South China out to prove critics wrong in Asian Champions League
Team boss says the Caroliners will do HK proud despite negative sentiments about game here
When South China leave for their maiden Asian Champions League qualifiers on Tuesday, they have more than just a tournament at stake - saving the pride of Hong Kong soccer.
The Caroliners will take on Tampines Rovers of Singapore in the opening round on Sunday, with Chonburi of Thailand and China Super League side Beijing Guoan their next two hurdles before reaching the main draw of Asia's top-tier club competition.
"I feel very disappointed reading recent reports about Project Phoenix, saying it should not be continued because Hong Kong soccer is useless," said team convenor Steven Lo Kit-sing.
"I want to prove these people are wrong through our results in this tournament. This is the first time a team from Hong Kong will appear in the ACL and we are shouldering a big responsibility."
Introduced in 2011 with an annual budget of HK$20 million given to the Hong Kong Football Association, the project's first three-year period ends in October when the government decides whether it will continue.
"A project of this kind is always a long-term development and no one can expect overnight success," said Lo, who is also vice-chairman of the association.
"Take the J-League in Japan or the Stars League in Qatar. They all took time to build up their success. Hong Kong soccer is making gradual progress under the project and that's why we have South China in the ACL.
"But many people have used some extreme examples to attack our sport and this is discouraging."
To foster their ACL hopes, South China have recruited two towering strikers, Andrew Barisic and Sasa Kajkut to strengthen their fire power.
Australian Barisic, who scored two goals against Tampines in the AFC Cup group match last year, is upbeat.
"The confidence is there when you have beaten the team before and that's what I have to bring into the game," said the striker.
"They are slow to come back to defend and our transition from defence to attack must be quick, and that's the way we can open them up and score goals."