Hong Kong can hold their own in Asia. That was the cry from players and officials after an own goal from Muangthong United captain Datsakorn Thonglao gifted the Hong Kong League XI victory in the third-place play-off in the Lunar New Year Cup on Wednesday.
"We have proved we can match the best teams in Asia," said Sun Hei midfielder Jose Diaz, delighted at beating a team who will play in the AFC Champions League this season.
"We wanted to show that Hong Kong football is good and we have done it. Hong Kong can get better," he added after the home team, comprising mostly expatriates and the cream of the domestic league, held on to win a contentious 1-0 victory at Hong Kong Stadium.
Coach Josep Gombau said: "This is a good result for the game in Hong Kong. To finish third in a tournament featuring the top teams in Asia is creditable. It will do a great deal of good for players and for the game here."
In the final, K-League side Busan IPark defeated newly promoted Chinese Super League team Shanghai East Asia 1-0 to be crowned champions. A left-foot shot from close range by Jose Silva Da Luz in the 35th minute was enough to seal the victory but the Koreans were indebted to goalie Lee Bun-young for pulling off several saves.
The Hong Kong Football Association had hoped at least 6,000 paying fans would turn up so that the tournament, backed by sponsors China Mobile Satellite Communications, would break even. They didn't get their wish. Only 4,079 paying fans passed through the turnstiles yesterday, leaving the aggregate number of fans on both days of the tournament around 2,000 short of the required 10,000 to break even.
Yet it was some consolation that the Hong Kong League XI won the third-place play-off, a victory that according to Gombau Diaz will be a shot in the arm for the progress of the game locally.
Hong Kong were lucky to emerge with smiles on their faces. The goal that put them 1-0 in front came from a corner early in the first half and it was a Thai head which met the ball. Under pressure from the presence of a phalanx of towering Hong Kong players, captain Datsakorn nervously glanced the header into his own net.
Then right at the end, in stoppage time with the visitors pressing, Hong Kong were even luckier as they received a reprieve from the referee, who overruled a goal. Mario Gjurovski, a feisty midfielder among the Thais, curled in a free kick from 30 yards out, which went right past stranded Hong Kong goalie Leung Hing-kit.
Muangthong's celebrations were cut short, though, by the referee, who disallowed the goal on the grounds that foul play had been spotted in the box.
It wasn't the only decision that went against the Thais. Their coach, Slavisa Jokanovic, was banned from the dugout in the first half after a lengthy altercation with the referee.
"He didn't respect me and my team and I didn't respect him," said Jokanovic. "In the heat of the moment I might have said something, and it was my mistake."