resume was said to have stood out due to his experience in leading North Korea for two years, which included successful qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup.
Three months later, Andersen finally met with the media – albeit, over Zoom – and spoke of how he planned to change the way that Hong Kong would play. Paatelainen had set the team up with a defence-first mentality, and to rely on long balls to kick start the attack. But, the former Norwegian international promised something different.
“I will try to make Hong Kong more aggressive, sometimes try to press the opponent, don’t let them come too easy into our half, not too easy attacking our goal. That will be my first important point from the beginning. Of course, it will take some time before the team can play the way that I want, but I believe that I can do it. I hope that when the fans come to the stadium, they will see a team that wants to attack, that wants to win, that wants to be aggressive, and that they can be proud of,” he declared.
Skeptics of Andersen who did not believe that Hong Kong players had the quality to play such a style jeered as the team were soundly beaten by Malaysia. Yet, the head coach refused to veer from the style that he had promised fans and continued to double down on the tactics that he was trying to install.
“We had four months and no good work for me and the team and the players, but we used this time after we got out again to Thailand and we were there for some weeks and we trained a lot,” the Hong Kong boss explained after winning against Afghanistan and Cambodia. “We trained hard and we made some important meetings. We agreed with everybody which playing style we wanted to do, to play an offensive, high-pressing playing style, disturbing, creating chances and making goals.
“That is what people want to see on the field, not this slow, old game that some teams are playing. The team have accepted it and are learning very quick, but we are still only at 60 or 70 percent of our level so we have to create a little bit more in every case.”
Even after India put four goals past Hong Kong keeper Yapp Hung-fai, the coach remained optimistic, noting that it is not easy for the players to learn a new style of playing while trying to qualify for the Asian Cup.
“I am missing players from the Chinese leagues and two of my best defenders from the local league, but I told my players that I am still proud of them,” he said Tuesday night. “Hong Kong used to play defensive, counterattacking football, but now we take the initiative to attack and create chances. It’s a different way of playing. I’m disappointed with the result but I’m very happy with the performance.”
Had Hong Kong failed to qualify, the team could have been excused as it seemed like the universe had conspired to extend the city’s absence from Asia’s showpiece tournament. However, even though Hong Kong have qualified in spite of their obstacles, it is not any less true that Hong Kong were missing their best players, or that the team were not at full fitness, or the fact that they are still in the early stages of learning Andersen’s system. Eventually, one hopes that Andersen will be able to call up the strongest possible Hong Kong squad and have them playing his style of football, all of which lends credence to the proposition that the best is still yet to come.
“The league has been suspended for six months. What can I do? I can’t go and watch the players” he remarked, “I hope that after the league restarts, there will be new players that emerge so that I can have more players to choose from in the future to build a better team.”
Hope is in abundance in the city after Andersen proved that Hong Kong players are better than what local fans themselves may believe. Although the team may have had some luck in drawing Afghanistan, Cambodia and India as its opponents, they were unlucky in other respects, and what matters at the end of the day is that they qualified. In doing so, this generation were able to accomplish what Wu Kwok-hung’s generation, Au Wai-lun’s generation, Cheung Sai-ho’s generation, and Chan Siu-ki’s generation could not.
What happens next for the local game is unknown, but that topic is for another day. What is important is that Hong Kongers no longer need to look to the past for glory when history is being made in the present. Hong Kong’s qualification means that an entire generation of Hong Kongers will now have living memory of their team at the Asian Cup and those memories will not be limited to black and white photographs.
It is often said that Hong Kong people love to eat their own. Yet, all is forgiven when Hong Kong people are made proud to be who they are.
Today, this team has made the Hong Kong people proud to be Hong Kongers.