Has Hong Kong ever qualified for and hosted a FIFA world cup?
The answer is yes! Hong Kong have hosted a FIFA FUTSAL World Cup and nearly beat Argentina in the group stage!
With sporting events around the world being cancelled or delayed, here is a look at the time, the world’s greatest show rolled into Hong Kong and left a global legacy which persists to today.
For a month in November 1992, the FIFA Futsal World Championship lit up the sporting calendar in Hong Kong as 16 teams battled it out for the crown of the best Futsal team in the world. Organized Futsal was still in its infancy and the 1992 tournament helped the game come of age and become mainstream.
Fans were treated to a carnival of football from 16th –28th November, 1992. The games were played at two main locations, namely Hong Kong Coliseum (Capacity 10,500) and Kowloon Park Sports Center (Capacity 500). The two venues saw 40 action-packed games, 307 goals and more than 50,000 fans coming to watch. Yes, the Coliseum saw gladiators do battle in-front of fervent and expectant fans.
The tournament served up goals, classic kits, high attendances, dodgy haircuts, bushy moustaches, very ‘short’ shorts, new stars and laid the foundation for the further development of the game in certain nations. A carnival of football had arrived on Hong Kong’s shores.
Hong Kong qualified as hosts and the other nations came through various regional qualifying competitions: CONCACAF Qualification (United States, Costa Rica), AFC (Iran, China), CONMEBOL (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay), Oceania (Australia) and UEFA (Spain, Poland, Italy, Russia, Netherlands, Belgium). Nigeria qualified as no other team from the African continent entered.
1992 was still an innocent time in football and years away from mega-money deals; the 1992 tournament players were an egalitarian mix of students, amateurs with proper jobs, professionals, national team members and people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and could make it to training. Whatever happened, great memories would be created.
The 1992 European championships were not the only competition Yugoslavia were denied entry as they qualified for the Hong Kong tournament but also could not take part. Belgium were the last-minute replacements and, almost like Denmark in the 1992 European championships, punched above their weight despite scrambling a team together.
When the dust settled, Brazil emerged as champions after defeating the United States 4-1 in close final at the Coliseum. Iran and Spain finished third and fourth respectively. In the nineties, Brazil were still truly dominant in global football and a Futsal win added to their reputation. Spain were the international ‘Sleeping Giants’ while the United States and Iran were beginning to their mark on the global game.
The Format – 16 into 8 into 4 into Winners!
The format was four groups of four and the top two from each group would qualify for another two second-round groups. The top two of these groups would qualify for the semi-finals. Thus, in the latter stages, Iran, United States, Spain and Brazil were the last four teams standing.
The referees were from all around the world as well as the organizing committee. The competition was sponsored by Snickers and given the blessing to start by then FIFA head, the late Dr. Joao Havelange, the late Dr. Gyorgy Szepesi (Chairman of the 5 aside committee and famous journalist) and Theo Landers of the sponsors.
The Story of the Group Stages:
GROUP A (Argentina, Poland, Nigeria, Hong Kong)
“A Legend Coaches Hong Kong” and “Do you Fancy a Game of Five Aside?”
Hong Kong football wanted to make a decent impression as the home team. Hong Kong were ambitious and hired Victor Hermans, a well known Dutch Futsal player who had moved into coaching, to be their manager. Hermans was the 1989 player of the tournament held in the Netherlands so came with the right credentials and energy.
Video: Opening Ceremony (from 17 Seconds), HK Vs Poland (1 Min 56 Secs ) Vs Argentina (3 Mins 20 Seconds), Vs Nigeria (4 Mins 50 Seconds).
Herman was given a three-month contract and made an immediate impact. Hong Kong, despite not qualifying from their group, managed to defeat Nigeria and pushed both Argentina and Poland very close. Tellingly, the Hong Kong squad only met up properly two weeks before the tournament started due to domestic club’s requests. Hong Kong’s first official five-a-side game was a baptism of fire in a friendly against the USA (lost 6-0) on November 13th, 1992.
Poland were full of amateurs from their regional tournaments who performed admirably to secure second place behind Argentina in the group.
Nigeria were also beginners to the five aside game and decided to ask their full national team players who were interested in playing in Hong Kong; the team were selected from there. There were no other opponents in African qualifying so Nigeria qualified automatically; the Nigeria team played no friendlies at all so their first official five-a-side game was on November 16th against Argentina!
