Head coach Kim Pan-gon hailed a U-turn in his players' attitude as a spirited Hong Kong side came close to pulling off a big surprise against Australia, who are 139 positions higher in the world rankings.
Though they lost 1-0 in the second match of the East Asian Cup qualifiers at Mong Kok Stadium last night, there was plenty for the 4,000-strong crowd to cheer.
Former Blackburn Rover midfielder Brett Emerton ended HK's resistance with just five minutes left, curling the ball over goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai from the right after rounding defender Bai He inside the box.
"It was very good," said coach Kim, who used the term "no good" to describe the performance of the home team after they narrowly defeated Guam 2-1 in their opening match. "Today I am proud of all the players. They fought for the name of Hong Kong.
"They [Australia] are far above us in terms of world ranking and they are a good team. But our resistance was also strong. We have showed them our mental strength and we are not a loser any more."
Kim said Australia coach Holger Osieck might have a new-found respect for Hong Kong soccer. "Hong Kong citizens were not happy about this [media reports that he had been disrespectful] … If you don't respect, you will suffer. I hope he can learn something from this game," said Kim.
But Osieck denied he had said anything negative about the home side. "I am not aware of anything like that because I never speak negative about opponents," said the German. "In fact, I said we respected every team we play and maybe somebody misunderstood it. That's definitely not what I have said."
He paid tribute to the way Hong Kong defended.
"We had a lot of possession but it was tough to break through and we had to keep passing the ball and look for the right moment against a very tight defence. It is always difficult," he said. "Tonight we played a very difficult game. Our opponent was a well oganised team and they defended very well and squeezed the space in midfield. I have to give them credit."
In the early match, North Korea thrashed Guam 5-0, two days after they routed Taiwan 6-1 in their opening match. They now lead the five-team table with six points and a much better goal difference. Their encounter against Australia tomorrow will certainly decide the outcome of the qualifiers as only the top team will advance to the final next year.
"I don't feel any pressure because it is for points and not for goals," said Osieck. "North Korea are a strong unit and it will be a tough game."