On January 26th, 2012, on a cold winter’s night at Hong Kong Stadium, Mateja Kežman, then one of the world’s most prolific strikers, bid farewell to the professional game.
The Serbian’s farewell also marked the high watermark of South China’s ambitions and sadly the start of their gradual decline to their current status in the lower leagues.
Kezman had scored goals for Partizan Belgrade, PSV Eindhoven, Chelsea, Paris Saint Germain, Atletico Madrid, Fenerbache and his national team, Serbia. At the Lunar New Year Cup 2012, in front of a crowd of 10,610, he decided to hang up his boots. It marked an end of an era for Hong Kong’s most popular team from which it has never recovered.
Kezman had been signed by South China in January 2011 to spearhead new dawn for Hong Kong’s most popular club. Despite all his efforts, Kezamn scored seven goals during his four-month stint with the Caroliners and left Hong Kong. Though he was invited back for one last game and the chance to say a proper goodbye.
Kezman addressed the crowd at the end of his final game:
“I would just like to say that I have had so many good moments in Hong Kong. I was not in Hong Kong for so long, it was just seven months but it was such a great period and I met so many nice people and I had so much positive and good energy from the people here. Thanks to Mr Lo (Steven) and his family, I am again here and I decided to complete my retirement at Hong Kong Stadium with you all and with you together. It is a pity we did not win the tournament and did not win the tournament today and it is a pity to end with that kind of penalty but that’s life. I am so happy to be here and Hong Kong will always be in my heart.”
Kezman says farewell to the Hong Kong crowd Part 1 and 2
Kezman’s retirement marked the end of the South China football club’s organisational overhaul and ambitions from the turn of the century. The J-League, K-League and Chinese Super League had already entered a new dawn of ambition, finances and professionalism; South China seemingly aimed to keep apace and for a while, their ambitions matched both on and off the field.
South China’s famous 2009 AFC Cup run to the semi-final gave a glimpse of what a Hong Kong club could achieve when all the stars aligned in terms of management, players, finances and importantly, team spirit.
Under the watch of Steven Lo, South China won the domestic treble in the 2006–07 season and won seven league titles and, importantly, South China began to leave a mark on overall Asian football. The continental results began to make people stick up and notice, and it all culminated in an incredible 2009 AFC Cup run.
However, it ended in a near miss, and it continues to haunt the club today as the former giants now languish on the edges of semi-professionalism with past glories remaining as that; fading memories and nothing more.
If South China had won the 2009 AFC Cup, it could have signalled a new dawn for the domestic game in terms of development and growth. Some of called it the greatest night for Hong Kong club football and in what can only be described as a ‘bonkers’ 2nd leg semi-final at a packed Hong Kong Stadium, South China lost 1-0, and 3-1 on aggregate.
That fateful AFC Cup semi-final was a game of many ‘what-ifs’ for South China’s strikers: what if Li Haiqiang’s goal was not ruled out for a very dubious offside and what if Leandro Carrijó had shot ‘straight’ instead of ‘down’ into the ground when a golden opportunity presented itself to him to give the home team the lead.
Video: Bonkers! The Greatest Footballing Night at HK Stadium
A knock-out goal from SC Kuwait killed off any chance for Hong Kong’s sleeping giant to win a continental trophy and the repercussions of the loss are still felt in the domestic game to this day.
The South China team which reached the AFC Cup 2009 semi-finals was made up of journeymen players like Tates Schütz and Leandro Carrijó Silva, whom continued to play for years thereafter. Winning the cup would have kept the squad together and who knows what they could have achieved as team spirit is always such an important factor to organisational success.
More importantly, a true community connection to bring fans back was missed. That historical night saw an incredible 40,000 fans packed in with many more locked out; the chance to attract more fans back to the local game was squandered.
All around the world, fans are now fed a daily ‘buffet’ of global football and smaller domestic leagues are suffering, none more so than in Hong Kong. A continental cup victory would have maybe sent the club on a different trajectory and could have attracted more sponsors and businesses towards a more viable and attractive product.
South China were one of the largest clubs in the Asia Pacific and still had the ambitions to become a super club. Maybe that 2009 squad had reached their peak though no one will really know as South China laid out an even grander vision.
The ‘Caroliners’ literally reached for the stars and signed two household names in quick succession; former Manchester United, Newcastle and England midfielder, Nicky Butt and Serbian goal poacher, Kezman.
Kezman in Hong Kong
Hong Kong fans and probably the players themselves were starstruck as two incredibly accomplished players were suddenly swapping some of football finest football cathedrals for Hong Kong’s less glamorous venues.
For all their experience, both Butt and Kezman’s time in Hong Kong was underwhelming. Though crowds did marginally increase, the ‘celebrity’ knock-on effect did not translate into on-field success. South China underwhelmed in the 2011 edition of the AFC Cup and did not even reach the knock-out stage.
An overly ambitious grand experiment was over and it ultimately set the club backwards from which it never recovered. Sports, like life, is a game of margins and near misses: the smallest diversion, challenge or obstacle can make all the difference.
South China fans may look back on the 2009 AFC cup run with a sense of nostalgia and a tinge of regret. What could have been a launchpad for even greater success in fact led to a gradual decline.
Video: Kezman’s last kick in professional football
The fallen giants are now languishing and a lifetime away from starry-eyed continental clashes while their opponents on January 26th 2012, Guangzhou R & F (now Guangzhou City FC), are now part of the Chinese Super League elite.
On a cold winter’s night at Hong Kong Stadium, Kezman’s final professional kick of a football sailed far and wide and in a way, so did all of South China’s and Hong Kong football’s dreams and ambitions.