There was a buzz in the air last Saturday when the Hong Kong team played their first match in front home supporters in 1,040 days. The team had secured qualification to the Asian Cup in June, and despite the fact their performances in the EAFF Championship were not ideal, the level of intrigue on the part of the Hong Kong people to watch their team in person once again was palpable.
A 2-0 win over Myanmar behind closed doors three days prior only raised expectations for Hong Kong to put on a show in front of fans – but alas, it was not to be. An inability to finish in front of goal in the first half and an inability to break down Myanmar’s stubborn resistance in the second confined the hosts to a 0-0 draw in front of 12,264 spectators.
Head coach Jörn Andersen apologized to Hong Kong fans after the match for his team’s lack of finishing touch. Not long after the apology, the Norwegian coach bemoaned the scarcity of attacking options available to him
“Everybody in Hong Kong wanted us to win tonight and we all tried our best, but we weren’t clinical enough up front,” Anderson observed. “Hong Kong does not have any world class strikers – this is something that we need to accept. We’re always looking for better players and some Premier League players will get their Hong Kong passport before our next game.”
To that end, he offered up three names: Everton Camargo, Stefan Pereira, and Mahama Awal. All three players have proven their quality in the Premier League and would surely improve the Hong Kong team.
The continued reliance on adding naturalized players to the talent pool in lieu of developing local talent confirms a worrying trend for the Hong Kong team program. To be clear, this article is not an attack on those players who have chosen to renounce their nationalities in order to compete for Hong Kong. Rather, fans should be grateful to those individuals who choose to endure months of bureaucracy for the opportunity to put on the Hong Kong shirt.
The fact that naturalization has allowed Hong Kong to field a multi-ethnic, multi-racial team on matchdays is something to be celebrated and cherished.
However, in order to have an honest conversation about the state of Hong Kong football, we must examine what the continued reliance on naturalized players reveals about the state of the youth development. And in order to do that, we must look at how the situation came to be.
The presence of non-native born players on the Hong Kong team is not a new phenomenon. Before the current group of players, there were those before them such as Derek Currie, Tim Bredbury, and Dale Tempest who donned the red and white shirt of Hong Kong in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – but under very different nationality laws.
As many mainland-Chinese players migrated south to play in the First Division in the early 2000s, several of them took advantage of the two-year residency rule to collect their Hong Kong passports. These include the likes of current Hong Kong captain, Huang Yang, and goalkeeper, Wang Zhenpeng, who started against Afghanistan in June.
By the mid 2010s, the influx of naturalized players in the Hong Kong squad was so great that fans began to criticize then-coach Kim Pan-gon for using ‘too many’ non-native players at the expense of local-born players. The situation came to a head in 2017 when eight players in the starting XI against North Korea were born outside of Hong Kong.
Kim’s go-to defence of his selections was that his mandate was to win, and to do so, he needed to pick the best available players, regardless of their country of origin.
Fast forward to today, and there appears to be more support than pushback to Andersen’s intention to bring in more naturalized players. In fact, some local fans have taken it upon themselves to maintain a list of foreign players in the Premier League and a countdown until each player is eligible to apply for a Hong Kong passport.
Although both men have experienced vastly different levels of support for using naturalized players, their reasons for doing so are more similar than they are different. As Andersen correctly stated, the number of professional players in Hong Kong is small and the pool of players who have the quality to play international football is even smaller. This is before accounting for players abroad who cannot represent Hong Kong for the time being due to quarantine.
Kim’s tenure began in 2013, when veteran players such as Chan Siu-ki, Lam Ka-wai and Chan Wai-ho were starting to decline. He ran into some good fortune two years later when the likes of Sandro, Paulinho and Festus Baise were able to pick up their Hong Kong passports and seamlessly replace the aforementioned players.
But Hong Kong have never adequately replaced Siu-ki, Ka-wai, or Wai-ho with local-born replacements. It has, instead, quietly accepted the use of naturalized players to paper over the cracks in the development system.
When Mark Sutcliffe was the CEO of the HKFA, he routinely objected to any suggestion from reporters that naturalization was part of the organization’s long-term strategy. He recognized that Hong Kong needed to develop players within its borders and treat any players who naturalized as a bonus.
If the HKFA tried to rely less on naturalized players under Sutcliffe’s tenure, then they have failed. Statistical evidence would suggest that the number of naturalized players in the Hong Kong pool is relatively unmatched across all of Asia. Since 2013, 34 different players who were not eligible for a Hong Kong passport at the time of their birth have played for their adopted city. Even if one were to filter out players who were developed in Hong Kong, you are still left with 28 players who were developed elsewhere.
