It may come as a surprise to many but Hong Kong boasts a long and rich association with football. The Hong Kong FA was founded way back in 1914, thus pre-dating many European nations. While the Hong Kong-based club known as South China were a constant reference point for statisticians in decades gone by, given their tally of league titles put them among the globe’s most successful clubs.
On a broader scale, Hong Kong was a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, and the small bustling territory off the coast of China PR hosted the inaugural edition of the AFC Asian Cup two years later. The national team made the last-four on that occasion, and repeated the feat eight years later.
But that was long ago, and if success in the FIFA World Cup™ is football’s ultimate aim, then Hong Kong have been found lacking. However the Class of 2016 are suddenly within touching distance of perhaps their greatest achievement. A famous win over China in 1985 - one that was famously costly for the vanquished - arguably remains the current high watermark. However, Hong Kong head to Qatar for their final Round Two group match on Thursday seeking to secure their own slice of history, by winning through to the final stage of Asian qualifying for the first time since the 1978 FIFA World Cup campaign.
*Date in Doha *
Hong Kong sit four points adrift of group-winners Qatar, and three points clear of China, though their old rivals have a match in hand. The aim for Hong Kong is clear. Hold off China, claim second spot, and potentially advance as one of the best runners-up.
“The players are working very hard to this end,” Hong Kong central defender Festus Baise told FIFA.com, about the prospects of advancing to the next stage. “We really need points against Qatar, so we can (have the opportunity) to play against teams like Korea, Japan and Iran.”
Hong Kong forward Paulo Carreira concurs with his team-mate, maintaining his side are determined to grind out a positive result. “This is a very strong Qatar side and gaining any result is going to be very difficult,” he said. “There will not be any psychological baggage for anyone of us, and it is just a matter of going all out and fighting together.”
*Carreira’s reference to ‘psychological baggage’ is telling. Under the judicious charge of respected Korea Republic coach Kim Pangon, Hong Kong are these days very much a hardened and well-drilled unit. Indeed, Hong Kong have conceded just three goals in seven games, all of which came in a 3-2 home defeat against Qatar.
“Hong Kong have worked hard for the chance (to qualify), and we have more confidence (compared to previous years),” adds Baise, who is of Ghanaian heritage. “Coach Kim has given the players more confidence. He has organised the tactics he wants and the formation he wants, and he keeps pushing the players for them to work seriously hard. After a while it was clear that everything was on the up.”
Baise, who currently plies his trade with China club Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng, gained worldwide fame in 2011 for scoring a remarkable own goal with a scorpion kick. Now he aims to be part of history for very different reasons.
“This can make a big difference to Hong Kong football. We are attempting to go to a World Cup and make history. This will give us more exposure and have people more fearful of the Hong Kong national team.”
All spheres of Hong Kong football have grown in recent years under the HKFA’s highly successful Project Phoenix. Now the national team have a rare opportunity to build upon that burgeoning base.
“We appreciate all the fans that have come to our games, especially the game against China,” says Baise when asked about the new level of local interest in football. “In all my time in Hong Kong, I have never experienced this kind of audience.”