The expectations for Hong Kong’s second game in the tournament against Iran, one of the top sides in Asia and one of the favourites to win the actual cup, were humble at best.
Among the estimated 450 Hong Kong fans who made the journey to Doha, there was, however, hope that the team could build on the recent performances and deny Team Melli the dominance everyone was expecting (especially the bookmakers).
Probably to everyone’s surprise, Hong Kong did just that. And more. A furious start saw Hong Kong having two chances that on a sunny day in Hammer Hill Road would have been scored instantly. But unfortunately it still is a major challenge to keep your nerves when you are at the brink of taking the lead over the team ranked 21st in the FIFA World Rankings.
Compared to the first game, Jørn Andersen made two changes to the starting XI: Vas Nunez replaced Li Ngai-hoi in the back, and Sun Ming-him too over Man Poon Pui-hin’s role.
As always in football though, if you miss the few opportunities, conceding a goal instead is the most likely outcome. In the 25th minute Mehdi Ghayedi put the ball past Yapp Hung-fai to make it 1-0 for Iran. But if anyone thought this would open the floodgates, they were absolutely wrong.
The Hong Kong said, while facing admittedly increasing pressure, stayed composed and still looked for spaces to attack, particularly after identifying Beiranvand as the weakest link of the chain that night. Still, Team Melli made it to half time with a narrow 1-0 lead.
For a fan of Hong Kong, the dream to participate at the Asian Cup transformed into a much more self-confident showing that evening (we estimated around 400-500). In what was probably the biggest turnout of travelling fans, the two major fan groups, The Power of Hong Kong and Chi Sin Lo, did a brilliant job in turning the away stand into a red wall that kept singing and cheering for the entire match. And as other match attendees testified popular chants could be heard well throughout the Khalifa International Stadium, which packed around 36400 fans tonight (at least 33 000 of them supporting Iran, with some neutrals in between).
The second half went underway, but it still remained a fairly even game on chances. As coach Andersen insisted at the press conference after the match, Iran didn’t know how to play against Hong Kong, which seemed to be a relatively fair assessment. Of course, the Iranians dominated the basic stats of the game, claiming a total of 70% possession, but still quite a bit away from actually controlling the game.
In the end, it was just enough to save the narrow 1-0 lead over time, with Hong Kong staying in the game until the very last second. Who would have thought.
To add salt to the wounds of Hong Kong supporters, feeling that such a great display should have at least deserved a draw, the referee team inexplicably refused to look again at a possible handball by the Iranian goalkeeper outside the box, which soon after the final whistle, the circulating replays seemed to confirm. While this would not have meant a penalty kick, it could have had dramatically changed the dynamics of the game for the last 10 minutes.
But so be it. Now we can’t wait for Tuesday to come, when Hong Kong still has the chance to qualify for the Round of 16 – if luck is on their side for once.