While other member associations in Asia do not use the naturalization pipeline to the extent that Hong Kong have done, they do have another pipeline available to them that is not readily available to Hong Kong. This pipeline is the recruitment of players with dual-nationality.
Near the end of Andersen’s post-match conference, he declared that he “wanted players from Europe”, though he refused to reveal their names, citing the difficulty of recruiting such players.
Immediately, social media was abuzz with speculation regarding the identities of those players.
Could it be Ajax U21 midfielder Kian Fitz-Jim, whom Andersen had made contact with previously? Could it be FC Ingolstadt U19 striker Michael Udebuluzor, son of former Rangers and Sun Hei player Cornelius Udebuluzor? Could it be Blackburn Rovers U21 right back Jay Haddow, who is not currently a Hong Kong passport holder?
One of the reasons why Andersen’s statement raised a few eyebrows is that Hong Kong have never tried to actively recruit dual-nationals. Although the HKFA made it their policy, as part of Vision 2025, to build a database of Hong Kong-eligible players abroad, their efforts are constrained by Hong Kong nationality law.
To summarize it briefly, Hong Kong does not grant automatic birthright citizenship or permanent residency to every child who is born in the city, nor does it grant such rights to all children of Hong Kong parents born abroad. For children born in the city, at least one of the child’s parents must be a Chinese citizen at the time of the child’s birth. For children born abroad, at least one of the parents must be a Chinese citizen and the parent cannot hold permanent residency or citizenship of another country at the time of the child’s birth.
Should a person fail to meet such conditions, then they must reside in Hong Kong for seven years and apply for naturalization. Such strict laws prevent Hong Kong from recruiting players of partial ancestry with the same fervour as their rivals in Southeast Asia have done.
Take for example, Malaysia, who had eight dual-nationals in their squad which beat Hong Kong in June. Or the Philippines, who named only two players in their squad for the June window that were native-born. Or Thailand, who do not currently have any senior players who are dual-nationals, but who selected seven players that were raised outside of the country in their U23 Asian Cup squad.
These are nations that Hong Kong should aspire to be competitive against, if not beat. They represent the associations against whom Hong Kong will compete for Asian Cup spots in every cycle. Given that Hong Kong narrowly qualified ahead of the Philippines for the final Asian Cup spot on goal difference, fans can understand how slim the margins are.
Of course, it is not possible for Hong Kong to match other associations in an arms race if Hong Kong’s weapon of choice is naturalization while their opponents are bringing in dual-nationals. A player with dual-nationality can be recruited into the national team setup as early as the youth level. Whereas, for Hong Kong, they must hope that a foreign player remains in the city for seven years and is willing to renounce their original nationality.
Often, this means that naturalized players enter the Hong Kong pool just past their prime or on the decline. As good as Camargo, Pereira, and Awal may be, they will be 31, 34, and 31 respectively in March. Realistically, Hong Kong can only count on them until the end of the 2027 Asian Cup cycle.
In the meantime, there are enough reasons to worry about the next crop of players.
Although the HKFA will never admit it, the focus on the senior team is a welcome distraction from the debacle that was U20 AFC Asian Cup qualifying.
In case you missed it, the Hong Kong U20s were soundly beaten by Vietnam, Indonesia, and Timor-Leste – losing the three matches by a combined score of 12-3. The head coach of the squad was Cheung Kin-fung, a man who has won only once in 14 career matches as coach of the U19s, U20s, U23s and the U23 Premier League team.
That’s right: One victory. In his career.
Cheung deserves a portion of the blame for the team’s preparation. When a team concedes goals early in the match or immediately after halftime, it is right to question whether the players have taken the coach’s words to heart. When a team allows a 1-0 deficit to swell quickly into 2-0 and 3-0, it reflects poorly on the man in charge.
That said, a measure of sympathy can be felt for Cheung, who was dealt a bad hand.
“It was all about our concentration and our inability to defend in 1-v-1 situations,” he lamented, after the loss to Timor-Leste. “The Timor-Leste players all possess the ability to beat us in 1-v-1 situations. We didn’t improve in this regard over the course of qualifying, and when you can’t improve, you will always be under pressure [from the opponent] and you will always be at a disadvantage.”
2.5 years into the pandemic, the Hong Kong government have finally dropped its quarantine requirement in favour of three days of self-monitoring. This, as other jurisdictions around the world have already eliminated quarantine on-arrival or are opening their borders to unvaccinated travellers.
Over the past 2.5 years, the government have shut down public recreation facilities at the drop of a hat, as soon as cases began to rises. At the same time, other places have found a way to keep recreation facilities open through various measures. As Hong Kong’s footballers were training at home, players from around the world were going to the gym, training together as a team, and playing matches.
