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Football in Hong Kong

‘To add salt to the wounds the English then vandalised Chinas national drink by adding a dash of milk and made it their own. The Chinese in an act of revenge and sabotage have a policy that any request for English tea is now met by adding evaporated milk ‘


After more than a hundred years in control the British have naturally left their mark on it’s former colony of Hong Kong. Antiquated colonial buildings converted into shops are dwarfed by neon flashing steel skyscrapers of the Hong Kong metropolis while local fast food sellers ply their trade in busy streets that are named after royalty and roads of London.
Another historical link is the iconic double decker trams that shake and stutter along the roads crammed full of locals and train spotter tourist types. Out of place and out of time but fittingly along with the nostalgic Star Ferry that crosses the harbour, Hong Kong would not have the same unique impression to the thousands that flock to the charismatic island.
As highly efficient metro trains pull into the stations an announcement is made in both Chinese and English to allow passengers to disembark first and to mind the gap. Sound familiar ?
From the monocled ghosts of the past, second and third generation Anglo islanders to the newer dapper arrivals in the huge financial sector there has always been a fascination between the two vastly different cultures. Remembering that while our ancestors were lighting fires with flint the Chinese already had an established and advanced civilisation and it would be very wrong to call Hong Kong a piece of England in China, more China with a pinch of England.

The connections had a rather sinister beginning and began with Britain’s notorious obsession with tea. Partly in a bid to force China to sell the revered black stuff and to open up trade disturbingly our civilised empire builders flooded the Chinese main land with opium purposely grown in India with the intentions of creating millions of addicts. When China tried to retaliate in what was later called the opium wars, Britain sent in the Royal Navy’s iron clad battle ships against a fleet of Chinese wooden junks. The conclusion was inevitable and the British eventually took Hong Kong island and the surrounding area on a 100 year lease basis. To add salt to the wounds the English then vandalised Chinas national drink by adding a dash of milk and made it their own. The Chinese in an act of revenge and sabotage have a policy that any request for English tea is now met by adding evaporated milk.
But whilst the former imperial overlords were masters of absorbing the best of other cultures they were not so generous to the Chinese in what they later left behind a century later. Once held firmly and fondly to the bosom of Queen Victoria the milk has now soured. Three pronged plug sockets, right hand drive, custard tarts and in certain institutions the Hong Kong Chinese have inherited a redundant and impracticable class system.

Britain’s greatest gift to Hong Kong however and to the world is it’s love of sport. On Wednesday evenings like worshippers to church locals and ex pats in their droves head for Happy Valley to enjoy a night at the racing within a venue of spectacular views. Typically cricket and bowls too are played regularly throughout the island and forms another common sight from the days of empire.
Football up until now has largely taken a back seat to the more common place colonial sports but like the mainland there seems to be an increasing interest in the beautiful game.Walking around the streets it is common to spot the obvious Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United shirt worn proudly by enthusiastic Chinese supporters and tourists alike. In town crowds huddle tightly around TV sets to watch the latest Premiership showdown or the more elderly clasp tiny transistor radios to their ears like mobile phones.

Formed of four divisions and having been established in 1908 the Hong Kong Football League is the oldest league in South East Asia and was at first typically made up of teams of ex pats, the armed forces and police. Only Hong Kong’s most prestigious club South China AA had adopted a policy of only fielding Chinese players and did so successfully until the early 1980s. Gradually over time and especially since reunification in 1997 it has adapted more in line with the modern game seen else where throughout the world. Unfortunately this has also meant that historical team names have been changed regularly in line with sponsorships and clubs tactically merge to gain promotion. Frustratingly for many of the clubs supporters they can have their team name changed at the drop of a hat or even for a their club to be declared bankrupt in a free market soccer system sometimes out of control. Favouritism too once awarded to the police and army teams in being allowed not to be relegated from Division One has been extended in modern times to the aforementioned club South China AA.
Yet positively their detachment from Britain has allowed a greater participation from it’s indigenous populace and the H.K F.A have wisely put in place restrictions on the amount of foreign players clubs are allowed to play. It is also allowed complete independence from the Chinese league under China’s policy of ‘ one country, two systems ‘ adopted by the Beijing government in pre reunification times.

