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Auth. n.197 by the Court of Milan on 25th June 2015

  • EASTERN SPORTS CLUB, THE FLOWER OF HONG KONG

    When Bobby Moore – English football legend and “Boys of ’66” captain – arrived in Hong Kong in 1981 to coach Eastern AA, he probably didn’t expect anything from this adventure. Yet, on the other side, the whole football movement in Hong Kong cherished a good memory of that time.

    You can understand it by listening to Kwok Ka-ming words, the then-manager of Hong Kong national team:

    I remember him always being on the field in a tracksuit with his players. He would wear a tie during the game but Bobby always wore tracksuit during training sessions. He was very well respected and he was a really friendly person, and very approachable. He has done so much for football. He was a good ambassador.”

    That club has changed a lot in the last 30 years: nowadays Eastern Sports Club are the first team from Hong Kong to play in the group stage of AFC Champions League. And that’s not the only feat to celebrate.

    Eastern were born in 1932, under the name of Eastern Athletic Association. Those were different times for Hong Kong: in that period, that little territory in front of South China Sea was an English colony. The British influence was then evident in Hong Kong’s history, despite China – a bulky neighbour – was always beware of its events. And that also applied to football, introduced in the 18th century.

    Football was still pivotal, despite national team and clubs followed different paths. If on the one hand Hong Kong hosted the first AFC Asian Cup in 1956 and marked one of the biggest tragedies in Chinese football (the 2-1 defeat in 1985 or “5.19 incident”), on the other the club never went too far in continental competitions: if we exclude the incredible run and the final reached by South China in the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup – a Club Winners’ Cup in Asiatic sauce – in the 1993-94 edition, there’s no much to add.

    Despite Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) anticipating the football evolution in Asia (HKFA was born in 1914 and it’s one of AFC founding members), not even the British influence was enough to rise. In AFC Champions League’s history, Hong Kong could just boast a play-off participation in its inaugural edition: in 2002-03, South China defeated 3-2 Home United FC from Singapore in a two-legged tie, before losing 8-1 on aggregate against Japan’s Shimizu S-Pulse.

    Something started to change since mid-2000s.

    Hong Kong was back under China’s sovereignty in July 1997, when Great Britain decided to cease its influence after 156 years of colonialism. Financial crisis in Asia and several cases of SARS – which caused almost 300 deaths in Hong Kong – between 90s and 2000s seemed to put Hong Kong on its knees. Instead, being a world financial centre and one of the most densely populated states kept the territory on the world map.

    HongKong1

    But to change the football’s destiny of Hong Kong, a real project was needed: Project Phoenix was born in December 2009 and officially started in 2011. An ambitious three year-plan, brought forward with the help of the local government, which put big money into it, to improve not only the sports side but also the administrative aspects of Hong Kong football. Mark Sutcliffe was appointed CEO of HKFA in 2012 to supervise the whole work.

    Despite being expensive (in June 2015 15 million of euros were added to the initial 6,5) and very discussed by the government (who is challenging its outcome), Project Phoenix is actually getting some results. Structures are improving, but most of all a new league is born: the Hong Kong Premier League, which debuted in 2014 and it’s the successor of Hong Kong First Division. It wasn’t easy and the initial raising of costs scared some clubs; but despite everything, with help from local government, 2014-15 season was the first edition of the new format.

    hong kong fans

    With new licensing and prize money schemes, as well as new measures against corruption and match-fixing, the league has expanded from the initial 9 clubs to the present 11. It’s not a coincidence that AFC awarded HKFA as “AFC Developing Member Association of the Year” of 2015 thanks to its project. And that’s not a granted result for the 167th country by total area.

    The whole project goes hand in hand with national team’s improvement. Reached by FIFATV, Sutcliffe confirmed that they aim to enter the top 100. The work done until now seems good, watching the results of Hong Kong national team in the last two-three years. On the road to 2018 FIFA World Cup, Hong Kong ended up in a group with two underdogs (Maldives and Bhutan) and as many favourites: besides Qatar, there was China, with which relationships are difficult, as shown by  the protests – or Umbrella Revolution – begun in Hong Kong between September and December 2014 because of a decision regarding proposed reforms to the local electoral system, which would have restricted the choice of Hong Kong’s leader.

