Hong Kong Sevens

Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am

Most of you don't get to see the old girl more than once or twice a year and it's a pity, it really is, because Hong Kong Stadium deserves a second look.

It was beckoning one and all last Sunday for a festive display of footy, all in the name of giving thanks to our mainland rulers. The Reunification Cup featured three matches, two of which were largely forgettable but one which was of a surprisingly high calibre.

Yet all I could think of was how wonderful it was to be in the stadium without having to worry about some drunken fund manager in his grass skirt spilling beer on me.

Although the festive Hong Kong Sevens is undoubtedly the premier annual sporting event to be held at the criminally under-utilised stadium, it's nice to occasionally take in the stadium in all its unadorned splendour.

This is one of the most aesthetic and unforgettable urban stadiums in the world.

If you don't believe me, try sitting in the upper deck in the late afternoon and looking north towards our claustrophobic harbour and the majestic mountains that frame Kowloon. It's a hypnotic urban vista which often elicits oohs and aahs from visitors to Hong Kong. We take it for granted, they don't.

But it doesn't matter if you are watching the world championship of lawn darts, if it offers you a chance to sit in Hong Kong Stadium with a frosty beer in your mitts then do it.

How else could I explain going to the Reunification Cup?

It certainly wasn't to see the Canto-Pop all stars kick it around for an hour or so or to watch a strapping young China unit beat up on the group of geriatrics generously referred to as the Fifa 'World Stars'.

I mean if the day was supposed to be in good fun and all, then why did the China selects, the national team with a half dozen players from Hong Kong, put their strongest line-up, minus the local players, out for the entire second half?

The Fifa team were basically Japanese icon Hidetoshi Nakata, retired from active duty for a year now, and a collection of players best described as, who is that guy again? Although they were quite game and accommodating, it's clear that late cancellations by George Weah and Marcelo Salas as well as the failure to secure Chelsea's Michael Essien and venerable Brazilian striker Romario made for a lacklustre and overmatched squad.

China scored with a pair of superb strikes but other than that the only memorable thing about this game was the way that an unruly mob of Japanese fans descended on the Fifa team's bench, cam-corders and cameras in tow naturally, to record every movement by Nakata once he was pulled from the game.

And yet China's coach credited his team's intensive training programme in their preparations for the upcoming Asian Cup for their dominating 2-0 victory. A couple of days later in Hong Kong when China faced a team with a pulse, their embattled coach felt the need to mystifyingly alter the rules of the match and play three 30-minute periods instead of the normal two 45-minute sets.

Certainly China's opponents, Melbourne Victory of Australia's A League, were not happy about the rule change, particularly when no explanation was given. Speculation was rampant, however, that China's coach, Zhu Guanghu, bastardised the rules to clearly make it an exhibition because he could not risk losing a match to inferior opponents in the team's last warm-up before the Asian Cup.

Zhu has been told that he needs to at least make the semi-finals with his underachieving squad, currently ranked number 76 in the world, to save his job.

No wonder he was basking in China's 'great' victory over the Fifa no-stars. It should have been clear to one and all that China would not have beaten either Bayern Munich or Sao Paulo, who put on a crisp and enlightening display of football.

Beyond the patriotic and reunification blather surrounding the other two games, this was the only match that merited a visit to the stadium. Although the 2.30pm starting time was a bit daunting under the summer heat, it was still nice to wander into a stadium bereft of the corporate clutter that afflicts the Sevens.

Because of the ironic confluence of the democracy march in Victoria Park and the Reunification Cup in the stadium, Causeway Bay was a gridlock of sweaty flesh. The only way to get near the stadium was on foot, which made for an insatiable thirst once clear of the front gates.

The walkway around the south stands was completely open and gave off a rare cooling breeze. Within minutes I had a frosty libation, a rail to lean on and Bayern's legendary goalkeeper Oliver Kahn a mere corner kick away. What's not to like about this?

Kahn and crew were taken aback by Sao Paulo, who were fluid and relentless in the first half and rewarded by scoring the first goal. But Bayern asserted their renowned Teutonic efficiency in the second half and eventually prevailed 2-1. There was quality all over the pitch as well as a chance to watch star striker Miroslav Klose make his Bayern debut.

With Liverpool coming in a few weeks for the Barclays Asia Trophy and Barcelona to follow shortly after, opportunities abound for a visit to our scenic stadium.

But those footy patriots who have been following China's national team lately may be somewhat disoriented by the matches. Rumour has it that all the clubs have agreed to play 45-minute halves.