Hong Kong boss Gary White faces first real test as EAFF Championship qualifiers get underway in Taiwan
- Englishman leads side in the first competitive matches of his tenure in Hong Kong
- White’s side face North Korea, Taiwan and Mongolia in the qualifiers with one team reaching the 2019 finals
Can you remember the last time Hong Kong defeated China in an international tournament?
As new coach Gary White leads his first Hong Kong side to the EAFF Championship round two in Taiwan this weekend, his target will be straightforward: finish first at the four-team tournament so that Hong Kong advance to next year’s finals where they will meet China, South Korea and Japan for a crack at the trophy.
It was over two decades ago, in the predecessor to the EAFF Championship when it was known as the Dynasty Cup, that Hong Kong defeated “Big Brother” China.
Featuring the four top teams in the region, the Dynasty Cup was inaugurated in 1990 as an unofficial East Asian Championship with the participation of South Korea, Japan, China and North Korea. After the first the two versions, North Korea pulled out, allowing Hong Kong to join the three other regional heavyweights for the 1995 tournament. They finished third after defeating China in a penalty shoot-out in the third-place match.
With the establishing of the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) in 2002, the tournament’s name also changed to the EAFF Championship with Japan, China and South Korea occupying three permanent seats while all other members of the federation were made to compete for the remaining spot through qualifiers.
Hong Kong gained qualification twice for the 2003 and 2010 editions but finished last of the four teams on both occasions.
The third-place finish in 1995 remains the best result Hong Kong has ever achieved at the tournament.
That year, Hong Kong was made host of the event and was also allowed to field foreign players in order to strengthen its squad.
As a result, striker Dale Tempest and his Eastern teammate, Ross Greer, an attacking midfielder and goalkeeper Werner Kooistra of South China became part of the team, along with other domestic household names such as Leslie Santos, Au Wai-lun, Lee Kin-wo, Tim Bredbury and Tam Siu-wai.
However, they suffered two defeats in the group stage, losing 3-0 to Japan and 3-2 to South Korea, although they did manage a goalless draw against China.
The two teams met again in the play-off for third place and despite free broadcasting of the match on local TV, fans poured into Hong Kong Stadium to support the home side.
In front of a 27,600-strong crowd, Santos gave the home fans a perfect start when his second minute corner was miskicked into his own net by China defender Shao Ji. Li Bing, however, netted an equaliser for China before half-time. With no more goals in the remainder of the game, third place had to be decided by a penalty shoot-out.
Prolific striker Tempest, who scored more than 100 goals in his nine-year career in Hong Kong, missed the opening attempt, but fortunately, three teammates – Santos, Tam Siu-wai and Bredbury – saved the day by converting their spot-kicks.
Goalkeeper Kooistra, made a series of extraordinary saves denying the opposition three times to bring Hong Kong an empathetic win over China.
Three years later when North Korea were still missing from the tournament, Hong Kong were given another shot in the 1998 Dynasty Cup, but that time they lost all three matches. Tempest scored the only goal against hosts Japan when they suffered a 5-1 defeat while Hong Kong lost the two other matches 1-0 to South Korea and China. With only a single round robin format, Hong Kong finished last in the tournament.
At the first tournament under the name of EAFF Championship in 2003, Hong Kong also made it to the final to join the “big three” after finishing first in the qualifiers as North Korea withdrew from the qualifying event. But again, Hong Kong lost all three matches to finish last in Japan tournament.
Two years later, North Korea showed up in the qualifiers for the first time at the 2005 edition, finishing ahead of Hong Kong to reach the finals, which were won by China.
North Korea continued to outclass Hong Kong in the qualifiers at the 2008 tournament when they beat Hong Kong 1-0 in Macau. That championship was won by South Korea in Chongqing, China.
The 2010 championship qualifiers took place in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and Hong Kong prevailed over North Korea for the first time by virtue of a better goal difference. The two teams finished with a goalless draw in the southern Taiwan city after Hong Kong beat Taiwan 4-0 in the opening game while the Koreans slaughtered Guam 9-2. It came down to the final two games. North Korea managed only a 2-1 win over the hosts while Hong Kong showed no mercy to Guam, thrashing the tiny island nation 12-0 with striker Chan Siu-ki hitting the net four times and a hat-trick from Chao Pengfei.
The story did not end there. It was reported to the organisers that Hong Kong fielded a team comprised of only South China players, including coach Kim Pan-gon and they were threatened with disqualification.
Luckily, no action followed but Hong Kong again failed to impress in the finals in Tokyo as they lost all their three matches to finish last again. China won the championship with two wins and a draw against Japan.
Australia was invited to the qualifiers for the 2013 tournament and they finished top of the standings in Hong Kong. North Korea and Australia were level on points after four games, but Australia progressed with a better goal difference. Japan won the tournament and Australia finished last in the championship and never came back again.
There were four teams in the qualifiers in Taipei for the 2015 championship. Guam were led by White, now head coach of Hong Kong, and they surprisingly beat the hosts 2-1 in the opening game while Hong Kong went down to North Korea 2-1. Hong Kong then beat Taiwan 1-0 in the next game while the Pacific Islanders suffered a humiliating 5-1 loss to North Korea, who qualified for the final with a goalless draw against Taiwan in their last game. Hong Kong and Guam finished up with a goalless draw.
Hong Kong were the hosts again for the 2017 championship qualifiers, but they could not get past North Korea as they finished second. South Korea won the final in Japan.
White will be in charge of his third team in this regional tournament when he leads Hong Kong into the Taipei Municipal Stadium on Sunday. The Englishman was Taiwan head coach for one year before joining Hong Kong in September.
Guam failed to make the qualifiers after losing in the preliminary round to Mongolia. The only team White has not coached in the regional qualifiers will be North Korea.
Hong Kong has never beaten North Korea before and it will be interesting to see if White can create history and lead his new team to the finals in South Korea next year.