    Strikes didn’t bring the hoped results, but Hong Kong took a partial vengeance in the double qualifying match against China. The team guided by South Korean Kim Pan-gon – already in Hong Kong as a player and coach of U-23 side until 2012 – first held China on a precious 0-0 draw in Shenzhen in September 2015. The same results played out two months later, when the match was played at “Mong Kok Stadium”. Also several naturalizations – from Cameroon to Brazil, throughout Nigeria and Ghana – helped the development of Hong Kong national team.

    Two precious points which left China in trouble, but most of all pushed Hong Kong to 2019 AFC Asian Cup third qualifying round. They were drawn in the same group of North Korea, Lebanon and Malaysia, and between March 2017 and March 2018 the national team has a massive chance of getting back to the final phase of the continental competition after 41 years. The same squad which rose from 169th place of FIFA Ranking in May 2015 to 140th place in November 2016.

    An exploit which, though, may not be the most surprising.

    Despite some troubles (financially speaking and looking at the attendance), the Hong Kong Premier League is actually a step forward. You can see it also from renewed visibility in AFC Cup, a competition reserved to AFC developing federations, different from the classic AFC Champions League. In recent years, clubs have been rising: their performances, added to the national team’s result, made Hong Kong climb the ladder of Asian ranking.

    In December 2016, Hong Kong leapfrogged Vietnam and Malaysia in the East of AFC Member Association Ranking: due to this result the HKFA secured one play-off spot and, most importantly, one in the group stage.

    If Kitchee were unlucky in the play-offs – defeated only on penalties by South Korean side Jeju United: it’s the third play-off defeat in the last three years for Kitchee – Eastern’s history is different. A club not even Bobby Moore, his manager in the 80s, could have thought at these levels.

    After having a great success in the 90s with Eastern Dynasty, the club fell to 3rd division twice due to financial troubles. In 2013-14, Eastern returned to first division and then triumphed in 2016, the second edition of Hong Kong Premier League.

    Eastern defeating South China 2-1 in the BOCG Hong Kong Premier League Friday at Tseugn Kwan O Sport Ground. 22APR16 SCMP Pictures (HANDOUT from Apple Daily)

    Most of all, they did it under the guidance of Chan Yuen-ting, the first female manager to coach a men’s professional football team in a top-level league. A story enriched not only by the double league-cup, but also by the fact that Chan is only 28 years-old and she was named AFC Women’s Coach of the Year award.

    Now Chan – who played as amateur and was chosen by BBC among the 100 most significative women in 2016 – hopes Hong Kong’s football keeps growing, with all due realism:

    I am not accustomed to all the attention. Maybe I can be a good example: here in Hong Kong, between men and women, there’s no discrimination. The club gave me a chance. The Champions League has the strongest teams in Asia and we’re not getting our hopes too high on our debut appearance.”

    In fact, Chan’s realism was justified. The first match of Group G saw Eastern thrashed 7-0 at the hands of Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande. However, an heavy defeat against the two-time Champions of Asia, who are looking to win back the continental crown, was to be expected, and Eastern will certainly have better chances when they’ll face South Korean Suwon and Japanese Kawasaki Frontale in the same group.

    Rephrasing Neil Armstrong, it’ll be “one small step for present times, one giant leap for the future“. Who can rule out Hong Kong from competing in 2019 AFC Asian Cup, maybe with Chan Yuen-ting leading the national team? Maybe no one.

    Cover photo ©Vincent Yu/AP
    Photo of Hong Kong ©HKEJ
    Photo of Hong Kong supporters ©The-afc.com
    Photo Eastern Sports Club ©SCMP Pictures

    Gabriele Anello

    Gabriele Anello

    Di passaporto italiano e cuore giapponese, spera in un posto al Mondiale per l'Oceania. Collaboratore di SampNews24 e caporedattore calcio di Crampi Sportivi, gestisce anche i blog Golden Goal: The Blog e #ilpiùgrandespettacolodentroilweekend.

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