For such a large population contained in a small area local football games for now attract relatively small numbers. But with the main focus on main land China from European clubs it is still surprising that Hong Kong has been relatively ignored up until now. It has the infrastructure and resources to compete with the best and like Japan’s J-League with more added investment in theory could attract world class players to it’s league. But by given complete autonomy it has also meant that the H.K sides are restricted to playing a hand full of domestic clubs bordering on average ability rather than any teams of notable capability and technique that could vastly improve upon the quality of it’s league and players. This has lead in many ways for the general standards in domestic football to of suffered somewhat and to progress to a higher level a complete rethink of this position needs urgently to be looked at.

Tottenham in 2010 entered a two year partnership deal with South China and if successful have the option of extending the contract further. This will give the Hong Kong club added input into their training and youth academy while the London club have the first option of any player showing the right potential. With one eye firmly fixed on the lucrative Chinese market there is even talk of setting a joint training academy in the mainland.
Manchester United too have announced a tour of the Far East next year and there is strong possibility that the English giants will play last years Hong Kong champions Kitchee FC in a pre season friendly.

Tonight’s 2nd leg game sees two Division One sides compete in Hong Kong’s oldest knock out cup competition the Senior Shield at the neutral and recently renovated 6,664 capacity Mock Kok Stadium in Kowloon. Yocohama were officially the home side but trailed their opponents by two goals to nil from the first leg in September.
Yokohama FC as the name suggests is a Japanese corporate sponsored creation originally called Fourway AFC that merged with H.K Rangers and then confusingly called Fourway Rangers. The Japanese J-2 club have officially bought the membership of the club and thus have renamed it again. It is also proof that Hong Kong is gaining the attention of overseas clubs slowly noticing the potential the islanders could have in developing their own domestic football. Naturally Yocohama fields a sole 31 year old Japanese captain with a few experienced Serbian players thrown into the mainly Chinese squad.
Tai po FC or now Wofoo Tai po again because of sponsorship reasons are a fairly new club that have risen from the third division and now field a side consisting of Brazilians, and a few Africans on top of it’s local Chinese players.

Chinese fans are generally very well behaved compared to Europeans although there have been a very small
number of incidents over the years. On entry to the stadium the security steward looked embarrassed as he confiscated a bottle of water from an eighty year old man. As the small crowd gathered in their two sections the larger and noisier Tai Po supporters burst into song accompanied by two drummers. The repetitive chant Tai Po followed by three beats of the drum was the sole single musical accompaniment that was to last the entire 90 minutes. Refreshingly many of the fans from the new territories were wearing their own strips instead of the usual Premiership and Spanish one’s.
The smaller Yokohama contingent in contrast sat in relative silence quietly applauding their team as they entered the field of play. The main section of support sat behind a huge blue banner draped over the perimeter yet their supporters probably due to the lack of commitment on the pitch and trailing two goals from the previous leg were to remain inactive and subdued for most of the game.

Tai Po dominated the 90 minutes and it was a miracle they were unable to hit the back of the net. Yokohama did so on a number of occasions but each time frustratingly for them it was deemed off side. Both teams had to contend with the grounds astro-turf and surprisingly the match was very physical at times including the occasional and probable painful sliding tackle. The officials too were able to carry out their roles without the usual vocal criticism from the crowd and each contentious decision was begrudgingly accepted.
The standard of football was good with both sides showing high levels of technical ability no doubt aided by the small influx of foreign players.

In compliance with Hong Kong’s strict smoking laws at half time a huge waft of smoke resembling a dissipating nuclear bomb blast appeared outside the stadium as many of the nicotine addicted locals had a cigarette. Others were able to buy a beer or soft drink although there seemed to be a complete lack of any fast food apart from a selection of confectionery.
After the game both teams strangely repeated their  pre match hand shakes and received applause from the entire stadium. In a nice finale to the match completing their warm downs they approached both sets of supporters and entered into a friendly interaction with the fans, something that would never happen in the Premiership.

There is little doubt that with Premiership clubs now starting to show a greater interest in both China and Hong Kong that big changes are in store for the island. Geographically with the obvious limitations in size how far these changes will lead to Hong Kong becoming a leading power in club and international football remains to be seen. Yet their position also allows them to be a gateway to China and they have no such limitations. Either a spill over from the mainland or an injection of investment can only benefit the islanders for the long term. The future for now looks as bright as one of it’s neon illuminated skyscrapers.

Stephen Carpenter