Revitalised knockout competitions could take Hong Kong soccer to the next level
HK game needs inspirational stories and knockouts could be the answer
Soccer buffs will know the common bond between Kwai Tsing, Tai Po and Citizen in Hong Kong and Bradford City, Luton Town and Oldham Athletic in England. These teams, together with other smaller and unfashionable clubs throughout the history of the game, do the words "cup" and "upset" proud.
Last weekend, the FA Cup fourth-round ties in England produced an abundance of "cupsets," with five English Premier League giants knocked out by various "Davids".
Bigger clubs dismiss lower-ranked opponents at their peril because the passion and commitment shown by lesser opponents can easily bridge the gap in class and position. This is a marvel of the Beautiful Game.
League One outfit Oldham beat Liverpool, while another third-tier team, MK Dons, upset Queens Park Rangers. Championship sides Millwall and Leeds United beat Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur respectively. The biggest shock was Luton Town - a Conference Premier team - defeating Norwich City to become the first non-league side to knock out a top-flight club since 1989 when Sutton United beat Coventry City. It is also the biggest gap an underdog side have overcome in the EPL era; a difference of 85 places.
Cupsets also occurred in the League Cup, England's lesser version of the famous FA Cup that is open to the FA's four leagues of 92 teams.
League Two team Bradford City eliminated three EPL teams - Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa - and became the first team from the fourth tier to reach the final of this competition since Rochdale in 1962. There is a difference of 70 places between finalists Bradford and EPL side Swansea. To add to the romance of knockout tournaments, this will be Swansea's first major final in their 101-year history.
Importantly, these enthralling underdog results inspire others with the time-honoured belief that almost anything is possible, providing of course there is a sliver of hope in the first place.
In Hong Kong last Sunday, two HKFA finals - the Senior and Junior Shields - played out at Hong Kong Stadium. Notably, the winning teams have a diminished sliver of hope, or none at all.
The Senior Shield final between Wofoo Tai Po and Citizen went all the way, through extra time, to penalty shootouts with Tai Po victorious. However, the Senior Shield lost its lustre this season because the winners no longer qualify automatically for the AFC Cup, the Asian Football Confederation's version of the Europa Cup.
The winning team now enter the newly devised Super Cup, which pits the winners of the Senior Shield and FA Cup with the league's second- and third-placed teams to determine who captures one of the two AFC Cup spots reserved for Hong Kong. The league champions earn the other spot.
Critics have slammed the Super Cup for reducing the chances of smaller teams, like Tai Po, to break through to bigger competitions. Furthermore, in allowing only the 10 First Division teams to challenge for Hong Kong's major cup competitions - the Senior Shield and FA Cup - there is no inspiration or encouragement for other teams.
This is a shame because the Junior Shield showed cupsets are possible. Third-tier Kwai Tsing beat two second-tier teams - Tuen Mun FC and Eastern Salon - on the way to the final where they lost to runaway Second Division leaders Yuen Long. Yet, Yuen Long's cup success offers no opportunity to enter top-tier competitions.
Hence, the HKFA's lacklustre knockout competitions should be revitalised. Opening up the major cup competitions to all four leagues of 50 teams would be a good start, and further slivers of hope could be instilled if additional teams were invited from other amateur leagues that exclude players concurrently registered with HKFA teams.
In Australia, the football federation acknowledges the excitement of knockout tournaments and has introduced the first-ever FFA Cup. This means top-tier state teams can hope to compete against A-League teams. Hong Kong could follow similar suit, particularly since Project Phoenix, the blueprint to revitalise Hong Kong soccer, could do with some magic to help rouse local passions.
Match officials love knockout competitions, too, mainly because there is an edge to cup ties. The focused nature of knockouts helps keep match officials alert and well prepared so that, just as players aspire to reach cup finals, match officials aim to win the chance to officiate cup finals. It is noteworthy there were no controversial refereeing decisions in recent cup games.
Being a match official is also about appreciating the passion, commitment and development of smaller teams and up-and-coming players. Kwai Tsing, for example, reminds Rational Ref of the young and exciting Sham Shui Po team a few years ago that won successive promotions to play in the top flight last season. Hong Kong soccer needs more inspirational stories and the magic of cup games, like lesser teams, should never be underestimated.