AFC Champions League 2017

Ticketing for Guangzhou v Eastern all above board, insists AFC, amid claims Hong Kong fans were banned over ‘security issues’

Some claim that authorities banned Hong Kong fans from travelling to China over security fears

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 10:30pm

The Asian Football Confederation insists it is happy there was nothing untoward about ticketing arrangements for Eastern’s AFC Champions League game against Guangzhou Evergrande on Wednesday, despite reports that fans of the Hong Kong club had effectively been “banned” by authorities in China.

Eastern fans who bought tickets from the club were told that due to “internal problems [at the club]” they could no longer go. Though the tickets cost only HK$170, Eastern said they would reimburse each fan with HK$3,000 to compensate them for potential lost money on travel and hotel bookings, an unusually charitable move that drew suspicion.

Fans speculated that an order must have come from municipal or national authorities in China not to let Hong Kong fans attend, in fear that they would use the high-profile match to make a political statement. Some mainland media reports supported the notion, citing “security issues” as the reason.

A small pocket of blue-clad Eastern “supporters” were spotted among the 38,000 in Guangzhou’s Tianhe Stadium, surrounded by police, but some reports in the Hong Kong press claimed that many were employees of Eastern’s mainland sponsor, and had little idea of why they were there.

The AFC insisted there was nothing untoward.

“The match commissioner has confirmed that there has been no breach of competition rules by either the host team or the host member association, as Guangzhou Evergrande have offered Eastern SC (Hong Kong) a ticket allocation for the AFC Champions League match and have indeed made further tickets available,” the governing body said in a statement.

Eastern did not reply to a request for comment on Friday, but insisted earlier in the week that the club was not acting on orders from above.

“I want to point out that we did not receive pressure from either Guangzhou Evergrande, or the government,” a spokesman told ESPN.com before the game, which Eastern lost 7-0.

“Our club is sorry that some reports have wrongly put the blame on Guangzhou Evergrande, however, it is not their fault.”

The explanations from the club and governing body didn’t satisfy some fans.

“What makes this whole affair so frustrating, especially from a fan perspective, is that the story just doesn’t add up,” insisted Tobias Zuser, a Hong Kong academic who runs offside.hk, a blog about Hong Kong football.

“And at the same time Eastern appears to act against their own interest.

“Although the management offered to reimburse fans with an unreasonably high amount, such behaviour – of refusing to make the reasons behind the cancellation transparent – hurts not only their own brand, but also the reputation of Hong Kong and Asian football at large.”

Hong Kong’s national team played in China in September 2015, and fans travelled across the border to Shenzhen for that game without incident amid a massive security presence.

Thousands of police and security officials were again on duty for the game in Guangzhou, many in full riot equipment.