Hong Kong conjured up the the right magic to knock out North Korea in spectacular fashion last night and reach their first final at a multi-sport Games.
The hosts will take on Japan tomorrow after a thrilling semi-final victory before 9,400 fans at Hong Kong Stadium which was decided in a penalty shootout after the game ended in a 1-1 deadlock after 120 minutes - 90 minutes plus 30 minutes of extra time.
'It was just magic,' said Hong Kong's South Korean coach Kim Pan-gon after the penalty shootout ended 4-2 in favour of the home team. 'Tonight we made history, and, who knows, we can go on and make more on Saturday.'
Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai was the hero at the death - saving one spotkick and then virtually psyching out another opponent with his intense gaze, inducing him to blast his kick over the bar, which led his teammates lined up at the halfway line to erupt in joy.
But the hosts also have to thank central defender Chan Wai-ho for giving them the belief that victory was possible. The 1.87-metre South China player scored a crucial goal right on half-time when he rose majestically above the defence to powerfully head home a corner from Wong Chin-hung.
With their nose in front, the second half was all about defence. Hong Kong held on grimly as North Korea pressed forward, bombarding the Hong Kong goal area with long balls. With the local players wilting, it seemed only a matter of time before the Koreans drew level.
Five minutes from the end, substitute Pak Kwong-yong knocked in a header to draw level and take the game into extra time. But Hong Kong weren't to be denied their date with destiny.
'I'm so proud of my players. They did a great job,' Kim said. 'We should have closed out the game by full time, but we were struggling physically and lost our shape and organisation.'
So it was more remarkable that Hong Kong hung on in the extra 30 minutes. Somehow they stayed afloat, sensing a momentous victory if they could hold on until the shootout.
'When we began this competition, our goal was to get into the last four. We did that. Then I told the players, we could dream about reaching the final. And now we have done that,' Kim said.
'Now I want them to dream again. Anything is possible in football. Nobody knows what the result will be.' Kim, who is also coach of South China, refused to single out a player responsible for the victory, preferring to credit a team effort.
'We have good team spirit and everyone is fighting to make Hong Kong proud. They worked hard,' he said.
More hard work lies ahead as Hong Kong face the unprecedented challenge of playing in a gold medal final.
Japan booked their berth with an extra-time 2-1 victory over South Korea. A predatory strike by Kosuke Yamamoto gave Japan a 1-0 lead but that was cancelled out by a superb free kick from Kim Ho-you. Both sides missed numerous chances to wrap it up and it took a goal right in the last seconds of extra time from Kensuke Nagai for Japan to secure a narrow win.
Japan coach Akihiro Nishimura said afterward that he would prefer to meet Hong Kong in the final. He got his wish.
It will be a dream final, one which the East Asian Games organisers will salivate over.Topics: Football in Hong Kong Lunar New Year Cup