Buoyant Hong Kong set sights on third place
Having trained there for the best part of a week, the Hong Kong team go into camp at the Sports Institute today to prepare for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Malaysia; a match that could guarantee the SAR a creditable third place in the four-team group.
The squad go into seclusion searching for the win that would make that result certain, or, at worst, the draw that would probably suffice. After all of the encouraging signs since Hong Kong ended their two-year hiatus 18 months ago, third place would be evidence of progress and strengthen the case for continuing to invest in the cream of the game here.
'It would be very good. We are coming up, but we can't always be happy with being good, but losing 1-0. Winning is better,' said Lee Wai-man, who has captained the team to victories over Thailand and, in the opening match of this World Cup qualifying group, Malaysia as well as a 1-0 losses to China and Japan, the latter in Saitama last December.
'I want to finish third because I've played three times in the World Cup [qualifiers] and always come last,' said the Happy Valley veteran. 'We played best in Lebanon in 1993, when we were second after the first round of matches. But after we played the rest of the matches in South Korea we still finished bottom.
'It's like the Asian Cup this time. In Uzbekistan we did well, we beat Thailand, but then in Bangkok we still managed to come last. It's always been like this; even this time. We start with a win in Malaysia, we only lose 1-0 against China, but now we've lost our last two games.'
The two defeats against Kuwait have taken some shine off the promise of February's 3-1 victory in Kuantan and the memorable night in Siu Sai Wan when the SAR made China sweat for a 1-0 win.
Since then there has been another small but significant development for the game here with a vibrant start to the season for the previously moribund Hong Kong first division.
'The league is better,' said Lee. 'This year there have been more goals. It's been more exciting. Every game has been good, except for the first one. Everyone is fitter and stronger.'
Tsang Wai-chung, co-coach along with Kenny Lai Sun-cheung, admits to being pleasantly surprised by the better conditioning of local professionals. Indeed it might be the first time in living memory that a Hong Kong national team coach hasn't complained about the clubs' training methods.
Tsang also repeats the mantra that the performance, rather than the result, is still paramount, yet concedes that capitalising on the promise of the new season does hinge, up to a point, on his charges playing to a reasonable standard.
'The national team must do well. They're the dynamic to make young players want to be national team players themselves and also to make the club bosses understand that we have good young players in Hong Kong,' Tsang said.
'But I need to see further and further. Today they did well, what about next year? What about in 10 years? We have to get better and better. At least the image is better. This is the starting point, but I worry about the next generation.
'We don't have a lot of talented young players. We have the structure now. We have the national and Olympic teams. We have the Under-17s, the Under-14s, but we want more young players training together for the future. At 15, 16, 17 they need to have 10 to 20 games of international [age-group]football so that when they get into the first division they already have good experience.'