Another valiant effort ended in defeat for Hong Kong – this time against Iran. But if fans are disappointed to lose against Iran and the UAE, have we entered a new era where moral victories are not enough?
One by one, the players looked to each other as referee Hanna Hattab flew the final whistle. Some, including Vas Nuñez, fell to the floor with his hands on his face.
Hong Kong had been expected to lose by multiple goals against an Iran team who were ranked 129 places above them. Yet, only a 24th minute goal by Mehdi Ghayedi separated the two sides in a match that could’ve gone either way.
That, is an astounding statement that no one before the match would’ve believed, much less predicted.
Iran had changed five players from their opening match against Palestine, with an eye towards their final match against the UAE. The match against lowly Hong Kong was supposed to have been a foregone conclusion.
It turned out to be the opposite as Iran had to work for their three points. Hong Kong’s front three of Sun Ming-him, Matt Orr and Everton Camargo hounded the Iranian back-four, and created three chances off turnovers to score in the first half. But they failed to capitalize on any of those chances, and created even fewer chances in the second half, falling to defeat.
On a different day, things may have been different had Hong Kong opened the scoring through Orr or Everton in the 11th and 17th minute. They certainly would’ve had the momentum behind them if Philip Chan could’ve equalized in the 40th minute.
The team would’ve felt hard done by in the 91st minute when Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand handled the ball outside his area. The play was not deemed to be a denial of obvious goalscoring opportunity, and Hattab was not asked to review the play on the monitor.
Perhaps they felt even more aggrieved minutes later when an Iranian defender tugged on Stefan Pereira’s shirt inside the penalty area, preventing him from getting on to the end of a cross. That incident, too, was not deemed worthy of review.
Head coach Jörn Andersen can be proud of his team’s performance. In the week leading up to the match, he had talked about Hong Kong “closing the gap” with the big teams in Asia, only to walk it back a few days later, admitting that the gap is still “very big with these teams.”
But after the Iran match, he was full of praise for his side.
“We played against a top team in Asia, 21st in the FIFA rankings,” he said. “Last time, we played against UAE, 64th in the FIFA rankings, quite in front of Hong Kong. We played two games where we did not see the difference between the teams, and for that, I’m very proud of all my players.
“We pushed them, we attacked them, we pressed them, and a team like Iran didn’t know how they can play football against us.”
In the mixed zone, Shinichi Chan could only sigh when reflecting on a missed opportunity to nick a point off one of Asia’s best.
“I’ve played against Iran three times in the past, and I felt that the result of each match wasn’t reflective of the performance. But each time, I feel that gap (between Hong Kong and Iran) was closer,” Chan said. “We may not be playing free flowing, attacking football, but it shows that even though our ranking is low, and we’re at a disadvantage (when draws are held), we can still challenge the best teams.
“This is the first time where I’ve felt that we were on the same level as Iran. In the past, I’d never thought that we could get a result against them, but tonight was the first time I’ve felt disappointed that we didn’t.”
Nuñez took things a step further, revealing that Iranian midfielder Saman Ghoddos had spoken with him post-match. “He said that we deserved the three points and that he was surprised by our performance,” the centre-back relayed.
Perhaps there has never been a time since Hong Kong last qualified for the Asian Cup in 1968 where fans have been as united behind the team, the players and the coaches. Topics which usually dominate discussion such as governance issues within the HKFA, the standard of the domestic league, and the usage on naturalized players have been temporarily placed on the backburner while the team are still active in the tournament.
Hong Kong have played well in the tournament, creating scoring chances against the UAE and Iran which very few, outside of the team, predicted. Their high press has been effective as Hong Kong’s average starting distance – which measures how far the ball is from a team’s own goal when possession is recovered – is 43.9 meters, which ranks 10th of the 24 teams.
But despite all of the good vibes, the fan support and the performances, one statistic is undeniable: Hong Kong have no points through two matches.
“We’ve always said that the last game (against Palestine) was the most important,” Andersen said post-match. “If we win this game, maybe, we are one of the best (third-placed teams). We are only minus 3 (goal difference), that is not too bad if we can take three points against Palestine.”
To get to this point, Andersen has made a series of gambles.
He bet that he could make Hong Kong play on the front foot and be aggressive without the ball.
He bet that even when the goals didn’t come against Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand in the first half of 2023, the team were headed in the right direction.
He bet that the squad were strong enough such that he could afford to rest Juninho and Hélio, both of whom were dealing with injuries, until the Palestine game.
Thus far, his gambles have paid off, but now comes the moment of truth. Hong Kong are 90 minutes away from a historic first ever win at the Asian Cup and potential advancement to the Round of 16.
It stands to reason that the Hong Kong team may find soon find itself the victim of its own success after their performances against the UAE and Iran. In the past, both players and fans have accepted a mentality of 雖敗猶榮 – or moral victories, in English – after facing stronger teams. This meant that as long as the team could keep the scoreline respectable, they could feel proud of their efforts, even if the match ended in defeat.
After the Asian Games, this mentality started to change. Wins against Iran and Palestine in the knockout stage changed fans’ perception of what was possible for Hong Kong – though the senior team’s defeat to Bhutan a few weeks later was a humble reminder of what else was possible.
The common denominator between the Asian Games and the Asian Cup is Andersen, who has now raised expectations for a program ranked 150th in the world. Friday’s match against Iran may have marked the beginning of the end of an era where moral victories are acceptable for Hong Kong players and their fans.
If Hong Kong were to fall valiantly against Palestine, after playing the same brand of high-intensity, counter-pressing football that they’ve played already, would fans forgive them? They likely would, though at some point, all fans grow weary of moral victories.
On the other hand, there will be a faction of fans who would be devasted if the team were to miss an opportunity to make history. That would represent progress for Hong Kong football as it raises the bar for the national team program.
Once that bar has been raised, there can be no going back. The HKFA have a stated goal of reaching the 2034 World Cup finals which will consist of at least 48 teams. If that is to be the case, then the least Hong Kong should expect is to qualify regularly for the Asian Cup as a stepping stone to 2034.
With great power, comes great responsibility. If Hong Kong want more nights like Friday and last Sunday, it has to embrace heightened expectations and the pressure that comes along with it. The fans, in turn, have to expect more from the team and from the HKFA.
As Nuñez said, “There was a time when fans lost interest, but now we’re giving them reason to believe, we’re reigniting that fire, and we’re carrying Hong Kong to the world stage.”
It’s time to reward those fans with real victories.