Hong Kong soccer team's Asian Cup quest may not have been best served by decision to switch stadiums

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 2013, 7:39pm

There is nothing like a good dose of common-sense humour to put your listing ship back on an even keel, and this summer I was given a reminder by a sign on the back of a tuk-tuk in Colombo which read "win without boasting, lose without excuses".

I don't want to prepare a ready-made excuse in case Hong Kong lose to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday night in soccer's Asian Cup qualifiers, blaming the result on the fact the match was moved from Mong Kok Stadium to Hong Kong Stadium. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the players. If you are good enough, you can win anywhere, especially if it is a home fixture.

But every little bit of help must be given to our footballers as they bid to qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time since 1968. And the experts believe it would have been better to stick to the tighter pitch and more intimate surroundings at Mong Kok, rather than move to the bigger and cavernous So Kon Po venue.

The only time Hong Kong Stadium is overflowing is at the Hong Kong Sevens, or occasionally when one of the giants of European football stop over. It is highly unlikely 40,000 people will turn up screaming for Hong Kong on Tuesday night, although head coach Kim Pan-gon is hopeful at least 20,000 will be there to support his team. If so, great, but will this be the case?

If 20,000 fans turn out - or even 15,000 - then the Hong Kong Football Association's decision to move the match will be vindicated. Yet, I doubt so many people will bother, for sadly the local game has yet to fire the imagination of the public.

At the end of the day, the buck stops with the players. If you are good enough, you can win anywhere

You can't fault the HKFA's reasoning that the national stadium should be used for big games. But will this move help the team, who won their last Asian Cup match at Mong Kok, defeating Vietnam 1-0 in March?

The players like the crowded atmosphere. Forward Jaimes McKee said he could not only hear "but feel the crowd" as well. The 6,500-capacity stadium was overflowing and the fans all urged Hong Kong on. If this same number turn up on Tuesday, they will be lost inside Hong Kong Stadium.

Director of Operations at Hong Kong Football Club Tony Sealy, a veteran of the English, Portuguese and Hong Kong leagues, also said the narrow pitch at Mong Kok Stadium would help Hong Kong due to the restrictions it places on their opponents. The width is 65 metres, the bare minimum needed to meet Fifa standards.

Sealy said: "UAE are a better side technically and if they have more space and time on the ball, it will be harder to break them down."

If the players like Mong Kok's atmosphere and if the experts think the pitch will suit Hong Kong, then why move? Money is the simple answer. The HKFA believes the interest generated by the game - Hong Kong are second in the group having drawn away to Uzbekistan and beaten Vietnam - will draw the fans in.

The Vietnam game was a sell-out with a crowd of 6,639. But significantly, only a few hundred were turned away at the gates so presuming this number turns up on Tuesday, at best we could have 7,000 fans, still not enough to create a buzz at Hong Kong Stadium.

So what could happen is that for a few more dollars, we are taking away any small perceived advantage there might be for the home team playing at Mong Kok Stadium.

HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe believes our visitors from the Gulf will not be intimidated by Mong Kok and he may well be right. But should we have taken the chance with the stakes so high? Playing at home gives teams the upper hand right away, a fact proven by the Hong Kong under-16 squad who qualified for next year's age group Asian Cup in Thailand after finishing second to Australia in their group. The significant results were defeating Singapore and then holding powerhouses Australia to just two goals in defeat. These matches were played at Hong Kong Football Club, and in his blog Sutcliffe admitted that playing at home had been the difference between qualifying and not qualifying.

I hope I'm proven wrong and Hong Kong come out winners, or at least get a point. We need to take points from our remaining two home games - UAE and next month's fixture against Uzbekistan - to realise a long-held dream by playing in the 2015 Asian Cup alongside hosts Australia, Japan, South Korea and the continent's other big guns.