As Hong Kong's soccer team prepares to take on China in a World Cup qualifier, fans must remember to keep politics out of sports events
This city's sporting image has bounced between highs and lows in recent years, from acclaim for hosting equestrian events for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the annual Rugby Sevens, to the fiasco of a near-unplayable Hong Kong Stadium pitch for the Barclays Asia Trophy soccer tournament in 2013 and racial abuse of Philippine players in an international friendly at Mong Kok Stadium the same year. Incidents of poor crowd behaviour since then have done nothing to enhance the city's sporting reputation.
It is at Mong Kok Stadium that it goes on the line again tonight. The return match between Hong Kong and China in a World Cup qualifying round is a sell-out. We trust it showcases the best of Hong Kong soccer fans. They have been renowned in the past for being good-natured regardless of intense rivalry.
But recent exceptions have prompted police to deploy 1,200 officers tonight, including 600 on call in Mong Kok district. Hopefully this is not a portent. It came after world soccer's governing body, Fifa, censured the Hong Kong Football Association and fined it 5,000 Swiss francs (HK$38,600) over fan behaviour at the team's last three home qualifying games, including the throwing of a drink carton at a Qatari player.
Regrettably, it also included booing of the Chinese national anthem. Such disrespect and poor sportsmanship may be attributable to anger over a Chinese Football Association promotional poster characterising Hong Kong as a "black skin, white skin and yellow skin team", for which the CFA apologised. But it sets a political tone that does nothing to contain passions sure to be stoked during the game. A repetition also risks further sanctions, ranging from a spectator lock-out to disqualification from the competition.
This is a reminder that politics has no place in sport, which is supposed to strengthen ties that bind us. Robust partisan support for the home team need not come at the expense of a sense of decorum appropriate to the occasion and respectful of sensitivities unique to Hong Kong.