The impact has been harder for those U20 team members who have not yet been signed to first team contracts. The effect of 2.5 years of stunted development was on display during the U20 qualifiers and will be felt in years to come when it comes time to replace members of the senior squad who are currently in their mid-to-late 20s.
There are other factors to worry about. Consider the fact that nearly every member of the Vietnam and Indonesia U20 teams is currently on a professional contract. In contrast, only 15 of Hong Kong’s players are currently professional, with the number dropping to 7 if you don’t count players who are signed to the HK U23s. When there are only 10 professional clubs in Hong Kong, there are limited opportunities for players to play professionally.
The HKFA’s solution to this problem is the Sapling Cup, where teams are obligated to use at least three U22 players on the pitch, meaning that they must sign enough young players to compete. Though the format of the tournament changes every year, in this year’s edition, the winners will only play a maximum of 10 matches.
Is this the optimal way to give young players opportunities? And does playing in a rotated side against another team’s rotated side in a low pressure environment truly get the best out of young players?
Though it may be commonplace for young players elsewhere in the world to go out on loan to lower division clubs in order to absorb first team experience, in Hong Kong this is not a realistic option. Lower division clubs do not train as regularly as their counterparts in the Premier League, and the level of competition is far worse. Whereas players in foreign lower division leagues aspire to perform well in order to earn a move upward, players in Hong Kong’s lower divisions mostly approach football as recreation.
Then, there are cultural and economic factors to consider.
In Hong Kong, it is expected that every child will attend university, whether they need it or not. For footballers who are good enough to earn a Division I scholarship in the US, this will mean an opportunity to train and compete against better opposition than they would face in Hong Kong. But the vast majority of players will not be good enough to go to the US, meaning their options are to sign with a Premier League club and train part-time while balancing studies, or to quit football altogether at 18.
Abandoning dreams of playing professional football by the time a player reaches university age is rational decision given the stark realities of the local game. The number of teams in next season’s Premier League remains a perpetual mystery and signing a professional contract does not guarantee that the club will pay salaries on time, as many players have discovered.
One striking illustration of the realities of the local game is the much heralded Hong Kong U16 side which qualified for the 2014 AFC U16 Championship. That year’s squad remains the only Hong Kong youth side to have qualified for an international tournament in the past 40 years.
Of the 23 players on the squad, only seven are still playing professionally. Of those seven, only Yu Wai-lim and Cheng Chin-lung have appeared for the senior team.
But, by far the biggest reason why the Hong Kong programme could face an impending crisis is one that hits close to home for many Hong Kongers. It is one of the most sensitive topics in Hong Kong society, and one that transcends sport.
Due to various societal and political factors, a significant number of Hong Kong people are leaving their homeland for good. In fact, since mid-2020, over 200,000 people have left the city, the biggest outflow in recorded history.
Many readers of this article may know someone who has left or is considering whether to leave. Some readers may have considered leaving, too.
It is an issue that has affected Hong Kong’s senior team already as former players James Ha and Clayton resettled in England this summer, effectively ending their professional careers. Even Cheung, too, announced his plans to emigrate before the U20 qualifiers – though whether his status as a ‘lame duck’ coach contributed to the performances of his players is up for debate.
The full effect of this wave of emigration will not be known in the short term, though one can hypothesize about its effects. The numbers of footballers in the city will shrink, which will lead to less competition for places in the Hong Kong youth programme. This could eventually lead to complacency for players as the coaches have fewer players to choose from.
Though government policy seems to indicate that they will seek to replace them with immigrants – perhaps raising the daily cap of 150 new settlers from the mainland – one has to question how many of those immigrants will have an interest in local football or will produce children who want to play football? Of those who play, how many would represent Hong Kong if given the opportunity?
Hong Kong fans have a right to fantasize about naturalized players and Andersen should welcome any player who can improve the team. But we should not lose sight of what naturalized players represent: They are short term solutions to long term problems. At some point, the naturalization pipeline will run dry and the HKFA will need to get serious about the impending crisis.
Chan Wai-ho, Lam Ka-wai, and Chan Siu-ki have been succeeded by a mix of naturalized and local-born players, but eventually their successors will need to be replaced too. The HKFA cannot rely on naturalizing players to paper over the cracks forever.
The grim reality is that the next generation is as ill-equipped as ever and the pool will shrink smaller and smaller.
Nor, as time will tell, can the HKFA hope to recruit the children of the Hong Kong diaspora overseas, who will learn to play the game in a foreign country. Good luck to the HKFA if they wish to convince a player who grew up overseas to represent Hong Kong when the local league is financially unstable, the Hong Kong team are minnows on the international stage and the player has very little emotional connection to the city. That is – assuming of course – that the player would even qualify for a Hong Kong passport.
Dark days could well be ahead for the Hong Kong team, if there will still be a team at all.