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Night of joy as underdogs beat cream of the mainland

Robin Parke

THE odds were stacked against the Hong Kong soccer team to such an extent in its final World Cup preliminary group qualifier against China in Beijing in 1985 that the hosts were already planning travel arrangements for the next stage.

The World Cup was to be held in Mexico the following year, with rising Asian soccer power China bidding hard for one of the two qualifying berths from the region.

Hong Kong was doing its best and, up to that May day in the chilly northern capital, it had been good enough. It had drawn with China at home 0-0 but now faced the herculean task of beating its neighbours before 80,000 partisan fans in the Workers' Stadium.

A draw would see China safely through and there was hardly a person in the vast ground, Hong Kong's small band of diehard supporters included, who did not think the mainlanders would win.

Whoever said soccer was a funny game should have been in Beijing that crisp spring night.

Against the odds, Hong Kong went ahead midway through the first half from a splendidly taken free kick from just outside the area by Cheung Chi-tak, one that still lives in the memory.

The stadium was silenced, but not for long. Half-time came but, with the resumption, China equalised and it seemed only a matter of time before it went on to win.

Hong Kong doggedly held on to the draw that would give it considerable honour but no place in the next qualifying stage. Then, out of nowhere, Hong Kong struck. A quick break after relentless Chinese pressure and suddenly Koo Kam-fai unleashed a shot which smashed into the back of the net.

There were still 20 minutes to go but the stunned Chinese national side could not come back and the game ended in a 2-1 victory for the visitors and scenes of uncontrollable joy for Hong Kong.

Those scenes were quickly erased in a hail of falling bottles, seat covers and any missile that came to hand as the majority of the 80,000 spectators in the stadium turned nasty.

I stood beside a reserve player on the touch-line as a bottle smashed on the ground centimetres away, a fragment of flying glass gashing his chin.

It took a battalion of the People's Liberation Army to escort the Hong Kong team out of the stadium and back to its hotel, with the angry fans pinned back by more armed soldiers.

It was, at that time, the worst demonstration of public disorder since 1949.

For those who were there, it was a special night to remember.