Eastern and Hong Kong’s World Cup campaign only bright spots in otherwise forgettable season

Attendance for the concluded season suffers another dip but thank goodness for Hong Kong’s World Cup heroics and Eastern, who won their first Premier League title in more than two decades

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 8:43pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 June, 2016, 1:06am

It was a season that started with promise but in the end, apart from some bright spots in Hong Kong’s heroic World Cup campaign and Eastern winning their first championship in the top-flight in more than two decades, it was a season to forget.

My top priority has been getting a boost in self-confidence to keep coaching my team and winning more titles
Chan Yuen-ting

Case in point was during the Hong Kong Footballer of the Year awards for the concluded season. When the media was asked to vote for their main man, they had to scratch their collective head as few players deserved the accolade.

Indeed, the eventual selection of Eastern goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai illustrates the voters’ problem. The 26-year-old captain was hailed for his World Cup heroics rather than helping steer his side to their first championship in more than two decades.

It was Yapp’s acrobatic saves that repeatedly frustrated China in the two rounds of their World Cup qualifying matches – Hong Kong held China to 0-0 draws in both matches – that gave him the nod in the end.

Then we had women’s coach Chan Yuen-ting, who was awarded a Guinness World Record certificate for being the first female football coach to lead a club in the top flight (Eastern) to the Premier League title.

Her history-making feat made headlines around the world.

“My top priority has been getting a boost in self-confidence to keep coaching my team and winning more titles,” said 27-year-old Chan at the time.

Chan, who replaced outgoing Yeung Ching-kwong in December, steered Eastern to their top tier first league title since 1995. She also helped them win the Senior Shield, just a month after her appointment.

But outside Hong Kong’s World Cup squad and Eastern, there was precious little to celebrate.

A total attendance of 73,328 was recorded for all 72 league matches played by nine teams on a two-round (home and away) basis. This figure was down from the previous season when a total of 75,431 passed through the turnstiles.

The second season of top-flight soccer under the banner of the Hong Kong Premier League achieved an average attendance per match of slightly over 1,000 (1,018 to be exact) against 1,048 the previous season.

No one should be content with such a result, especially after the launch of the government’s Project Phoenix in 2011, immediately followed by the Five Year Strategic Plan from 2015 to 2020 when tens of thousands of dollars of public money were invested in hopes of revitalising the sport.

Despite the setback, Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe put on a brave face and wasn’t too disappointed with the figures, saying the average attendances had been in line with their expectations and the targets set by the government.

But he admitted attendance figures of less than 500 for several matches involving the smaller teams were disappointing.

While individual clubs need to share the responsibility of boosting attendances with the Football Association, it must be remembered small clubs survive from their own pockets – their owners in this case – with big commercial sponsors hard to come by.

But there is no doubt Hong Kong soccer has benefited with the increased support from the government, especially for the representative team’s performance during the 2018 World Cup qualifying tournament.

Although Hong Kong ultimately failed to make it to the final round of the best 12 teams in the region, they managed third place in the group stage, which was good enough to qualify them for the third round of the 2019 Asian Cup qualification.

It won’t be easy for Hong Kong to reach the finals in the United Arab Emirates in three years despite the fact there will be 12 slots out of 24 teams in the qualifiers.

But their performance in the World Cup qualifiers where they held China to two impressive goalless draws, and a perfect record over both Bhutan and Maldives have enhanced Hong Kong’s reputation.

Hong Kong also enjoyed huge support from their fans at the World Cup with all four of their home matches attended by a full house at the 6,000-plus Mong Kok Stadium.

None of the league or cup matches in the concluded season came close to that figure, with the Senior Shield final between Eastern and Southern drawing the biggest crowd of 4,557.

The World Cup qualifiers also deepened the rift between Hong Kong and the mainland, with relationship between the two turning sour after the Occupy movement of late 2014.

It all began with a controversial poster introduced by the Chinese Football Association before the start of the tournament, describing Hong Kong as a diverse team with players of different skin colours – black, yellow and white – which was, unfortunately, conceived by many of the fans as racial discrimination against the naturalised players.

As a result, disgruntled Hong Kong fans booed and jeered the China national anthem at Hong Kong’s first home match against Bhutan, and did the same in three more home games.

Pegasus also lifted two trophies, defeating Yuen Long and South China in the FA Cup and Sapling Cup finals, respectively, both after a penalty shoot-out following a draw in 120 minutes.

Yuen Long were determined to repeat their feat of 37 years ago when they last won silverware – also in the FA Cup after beating then Hong Kong powerhouses Seiko in the final.

Defending league champions Kitchee also had a season to forget, clinching only the League Cup in the domestic season. They also lost in the AFC Cup round of 16 to Bengaluru of India despite having home ground advantage at Mong Kok Stadium. They scored a consolation after beating Southern 2-0 in the play-offs for a berth in the AFC Cup competition next year.

And South China, once the almighty powerhouse of Hong Kong soccer, failed to make a dent in the domestic season, but they ended their season on a high by reaching the AFC Cup quarter-finals for the second year running.