In a sense, the Hong Kong and Nigerian team were probably the only ‘professionals’ in the group. The Nigerians were experienced in the sense that five of the squad (Obi Christian, Okpara Williams, Ikhidero Tunde Charity, Bawa Abdulahi Michael Onyemechara) and the coach, Olatunde Disu, had in some degree, taken part in the previous FIFA World Youth Cups (USSR 1985, Chile 1987 and Saudi Arabia 1989). These tournament experiences would prove to be vital as Nigeria eventually won the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics after defeating the hoodoo team, Argentina, in the final.
Video Above: Nigeria win Olympic Gold in 1996.
The team from Argentina placed aside fierce rivalries as the team was made up of amateurs still connected to professional teams such as River Plate, Newell’s Old Boys and Boca Juniors.
The Argentina team, were coached by Vincente De Luise, had three players (Alberto Carfagna, Juan Avalos, Gabriel Valrin) who had experience from the 1989 tournament.
Hong Kong fared well and after losing to Poland (2-4 with goals from Au Wai Lun – Video above: From 1 Minute 56 Seconds). Hong Kong had to defeat Argentina in the ‘Coliseum’ (Video above – From 3 Minutes 20 Seconds onwards) and there was hope after Leslie Santos gave Hong Kong the lead. Fabio Gimenez pulled a goal back while Juan Avalos broke home supporters hearts with his winner. Hong Kong were out of their own world cup.
After this disappointment, Hong Kong bounced back to defeat Nigeria 4-1 (Video above: 4 minutes 50 Seconds onwards) with goals from Leslie Santos, Au Wai Lun and two from Chan Fat Chi.
Hong Kong’s only World Cup was over; at least they could say they won a home game and secured three points. Argentina won the group and Poland finished second with four points.
Vic Herman’s stint in Hong Kong was over, though his subsequent career has helped shape the landscape of football globally as a respected coach. In Asia, he has coached Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran and Thailand. With Thailand, he led the Futsal team to four consecutive AFF titles (2012 to 2016) and a SEA Games gold medal. With Iran, he led the men’s team to the AFC Asian Futsal Championship in 2001.
GROUP B (Iran, Netherlands, Italy, Paraguay)
“The AFC Springs a Surprise”
Iran were probably the biggest surprise in 1992 as they had no full five aside experience though many of their amateurs had experience with smaller pitches and goals.
The Dutch were favourites for the group as they were runners-up in 1989 and had a strong Futsal tradition with up to 250,000 registered five aside football players at the time.
Italy was made up of amateurs who were officially connected with the National Association.
The Netherlands defeated Iran 2-1 though Paraguay sprung a surprise and Iran subsequently topped the group.
Paraguay was made up of members of their national team whom were deemed to be able to adapt to quicker five aside game.
Long ball passing would be pointless in certain circumstances. In the end, Iran and the Netherlands went to the next round group.
GROUP C (Brazil, Belgium Australia, Costa Rica)
“Next Goal Wins on the Concrete of Hong Kong” and “Belgium Join the Party in the Last Minute”
Brazil were the 1989 Futsal champions and was full of players who played in domestic five aside tournaments and were favourites. Under the watchful eye of a coach, Taco Araújo, they won their group at a canter scoring a whopping 21 goals.
At the time, Australia had begun their five aside journey from 1985 as they took part in two pacific championships and two FIFUSA tournaments. They made it to Hong Kong and the bulk of the team was made up of players from the clubs: Sydney Swans, Melbourne Buffalo and Sydney Commodore.
Belgium qualified last minute as they replaced the former Yugoslavia, who pulled out, due to political unrest.
The Belgium team was made up of amateurs who no doubt were delighted to be able to take part in Hong Kong at the last minute.
Fresh from Italia 1990, Costa Rica, under the watchful eye of Jose Alberto Cubero, selected the best from their 5 aside leagues and brought in 2 full national team players. Stories abound of the ultra-professional Costa Ricans, intensifying their preparations by playing random games on the many concrete fields dotted around Hong Kong, against anyone who fancied a game in the ‘next goal wins’ sense.
GROUP D (United States, China, Russia, Spain)
“Global Giants Meet”
In another hotly contested group, Spain pipped the USA to top position. Spain were in a strong position at the time, they had 150,000 five aside registered players playing for 5000 teams to select from. Spain would win the group and the USA clinched second place.
