The dragon, considered to be the most powerful of all the animals in the Chinese lunar calendar’s 12-year cycle, is believed to bring about positive changes and fortunes. For Hong Kong the mythology has proven to have had some meaning, as they have soared ten places since the turn of the calendar year from 168th in January to 158th in June.
While some superstitious local fans have been pointing to the power of the Dragon, the double-digit rise can be attributed to the fine work of the team’s newly appointed Australian coach, Ernie Merrick. Taking over last December, the 59-year-old got his tenure off to a dream start with a 5-1 demolition of Chinese Taipei in a friendly in February, a result which catapulted his side five places in March’s update.
After dropping down three spots over the next two inactive months, the east Asians regained the lost ground by beating three-time Suzuki Cup champions Singapore on 1 June, with Lam Ka Wai scoring the game’s only goal. Boosted by these two consecutive victories, Hong Kong enters this Sunday's friendly against Vietnam at Mongkok Stadium seeking to complete a winning treble under their new coach who has fixed his sights on taking his new side into the top 100 within the next four or five years.
“I wanted to set that as one of our goals,” said the former Melbourne Victory boss, who established himself among the most successful managers in Australia having guided the Victory to two A-League Championship and Premiership titles. "There is a lot of work to be done but we want to move up. We have to look at qualifying in three, four or five years for Asian Cups and for Olympic Games."
Long gone are the days when Hong Kong, one of the 12 founding members of the Asian Football Confederation, played a huge part on the continental scene. They finished third in the inaugural AFC Asian Cup in 1956 as hosts, racking up two points in the process including holding eventual champions Korea Republic to a 2-2 draw. Despite the failure to qualify for the next edition, they stormed into the continental finals in 1964 and 1968 only to receive the wooden spoon on both occasions.
They made few waves on the international stage over the next three decades, with a 2-1 defeat of China during the qualifying for Mexico 1986 all but their only noteworthy result. Since the return of sovereignty to China in 1997 much has changed, with the football authorities sparing no expense to claw Hong Kong back among Asia's elite.
For the time being, this is proving to be a tall order, though there was a breakthrough at junior level when they defeated Japan on penalties to clinch gold at the 2009 East Asian Games. At club level, traditional powers Sun Hei reached the semi-finals of the 2005 AFC Cup, with South China equalling the same feat four years later. This year’s edition has seen reigning Hong Kong league champions Kitchee progress beyond the group phase, only to crash out with a 2-0 defeat to Indonesia’s Arema in the Round of 16.
A series of young talents have come up through the ranks to complement the old heads. Aside from Lam Ka Wai who has become an established star with both Kitchee and Hong Kong, Au Yeung Yiu Chung has dazzled the media and fans alike with his excellent control and goalscoring capabilities, while the captain, Chan Wai Ho is the team's most capped defender. There may still be a long way to go, but the recent achievements can surely stand the former British colony in good stead for their rebuilding campaign.