As the season comes to a crunch, mental strength is just as important as physical fitness.
Kitchee goalkeeper Wang Zhenpeng knows this better than most after he lost his head in last week's critical encounter with table-toppers South China. In the final minute of stoppage time, Wang swung a fist at South China's Man Pei-tak and referee Ng Chiu-kok correctly sent him off. However, what followed afterwards was a mistake - to be revealed at the end of this column - and demonstrates how easy it is for everyone, including referees, to lose focus.
At this stage in Hong Kong's soccer season, there are many similar situations to the Kitchee and South China clash where teams are desperately trying to win titles, battling for promotion or to avoid relegation. These are all potential powder kegs and match officials would do well to remain vigilant.
Now that the Kitchee-South China powder keg has detonated spectacularly, let's identify other potentially explosive matches and see whether stakeholders in the beautiful game can take steps to help minimise these volatile encounters.
With two matches to go for each of the 10 teams in Division One, just four points separate the bottom five. One relegated team will come from either Yokohama FC (HK), Wofoo Tai Po, Sun Pegasus, Citizen and Sunray Cave JC Sun Hei.
There are yet more potential fireworks in Division One because other teams will be vying for places in the end-of-season Super Cup, which pits the winners of the Senior Shield (Wofoo Tai Po) and FA Cup (to be determined) with the two best runners up in the league. Again only four points separate three teams in the running from Tuen Mun, BC Rangers and Southern. Whether Kitchee win the FA Cup or not, they are assured of their Super Cup qualification by virtue of coming second in the league.
In Division Two, Yuen Long have sealed their promotion to the top flight, which next season will consist of 12 teams. Three teams - Happy Valley, Eastern and Tai Chung - will battle it out for the other two promotion spots. Two points separate these teams, with two or three matches remaining.
Rational Ref is unsure how many teams in Division Two will be relegated. This is because there is no English version of the HKFA rules and regulations available. If two teams are relegated, this would mean Division Two next season will comprise 10 teams. If only one team goes down, then there will be 11 teams, which is the same odd number as this season.
In Division Three, the current top three of Wong Tai Sin, Kwun Tong and Lucky Mile look likely to win promotion, despite the late surge from promising youngsters Kwai Tsing. Only three or four rounds remain.
Meanwhile, four points separate the four worst teams. As teams try to avoid relegation, Rational Ref urges the HFKA to keep a close eye on suspicious shenanigans. Opponents who are on "friendly" terms with relegation-threatened clubs in the past gave certain "favours" which, depending on interpretations, could be regarded as match-fixing. Match officials see such high jinks often, particularly in the lower divisions.
Around Hong Kong's popular amateur competitions, the Yau Yee League has two more rounds left while the Legal League has about three to play.
Again, many teams find themselves facing crucial crunch matches. This is when players, coaches, fans and especially match officials must remain calm and vigilant. Some players will try to provoke their opponents, whether it is simply by trash talking and time wasting or intensify to psychological intimidation and physical aggression. Such gamesmanship may elicit negative outbursts from opponents that referees have to painstakingly manage.
This is precisely what happened to Kitchee's keeper last Sunday. With Kitchee losing 1-3, why did Wang suddenly lose it and punch an opponent? We suspect referee Ng was not in tune with what happened. The fact that he awarded a penalty kick to South China means he did not spot Man in the crowded penalty area deliberately obstruct Wang from releasing the ball upfield, which is a foul. Ng correctly sent off Wang for violent conduct, but he incorrectly awarded a penalty to South China, which merely added insult to injury. The referee should have considered what initially provoked Wang.
Over the next few weeks, match officials who take charge of critical encounters must remain alert to prevent such powder kegs from blowing up. What's more, everyone in soccer would do well to remember Rudyard Kipling's finest poem which begins with: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you."Topics: Violence in Sports Hong Kong First Division League Kitchee South China Referee Football in Hong Kong