Kuwait break hearts of Hong Kong supporters
South China may have lost the match last night - and the chance to reach the final of the Asian Football Confederation Cup - but Hong Kong soccer ended the night as the winner.
In front of a packed crowd of 37,400 passionate supporters at Hong Kong Stadium, the Caroliners were beaten 1-0 by visiting Kuwait Sports Club in the semi-final second leg - losing 3-1 on aggregate after last week's 2-1 defeat in the away leg.
Ismail al-Ajmi scored the goal that broke the hearts of the South China fans when he beat three Caroliners players on the left and fired a low drive that gave goalkeeper Zhang Chunhui little chance.
The match was marred earlier by some ugly scenes when the linesman ruled that Li Haiqiang's goal in the 64th minute was offside.
South China fans began throwing bottles onto the field and the reserve stand of Kuwait Sports Club, forcing the visitors' officials and players to run onto the pitch.
'One of our officials was hit by a soft drink bottle, but we won't lodge any complaint to the AFC as we understand the feeling of the home fans,' said Mohamad Ali, coach of Kuwait Sports Club.
'We have watched many South China match videos and they played their best match so far in the tournament.'
The domestic champions had failed at the last hurdle in their dream of becoming the first team from Hong Kong to reach the Asian Champions League; a place in the league will be awarded to the two finalists of the tournament.
However, despite the defeat, Brian Leung Hung-tak, chairman of Hong Kong Football Association, said he was confident that Hong Kong could build on the momentum brought by the zealous fans.
'The atmosphere was just wonderful when you saw thousands of fans cheer for the home side; it hasn't happened for a long time in domestic football.,' he said.
'Yes, South China lost the match and the result was disappointing, but we have gained a lot. As you can see, the fans still support Hong Kong football very much. They are willing to spend their time and money as long as our teams can achieve good results.'
At least 26,500 tickets were sold the night before the match, and another 4,000 tickets were sold yesterday morning. By 6.45pm, a red flag showing a full house was on display at the ground; not all 40,000 tickets were sold for security reasons.
The attendance was the biggest for a competitive match in Hong Kong - not including exhibition games with overseas teams. The previous record had been for a First Division title play-off between South China and Instant Dict, watched by some 31,100 fans in 1996.
Leung said he personally sold the last two tickets to a fan at the box office and it was at this time that he felt Hong Kong football still had a future. 'I was really moved,' he said. 'We have to work hard from here and I call on the clubs, government and the community to join us for the betterment of Hong Kong football.'
Kwok Ka-ming, a former Hong Kong soccer star who is now the international director of the Football Association, said many fans still supported Hong Kong soccer.
'Any domestic team who can reach the final stages of a regional tournament can bring the crowds in,' Kwok said. 'Many fans here may not be supporters of South China, but still came hoping to watch a Hong Kong side beat an overseas team.'
South China coach Kim Pan-gon admitted his charges would need to improve their skills if they wanted to play at the highest level in the region.
'Physically we are almost there, but we must improve on our skills,' the South Korean coach said. 'This cannot be done only at club level, but by starting at junior levels, too.'