It was seen as a huge milestone of the day for football in Asia, when student Mok Hing secured the foundation of South China Football Club way back in 1910. The first of its kind in the Far East, they flourished after establishing themselves as the South China Athletic Association in 1920 and have been Hong Kong’s most successful domestic team by far ever since.
This article was originally published on 26 June 2017 via China Daily (Hong Kong).
Aside from being pioneers of popularising the sport in the region, they have claimed a staggering forty-one league titles, thirty-one Senior Shield victories, and ten FA Cup wins to name just a few of their achievements during their long history. Fans would often clamber up the outer framework of Hong Kong Stadium just to get a glimpse of the famous ‘boys in red’ in action, and it is an often forgotten fact that one of the largest civil disturbances in Hong Kong was due to rioting fans after South China drew with arch-rivals Caroline Hill FC in 1982.
But now, all this seems to be a distant memory after senior officials shocked the footballing community by confirming that the club would be withdrawing from the Premier League next season – largely due to being unable to replace departing chairman Wallace Cheung to inject funds into the squad. Fans met the news with outrage and with strong criticism being levelled at elite members of the Athletic Association for being willing to discard the club’s 107 year history so frivolously. There has even been serious talk of fans rallying together to form a phoenix-style version of the club that would initially compete in the lowest league of Hong Kong football league structure.
Serbian striker Nikola Komazec, who was one of the club’s standout performers last year, also voiced his disappointment at the decision. ‘It’s one of the worst things that could have happened to Hong Kong football”, the 29-year-old said. “It’s very bad for the league. If you ask people around the world about football here, they immediately associate South China with it. It really is a massive shock, and the fans deserve more than this”. Komazec is also still unsure of his future, as the club has yet to make an official announcement on the issue. “I have one year left on my contract. South China must respect this, because I have family to consider, but nobody from the club has contacted me regarding what will happen yet. What I can say is that it has been a privilege to play for the biggest team in Hong Kong, and I always gave more than 100% for them”.
Dr. Lawrence Ho from the Education University of Hong Kong and long-time South China fan believes that there have been cracks appearing in the foundation of the club for some time, but asserts that the impact of their withdrawal will be felt more psychologically rather than tangibly. “The team hasn’t performed well since 2014, and after the resignation of (former chairman) Steven Lo, the number of fans who have actively gone to watch them play has decreased. Though this is also in part due to the unpopularity of their most recent chairman. The relatively weak academy development has not helped matters either. But interestingly, if you ask younger people about who they would pay to watch, not many will say South China. Much of what the media has reported has been from an older, middle-class viewpoint, some of whom may only occasionally attend games, but they carry a sense of nostalgia for the club. Therefore, the blow of their departure will likely be confined to more of a mental impact, but it may not be so obvious in terms of future attendance”.
Rather than declining local interest in the league, it is perhaps more plausible to suggest that the brand name of Hong Kong football will be damaged from the prospect of a top flight without one of its biggest names. Potential investors could now be even more attracted to the nearby China Super League as opposed to putting their money into teams in Hong Kong that have, as Dr. Ho puts it, ‘limited monetary and cultural benefit’.
Whatever the future holds for football in Hong Kong, there is no doubting that the loss of one of its proudest footballing institutions from its top professional league will for many be a very bitter pill to swallow.