Lunar New Year Cup
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Peter Schmeichel (right) at the 1994 Carlsberg Cup draw with one of the chief organisers Derek Currie. Photo: Derek Currie

Lunar New Year Cup: a history of stellar sides, superstars, sporting gestures and a royal wedding

  • ‘Carlsberg Cup’ remembered for first bringing world class football to Hong Kong
  • Stars like Hristo Stoichkov, Rene Higuita, Luis Hernandez and Peter Schmeichel all played in Hong Kong
The Carlsberg Cup is often remembered fondly by local fans, a mainstay of the city’s Lunar New Year celebrations when some of football’s biggest names appeared in Hong Kong over two decades starting in 1986.

It could not have happened without the driving force behind it – Derek Currie, one of the first overseas players who came to the city in 1970 after the game turned professional in Hong Kong.

Scotsman Currie would go on to play for the Hong Kong representative team in the Asian Cup qualifiers in 1979 after securing Hong Kong citizenship.

“After retiring myself in 1982, I joined Carlsberg and eventually became its public relations manager, which encompassed sport sponsorship,” said Currie, who played for Hong Kong Rangers before moving to heavyweights Seiko where he helped the club sweep all of the major titles.

“As a player, the tournament was always something to look forward to as it was a chance to compete against some the best clubs and players in the world.

“It also held special importance for local fans and even more if their representative side – be it the league XI or the national side – managed a win or two.”

Many big names appeared in the tournament during those years including Hristo Stoichkov, the former Barcelona and Bulgaria forward; Rene Higuita, the flamboyant Colombian goalkeeper; Mexico’s Luis Hernandez; Japan’s “King Kazu” Miura, who is still playing for J2 League side Yokohama at the age of 51; and all-time great shot-stopper Peter Schmeichel of Denmark and Premier League side Manchester United.

“The first Carlsberg Cup was held in 1986 when I handed the trophy along with Victor Hui (the then Hong Kong Football Association chairman) to Paraguay and their captain, [Rogelio] Delgado. It was a triangular tournament that year, alongside Hong Kong and South Korea,” said Currie, who now spends most of his time in Bangkok.
“Several months later Paraguay went to the World Cup finals in Mexico, only to lose to England in the second round.”
Derek Currie (left), Chung Chor-wai (centre) and Dave Anderson about to head to China for Hong Kong’s Asian Cup warm-up match. Photo: P. Y. Tang

In those days, Carlsberg was synonymous with global sport and had a keen involvement with football, especially in Denmark, where the beer company is based.

The next year, they brought in club sides: Brondby from Denmark, and two club teams from China, along with the Hong Kong representative team.

The Danish side had six players who would go on to win the European Championship in 1992 after defeating a strong German side in the competition’s biggest shock.

“Brondby won the tournament and a young boy who was goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, and Jon Jensen were members of the side,” Currie said.

A left winger who scored more than 250 goals during his time in Hong Kong, Currie did not want to waste the opportunity to challenge the goalkeeper.

“I said to Peter I would like to do what no Scotsman had done by scoring a penalty against him and he said, ‘Derek you can take five and be lucky to score one.’

“The next day I took five penalties against him after practice at Happy Valley. I scored four and hit the inside of the post with the other. All the great Dane said to me was, ‘not bad’.”
Horse trainer Tony Cruz helps Derek Currie make the draw for the Carlsberg Cup in 1996. Photo: David Wong

The Carlsberg Cup was stopped for three years in the early 1990s as the HKFA replaced the beer company with another sponsor. When Carlsberg regained the rights to host in 1993, they decided to invite national sides for the tournament.

With Hong Kong Stadium in So Kon Po under construction, the tournament was moved to Kowloon where Switzerland, Denmark and Japan played along with a Hong Kong league select XI.

“A member of the crowd was prince Joachim of Denmark, who sat with his Danish pals in the stands decked out in red and white at the Mong Kok Stadium,” Currie said.

The prince, who was working for a Danish shipping company in Hong Kong, later met his wife, Hong Kong-born Alexandra Manley, at a party in the city before they were married in 1995.

That year, the tournament was moved to the new 40,000-seater Hong Kong stadium and Carlsberg brought an exciting line-up featuring Yugoslavia, South Korea, Colombia and a local league XI.

After the tournament, Currie was approached by the Yugoslavian FA president, the legendary Miljan Miljanic, who offered him a suggestion to improve the tournament.

“For a man who had coached Real Madrid from 1974-77, winning double La Liga titles and going on to be given the highest order in football, the Fifa order of merit, I was all ears,” Currie said. “He said for such a great tournament you need international referees.”

Kim Milton-Nielsen (who famously dismissed David Beckham at the 1998 Fifa World Cup) and Hugh Dallas (now on the referee selection committee for the Uefa Champions League) were among the international referees brought in.

In later years, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Egypt, Czech Republic and Norway all played at the Carlsberg Cup as the event became a global event of note.

Currie’s last Carlsberg Cup was in 2004 before he left the company. The beer company had two more years with the tournament before ending its relationship with the HKFA.

Over the years, Currie said, there had been many great memories but also some worrying ones.

In 2003, there was a match between Denmark and Iran. About a minute before half-time, Iran were in possession in their own box. A whistle was heard and an Iranian player flicked the ball into his hands and was about to walk off the field. Unfortunately, the whistle had come from someone in the crowd and the referee awarded a penalty kick.
Derek Currie (centre) presents the winners’ cheque to Lars Olsen of Brondby at the 1987 Lunar New Year Cup.

“Drama was an understatement,” Currie said. “The Iranians were so furious that they threatened to walk off the field.

“I immediately rushed down to the field trying to talk to the Danes but their coach Morten Olsen was already in discussion with captain Morten Wieghorst, who then went up to the penalty spot and hit the ball three yards wide of the goal.”

The whole stadium cheered, Currie remembered, and the good sportsmanship was rewarded by television stations around the world replaying the Danes’ sporting gesture.

“Wieghorst said to me after the game, ‘Can you imagine if I was playing for Celtic against Rangers and having to do that?’ I just laughed, mightily relieved,” Currie said.

Once the flagship event of Hong Kong football, the Lunar New Year Cup is struggling to rediscover its glory days.
Seiko striker Derek Currie holds the President-Chairman’s Cup while taking a victory parade with his teammates at Hong Kong Stadium. Photo: Chan Yuen-man

Last year, it was reduced to a one-day event competed for only by local teams – the Hong Kong representative team and a league select XI, with no sponsor interest.

This year, J1 League club Sagan Tosu, Auckland City, Shandong Luneng and a Hong Kong league XI form the line-up for the holiday tournament.

Currie has his own thoughts on the event’s sad decline.

“I think the cost factor of transporting teams to Hong Kong is the main reason why the tournament has declined in recent years,” he said.

“Hotel costs, appearance money and then the cost of hiring the stadium makes it difficult, to what was achievable in the 1990s.

“However, I do hope the Cup can work well for all concerned this year as it gets back to three overseas teams and a home team. And let me send you an early Lunar New Year greeting here – ‘Kung Hei Fat Choi’.”