HK Team

The challenges facing Jørn Andersen

K League United

Jørn Andersen begins his tenure as Hong Kong head coach at a very important time for the team, with only five months to go until the Asian Cup qualifiers. We look at what fans can expect from the new manager the challenges that will await him.

Jørn Andersen has officially taken the helm as the new head coach of Hong Kong men’s team, replacing Mixu Paatelainen who departed after his contract expired last June. According to the Hong Kong Football Association’s press release, Andersen assumed his role on 13 December and he confirmed to reporters that has already begun watching tape of his players as he prepares for three crucial matches this coming June.

Andersen assumes the role during a very turbulent period of Hong Kong football history, during which the sport has been shut down four times already due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other leagues around Asia have also been disrupted, and in some cases, member associations have had to cancel seasons due to the pandemic. If nothing else, Hong Kong fans should be grateful that the Premier League was not in the same boat, despite the challenges.

The new coach will have his hands full in his task to steer Hong Kong to its first major tournament since 1968.

Who is Jørn Andersen?

In Germany, Jørn Andersen is best known for being the first foreign player to win the Bundesliga’s Golden Boot – an accomplishment which he achieved in 1990. The former striker later became a naturalized German citizen and is now a Norwegian-German dual national. As a manager, he is best known as the man who succeeded Jürgen Klopp at Mainz in 2008, leading the Rhineland-Palatinate club to promotion back to the Bundesliga in his single season at the club before being replaced himself by Thomas Tuchel.

Outside Germany, Andersen is the man who famously took the North Korea job in 2016 and led the hermit kingdom to Asian Cup qualification before departing in March 2018 due to international sanctions against the country.

His decision to take the job was not without controversy. Norwegian television journalist Bent Skjærstad, who has travelled to North Korea in the past, questioned whether it was ethically the right thing to do. Others, such as Lars Bohinen, a former teammate of Andersen’s with the Norwegian national team, went as far as to blast the move as “reprehensible”.

The Norwegian-German coach’s time with North Korea was a success as the team qualified for the 2017 EAFF E-1 Championship and the 2019 Asian Cup, both of which were targets set by the DPR Korea Football Association. But, in addition to qualifying for tournaments, there was another directive set to him by his bosses.

As Andersen explained to Reuters, “There was also a third (target), which was to change the playing style of the team. When I came here, they only played long balls and running and fighting without tactics. Now, we are playing football, we are advancing and tactically we are good. That is for me the most important point.”

Andersen had a record of 8-3-3 as North Korea manager. (Credit:

One can see from this why the HKFA would be attracted to someone like Andersen. Hong Kong has tended to oscillate between a defence-minded coach like Kim Pan-gon to an attack-minded coach like Gary White. Replacing the dull, dreary tactics of Paatelainen – who succeeded White – with someone who wants his players to open up more is merely the expected continuation of this legacy.

In 14 matches at the helm of Chollima, Andersen’s teams were only held scoreless in three of those matches. In eight of his matches in charge, North Korea scored two goals or more, failing to win in only one of those eight matches.

In contrast, Andersen’s time with Incheon was less rosy. From the time he was appointed in June 2018 until the final matchday of the 2018 K League season, only four other sides managed to outscore Incheon, who were 11th at the time of his appointment. On the other hand, Incheon were abysmal defensively and conceded more goals than any other K League side, except one.

Off the pitch, one can see that Andersen is very picky about picking his managerial jobs. After leaving German second division club Karsuher in March 2012, he waited nearly three years before taking his next managerial role at Austria Salzburg. Similarly, the coach was without work for more than two and a half years after being sacked by Incheon in April 2019 before taking the Hong Kong job.

Andersen is also someone who will be reticent to reveal too much to the media. As Bleacher Report noted in their feature on North Korean football, the coach insisted on making his own recording of his interview with the Bleacher Report writer based on past negative experiences with the press. This will be a change from past managers such as White and Paatelainen who were seen as more media-friendly.

What challenges will Andersen face?

Bluntly speaking, time with his players.

The Asian Football Confederation decided in late October that the Third Round of Asian Cup qualifiers would take place between 8-14 June in six centralized venues. This gives Andersen roughly seven months of time between the day he took the job to the first matchday to pick the squad he wants, scout the opposition, and come up with a game plan for each match.

Unlike the 12 national teams who are still alive in World Cup qualifying, Hong Kong has no matches scheduled for them between now and June. Complicating matters was the fact that the HKFA had decided to reopen the head coaching position after Paatelainen’s contract expired last June, and without a head coach, the HKFA decided not to play again for the remainder of 2021.

