In football, Hong Kong is the big brother, not China ... and here’s why
The city is among the pioneers of the modern game in the region and paved the way for many of the top Asian countries
The echoes of national anthem booing have subsided, cross-border soccer-cum-political tensions have eased and China have sacked their national coach, Alain Perrin, because he was unable to beat, let alone score a goal against, “little brother” Hong Kong.
There’s something wrong with that opening sentence. Yes … “little brother”. Throughout the Fifa World Cup qualifiers, Hong Kong has been referred to as China’s “little brother”. Politically and historically, there’s no denying Hong Kong is subservient to the motherland. However, from a football point of view, we have been getting it wrong.
Little brother implies a John McEnroe-Patrick McEnroe-type scenario, in which older brother John wins Wimbledon three times and reaches number one in the world while younger sibling Patrick tries to follow in his footsteps, makes a good fist of it, but is never quite able to come close to matching big brother’s success.
In football, the Hong Kong v China sibling relationship is more like Venus Williams and Serena Williams. At the start it was Venus who everyone was talking about. Though Serena was the first to win a grand slam, Venus took a 4-1 major lead over her sister in the early years as pros before the younger Williams forged ahead.
Venus paved the way for Serena. That’s what big sisters do. And Hong Kong, as we will see, paved the way for China in football. That’s what true big brothers do. In terms of modern football, Hong Kong is, indeed, the big brother. Notice the word “modern”, in case ancient historians try to bring up the game of cuju that was played in Zibo more than 2,300 years ago.
Hong Kong was the first territory in East Asia to to form an official football governing body, with the Hong Kong Football Association created in 1914. The Chinese Football Association was formed in 1924, 10 years later. In any case, this body was transferred to Taipei after the civil war and the People’s Republic of China’s official football association didn’t come into existence until 1949.
Going back ever farther, one of the first competitions to be staged in Asia was Hong Kong’s Challenge Shield, in 1898. The first Hong Kong League was started in 1908, and Hong Kong was among the founding 12 members of the Asian Football Confederation, in May 1954 – the same year they joined Fifa. Hong Kong also hosted the first Asian Cup, in 1956. The first four AFC presidents were from Hong Kong. China did not join the AFC until 1974, five years before rejoining Fifa.
In addition, Hong Kong launched the first professional football league in Asia in 1968, long before China or any other Asian country. And in the ’70s and ’80s, Hong Kong pioneered the concept of signing players from Europe for the domestic league, now copied by the rest of Asia. The only thing China did before Hong Kong was become affiliated to Fifa, in 1931, at a time when there was really no benefit whatsoever in joining the world body… not that much has changed now.
Even in terms of on-field success, Hong Kong showed the way in Asia. Chinese Taipei won the 1954 and 1958 Asian Games gold medals fielding many Hong Kong players. Hong Kong’s Cheung Chi-doy became the first ethnic Chinese player to play in the top flight in England when he represented Blackpool, whom he joined in 1959. This was long before the days of Manchester City “legend” Sun Jihai.
Lawrence Yu Kam-kee, the former chairman of the HKFA, says Hong Kong led the way for Asia. “Hong Kong were the champions of Asia in the early days. We beat everyone. Not only are we big brother to China but big brother to Asia.”
This is not merely wishful thinking on Yu’s part. In his research book, Asia and the Future of Football: The role of the Asian Football Confederation, author Ben Weinberg writes: “In terms of football administration and politics … Hong Kong belonged to the pioneering regions. As one of the founding members of the AFC, Hong Kong used to host its secretariat and was represented by HKFA President Henry Fok, thereby attaining influence at regional level.”
Yu continues: “After the second world war, there were thousands of British military personnel waiting to have their medicals and be sent back to the UK. They used to play football with the local Chinese and were of a high standard. That’s why Hong Kong players were so good in those days. Hong Kong was the first place where Asians played against foreigners. Definitely, we are the big brother.”
So, as a good big brother, let’s lovingly give China football a hug and pat on its head.