Mission Laos: the AFC qualifiers
After their 3-1 victory in Macau, Hong Kong's under-22 football team have a new goal - to qualify for the first-ever AFC U-22 Championships in 2013.
Last Saturday, the city's up-and-coming stars won the 68th Hong Kong-Macau Interport Championship, gaining sweet revenge after a home loss in 2011.
This year, the interport provided an ideal warm-up for the local team as they prepare for the AFC Championships qualifiers which will be held in Laos over the next two weeks.
In the qualifiers, 41 teams are divided into seven groups. Hong Kong are in Group F with China, Cambodia, North Korea, Thailand and hosts Laos. The top two teams from each group will book their place in the 2013 finals.
On Monday, Young Post attended the Hong Kong squad's final training session before they board a plane for Laos. They gathered at Shek Kip Mei Park, despite heavy rain and the hoisting of the typhoon signal number 1. They were divided into two teams and played their hearts out in a practice match.
Ernie Merrick, head coach of the Hong Kong team, said that qualifying for the finals was only one of his goals.
'I want to select around four players from this squad to join the senior team in the future. I want to have quality youth players who are able to become the core of our senior squad. And this [AFC] tournament will be a test for them, and I will see who can perform well consistently,' he said.
Merrick said several midfielders, including Lau Cheuk-hin, Ngan Lok-fung and Tam Lok-hin, were 'quite close to the level of the seniors'.
'We will release the final list today (it turned out to be Tuesday) since we need to check on injuries to our players. The list should be very similar to the line-up we had for our match against Macau last Saturday.'
Young Post talked to some players who are on the final list. Lok-fung, the 19-year-old player from Kitchee, didn't feel the pressure and has a clear goal for the upcoming five matches in 11 days. 'We aim to get at least one point from each match against the three strong teams China, North Korea and Thailand, and beat the remaining two teams,' said the Form Five student from Jockey Club Ti-I College.
Lok-hin is an experienced midfielder who has played in many major tournaments. The Citizen Athletic Association player even scored a goal against Yangon United in the AFC Cup earlier this year. 'I have experience competing against South East Asian teams on their home grounds, and I think this can help me to do well in Laos,' said the Year One sociology student at City University.
Lee Ka-yiu, 20, a midfielder from Sham Shui Po, scored soon after coming on as a substitute in the second half of the match against Macau. His goal helped Hong Kong take a crucial 2-1 lead, and they went on to win the game. 'I think I was lucky [to score the goal]. I have been training with the under-22 team for more than a month and things have been quite smooth. I have good communication with my teammates and coach,' said Ka-yiu, who is a full-time athlete.
The local squad, who will leave for Laos today, play their first match against Cambodia on Saturday.
For details about the team's results in the AFC U22 Championships, visit www.hkfa.com