Russia’s players were sourced from 12 teams from their then five aside league with dominant side, Kina, supplying the most. Russia finished third in the group and despite the late Konstantin Eremenko scoring a whopping 15 goals in 3 matches, the rampant Russians went out. Russia’s time would come and eventually, they finished third in the 1996 edition and won the UEFA Futsal tournament in 1999.
China were coached by Qi Wusheng, who had a successful playing career with Liaoning and who finished third in the 1976 Asian Cup with the China team.
The 1992 team were made up of Dalian players, more used the eleven aside game, of which one (Wang Jun) had played in the Seoul 1988 Olympics.
Tellingly, 1992 was the first time China’s men’s team had qualified for any FIFA World Cup tournament (the Women’s team hosted the world cup in 1991 in Guangdong) and they would eventually reach the World Cup finals in Japan / South Korea 2002 and soon the Chinese Super League would be created. The Women’s team were 1999 finalists and have won the Asian Cup eight times.
The United States team was led by coach John Kowalski. Indoor soccer was a popular sport in the United States due to Major Indoor Soccer League. The United States team had borrowed from other sports and had adapted high pressing tactics that closed down space and ‘line changes’ which saw quick formation and players adapting quickly. The tactics would reap huge rewards for them in the tournament.
The US squad were the oldest on average and drawn from teams such as the Dallas Sidekicks, Cleveland Crunch, Brooklyn Italians, Wichita Wings, Colorado Foxes and Milwaukee Wave.
The team had players such as Hernan Borja who represented the US in the Olympics in 1984 and had played with the legendary New York Cosmos from the original North American Soccer League (NASL) while Mike Windischmann had captained the US team at Italia 1990.
Group E (Brazil, Netherlands, United States, Argentina)
In this grouping, Brazil swept aside the Netherlands and Argentina and tellingly, struggled to defeat the United States and drew 2-2 as the latter used an innovative high pressing game which meant Brazil could not use all the space that their previous opponents allowed them. Brazil won the group, the United States took second place after defeating Argentina.
Group F (Iran, Spain, Belgium, Poland)
Iran clearly took an instant liking to five aside football as they won all their second-round group games and topped the group. Iran’s goals mainly came from Saeid Rajabi Shirazi who eventually notched up 17 goals overall and won the golden boot.
Spain pipped Belgium to second place after a 7-3 win over surprise package Poland who had defied their own expectations and could go home happy.
November 27th, 1992, Hong Kong – The USA Meets Iran for the First Time in Sporting History
The USA and Iran actually first met in a sporting competitive sense in Hong Kong in the Semi-finals on November 27th, 1992.
The skillful Iranians had belied all expectations and were one step away from the final. The US tactics of constant forward pressure subdued the forward movements of the Iranians; the US also made sure their possession always counted and scored 4 decisive goals. Iran were out and the USA made the final. The two team’ destinies would intertwine six years later in a historical game in France.
The talented Spanish team also ran out of steam and Brazil rolled into the final with a convincing 4-1 win.
The two would eventually meet in the 1996 final with Brazil again winning.
The finals were played at a packed Hong Kong Coliseum and the 10,000 + fans were treated to a goal feast.
Sabino Farina Cespedes from Paraguay was the referee for the final while Kenneth Wallace of Australia officiated the third-place play-off. Iran and Spain, two of the most entertaining teams, went on a fifteen goal feast with Iran winning 9 to 6 to clinch third place.
Brazil had to alter their ‘Samba’ style to take on the US’s tactics. The US, who were missing two key players in Terry Woodberry (eye injury) and Dale Ervine (two yellow cards in previous rounds) so US coach, John Kowalski, unfortunately, had to reshuffle his team before the final.
The Brazilians won the final 4-1 with a decisive early goal from Jorginho was matched by a US goal from Chico Borja. The Brazilians took the lead again with a goal from Jorginho and the decisive blows were delivered by Vander and Tobias and the game ended 4-1. The Brazilians had scored 44 goals and only conceded 7 in the whole tournament.
Brazil were Futsal World Champions and Hong Kong bore witness to this moment of history. The full Brazil team had not won the world cup since 1970 and two years later, in the USA, Brazil were crowned world champions in the Rose Bowl.
