HK savour that winning feeling

Tim Maitland

Hong Kong won a World Cup qualifying match at home for the first in almost eight years last night, defeating Malaysia 2-0 at Mongkok Stadium, to also guarantee that they will finish third in their group.

After almost 20 years of non-stop decline, goals early in each half by Chu Siu-kei and Wong Chun-yue sealed victory and more importantly gave yet another sign that the game here has turned the corner.

True, there were only a couple of turnstiles open to the paying public, but as the game kicked off queues ran the length of Flower Market Road - a minor miracle.

'The last two years we've had good results, losing only one or two goals against strong teams, and now we're winning against teams of a similar level,' said captain Lee Wai-man, grinning broadly at having finally avoided the wooden spoon in his fourth attempt at World Cup qualifying.

'We can win against teams like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Now we need to look at China, Japan and South Korea. But it's step by step. The main thing is we can now win at this level.'

The fact that Hong Kong won in front of their fans was also significant. Most of the best moments since the team were reformed have happened on foreign fields. Officially the crowd was given as 2,425 although Mongkok Stadium seemed closer to half full, and the flag wavers and drummers among them created a far better atmosphere than the numbers suggest.

They were treated to an excellent fifth-minute opener. A break down the Malaysian left and in three touches - Poon Yiu-cheuk's cross, Au Wai-lun's cushioned header and Chu Siu-kei's crisp drive - Hong Kong were ahead.

The second, a 51st-minute glancing header from Wong Chun-yue - a rarity in itself - earned a bit of ribbing from teammate Lau Chi-keung. 'The goalkeeper is his friend,' Lau laughed. 'He threw it in for him.'

Old habits die hard however, and one of the worst of those could easily have cost Hong Kong victory. Two-goal leads are seen as a sign to relax in the SAR, and in a five-minute spell just after the hour Malaysia had enough chances to draw level. 'We really went down mentally,' said coach Kenny Lai Sun-cheung, whose nicknames include one that translates roughly as 'never satisfied'. 'It was like it's OK we've won already,' he lamented. 'But we were very good.'

So much so that Akmal Rizal's dismissal, a straight red card 10 minutes from the end, presumably for dissent, should be little more than a postscript.