There are currently two FIFA match windows between now and the end of May when Andersen will assemble his final squad for the qualifiers. But scheduling friendlies to play in the upcoming windows is much easier said than done given current border restrictions throughout Asia.

Matt Orr’s goal against Iran provided a rare moment of joy for Hong Kong fans last June. (Credit: HKFA)

In the past month, the Hong Kong government have announced plans to expand its plans to prohibit anyone who has not been fully vaccinated from entering recreational facilities, including sports venues. Later, the government decided to shut down all of its venues under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department until 3 February. Additionally, the government has shown no inclination towards lowering its quarantine requirements for inbound travellers – currently at 21 days – and only those who have been fully vaccinated are allowed in. All of these restrictions make it next to impossible for Hong Kong to host or travel for a friendly without receiving government exemptions from quarantine.

The government has made exceptions for football in the past, most notably last June for the AFC Cup. But the AFC has yet to release information on the bidding process, and it is likely that the government will wait until the latest possible moment to decide whether it will back a bid, so that they can access the cases numbers at the time.

It has been reported that the HKFA will organize a training camp during the January-February window for Andersen to meet with and evaluate his potential players. All of those plans have been thrown in doubt as the HKFA have declared that they will pause all football and shut down the Football Training Centre until the 20th, in line with the government’s recent lockdown measures.

These restrictions have since been extended until 3 February at the earliest, and although Andersen mentioned during his press conference last Friday that he would still like to hold a training camp under a bubble, the clubs have their own interests at heart. The HKFA are aiming to work out a deal with the government for clubs to resume training and resume play behind closed doors. Whether the HKFA can manage to get both a training camp and training for clubs resumed is a big ask when sport is not deemed as essential to this current government.

The HKFA could make things easier for Andersen by concluding the season a week prior to 30 May, which is the first day of the June match window, in order to give the team extra training time. But as of the time of writing, there is no timetable for a resumption of play and to take away a week from the season would create an even more congested schedule once matches can be rescheduled. The option would be to repeat the schedule of last year, whereby the Championship Round would finish a week earlier than the Relegation Round. Although Andersen isn’t expected to select a significant number of players from Relegation Round teams, it still isn’t a good look for the domestic league.

All of these factors are working against Norwegian-German as he attempts to understand the pool of players he has at his disposal before the qualifiers. This is a big change from his role at North Korea where he was able to put his players through double sessions five times a week, before the players returned to their clubs to play on Saturdays. It is likely that any friendlies that Hong Kong plays between now and June will be against domestic clubs.

The draw

Speaking of the qualifiers, if Hong Kong are unable to host their qualifying group, the loss of home support could tip the balance between qualifying and falling short yet again. As it stands, there are 11 spots up from grabs 24 teams. The teams will be divided into six groups of four, with the group winners and the next five best runners-up receiving a spot to the main event. However, due to the pandemic, the home-and-away double round-robin system has been replaced with a single round-robin at a centralized venue.

The official draw for the qualifiers will be held on 24 February using the February 2022 FIFA rankings to seed the teams. According to rankings projection website, Hong Kong are set to edge out Afghanistan for the final spot in Pot 2, which would allow the team to avoid the likes of Suzuki Cup champions Thailand, but could see them drawn against the tournament’s runners-up Indonesia.

Hong Kong fans should hope for a better draw than the one they received at the same stage during the 2019 cycle. Although Hong Kong were in Pot 2, they were drawn against Andersen’s North Korea side and Lebanon, a team who probably should’ve been ranked higher going into the draw.

There are teams in Pot 3 which Hong Kong will hope to avoid, but also teams against which Hong Kong are equal to in strength. The trouble is that teams in Pots 2 and 3 are due to play against each other on the first matchday on 8 June, which means that if Hong Kong fail to win, they could be out of it after Andersen’s first match in charge. Should they draw, then their chances of qualifying will rest upon their results in the other two matches. In the end, Hong Kong may need to rely on goal difference in order to qualify.

All of this is why it crucial for the HKFA to gain the government’s backing and apply to host the matches. Hong Kong are 4-3-3 in their last ten official matches at home but have won only twice in their last ten away – with both of those victories coming in 2015. Even without home support, the ability to host matches would allow Hong Kong to not lose two days of training due to travel.

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The challenges facing Jørn Andersen
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