1992 Legacy and Awards
Despite winning the tournament, Brazil did not supply the top scorers as Iran’s Rajabi Shirazi (Iran) topped the charts with 16 goals followed by the late Konstantin Eremenko (Russia) with 15 and Alvaro (Spain) with 11 goals respectfully.
Silver boot winner, Eremenko, burst onto the scene in Hong Kong in 1992 with his natural flair. The Russian team eventually won the 1999 UEFA Futsal Championship against Spain with Eremenko scoring the winning penalty. Ermenko tragically passed away in 2010 due to a heart attack, though he is still seen as probably the greatest Futsal player ever.
Video Above: The late Konstantin Eremenko (Russia)
The United States also won the fair play award and the best teams supplied the bulk of the “All Star” team seen below.
Subsequently, Hong Kong have not qualified for any Futsal World cup tournaments though have competed in AFC Futsal competitions with limited success. Given Hong Kong’s many small concrete five aside pitches, Hong Kong should in theory be much better than their current status in the game.
When the 1992 tournament began, Iran barely knew what Futsal was in a competitive sense and yet finished third. Iran’s best position in a Futsal World Cup was in Hong Kong, but their men’s team have been Asian Champions 12 times since then and their women’s team twice (2007 and 2012). The 1992 Hong Kong coach, Vic Hermans lead Iran in 2001 to their Asian title. Spain’s Futsal teams were eventually World Champions in 2000 and 2004.
Video Above: Iran are now standard bearers for Futsal
Global Legacy: Semi-Finalists Iran, USA + Spain Climb Greater Heights
Spain reached the semi-finals of the 1992 Futsal tournament and yet for a nation with such a rich football history, at that time, they were seen as a misfiring team who never fulfilled their potential and this was seen in subsequent full world cups (1994, 1998, 2002, 2006) until the 2010 edition in South Africa. Futsal no doubt influenced the “Tiki-Taka” passing style which Spain used to dominate football for several years.
Maybe the Hong Kong tournament was the first ‘seed’ that was planted in terms of a winning mentality for Spain as it was the Spanish Futsal team which first brought home the Futsal World Cup twice.
Video above: Spain defeat Brazil in 200o to win the Futsal World Cup
Less is known about how the Hong Kong tournament displayed the growing grassroots potential of several nations, notably, the United States and Iran whose results in 1992 clearly had positive repercussions. The former always had strong Major Indoor Soccer league tradition and revolutionised the game with their forward-thinking high pressing tactics which almost saw them win the final.
The US eventually hosted the full world cup in 1994 and Jeff Agoos, who played in Hong Kong, went onto make the United States squad in the 1998 World Cup and played in the world cup in 2002. The US Women’s team have gone onto win the World Cup four times (1991, 1999, 2015 and 2019) and four Olympic golds.
Post ‘Italia 1990’ and the Hong Kong tournament, the USA have managed to qualify for all subsequent men’s world cups (except 2018) while Iran have emerged as a true Asian footballing powerhouse and have qualified for the subsequent 1998, 2006, 2014, and 2018 world cups.
“The Mother of All Games”
Iran’s and the US’s subsequent sporting destinies came to a head-on 21 June 1998 when the two rivals faced each other in the group stage of the 1998 FIFA World Cup at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon, France.
The 1998 Iran versus USA historical match-up was described as the “Mother of all games” with huge security concerns and even people with no interest in the beautiful game tuned in for all the drama.
Video above: The Mother of All Games
Fortunately, the game past safely and without incident. The match also showed the power of sport to unite.
Iran defeated a strong United States team that featured the likes of Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Cobi Jones. The 2-1 win set off wild celebrations in Iran and across the global Iranian diaspora and sealed the status of Iran’s golden generation, players like Azizi, Daei, Mahdavavikia, Bagheri, into the history books. Ironically, Khodadad Azizi went onto play in the MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Who knows if Hong Kong will ever be able to qualify for another actual men or women World Cup finals though there was a time when Hong Kong actually hosted a FIFA World Cup finals which helped act as a launchpad for continued success for other nations.
In 1992, Hong Kong hosted the Futsal World Cup and for a few weeks, a carnival rolled into town and the tournament showed how sports can unite. When the dust settled, long-lasting memories were created and the legacy lives on.
If anyone has other photos/videos relevant to the tournament then please do feel free to share. Thank you.