Saturday Night, Sunday Mong Kok – A football adventure in Hong Kong

Doncaster Rovers fan Glen Wilson went to Hong Kong.  Silly question whether we wanted him to watch a game or three really isn’t it?

Sunday 22 January 2012

Tweet from Steve: “Are you watching any football over there? Chance to see Kezman.”

Thursday 26 January 2012

I get my chance to see Mateja Kezman. He’s live on Hong Kong’s NOW TV. His South China side have just lost their Asian Challenge Cup 3rd place play-off 3-1 on penalties to China’s Guangzhou. Kezman, having humped the deciding penalty high into the night sky and off down Caroline Hill Road, now stands on the halfway line. Wearing an ‘I Heart Hong Kong’ t-shirt, pausing to allow for Cantonese translation by a television presenter in a garish lime green jacket, and with a consoling red furry arm around him from the tournament mascot the former European Golden Boot winner duly announces his retirement from football, age 32. I’m sure he always envisaged it would end this way.

Saturday 28 January 2012
“Can I go through here to get to the football match?” I ask.

“Football match? …Football? …Hong Kong FC versus Tai Chung?”

“Yes”

“Ah yes, through reception, down corridor and turn right at the end for stadium. And can I ask you please turn your phone off before going in sir. Club rules.”

That exchange alone should illustrate how HKFC stand apart from the rest of Hong Kong football. But if further proof were needed I was talking to the doorman. By some distance the oldest club in Hong Kong, HKFC played their first Rugby match in February 1886, their first football match a month later. A Private Members Club with predominantly ‘Western’ membership HKFC has a last bastion of the Empire feel about it; as a comment on one of their YouTube videos succinctly puts it “Hong Kong FC?! Where are the Chinese players?!”

Beyond the doorman and an elaborate entrance of glass and granite HKFC’s sports complex sprawls out beside, beneath and within Happy Valley racecourse. The corridor I’m directed down goes beneath the track itself and is decked with trophy cabinets and team photos. Groups of Post-War white faces in hockey, rugby and football kits line the walls, judging me as I pass. For each sport and each sex a veneer honours board details club captains from the past sixty years in gold calligraphy. This isn’t football as I know it. We’re not in Kansas anymore. I’m not even sure I’m in Hong Kong.

Eventually I emerge into HKFC’s modest stadium. The two all-seater stands which run the length of the touchlines hold just over 2,500, but the ground’s real appeal is its location at the heart of the city. Backed by the hills of Tai Tam on one side and the skyscrapers of Wan Chai on the other, the shadows of the high rise apartments of Leighton Hill loom over the ground in the morning while the silhouettes of the Racecourse’s own grand stadia take the evening shift. For a night game such as this the lights of apartments and offices dominate the sky high above the floodlights, glowing squares stretching up beyond comprehension.

I count the crowd; 45. A minute later the girls’ hockey team who had been sat near half-way up and leave whilst three other men rise from their seats, shuffle the foam pitchside hoardings about then disappear into a maintenance cupboard causing my original figure to be revised to 25. However, throw in the Club members getting set to watch Manchester United versus Liverpool in the open-air bar at West end of the ground and the attendance is a healthier 200. Add on all those in the surrounding neighbourhood who can currently see the teams warming up and you’re looking at 140,000. Not bad for the second tier.

These teams ended last season adrift in the 1st Division relegation places; coming in to this game the league table suggests HKFC are most likely of the two to make a return. Currently third, the only side to beat them in their last eight matches is local rivals Wanchai who play their home games on the pitch behind the Main Stand; a distance of about twenty feet away. Local rivals don’t really come any more local than that. The main advantage HKFC boast over other sides at this level is this ground; few other sides in the second tier have a regular home of their own and so are allocated pitches on a game by game basis. So far Tai Chung have had five ‘home’ grounds this season, and they’ve two more to integrate themselves with before the season is out. A touch of familiarity born of three consecutive games at Ma On Shan in the New Territories appears to have benefitted them though and they arrive here off the back of an encouraging 3-2 win over Double Flower.

Both sides were already out warming up on the artificial turf as I arrived. HKFC, wearing all white, are notably bigger than their opponents and look destined to dominate corners and set-pieces… and goal-kicks… and probably the toss too. Tai Chung in comparison look alarmingly young, their number 8 seemingly barely into his teens. An electronic board on the Main Stand says its 18°C, in front of me one of the Tai Chung players is wearing under armour and gloves.

Of those in the stadium 92% are here to cheer on HKFC. Two people are here to cheer on Tai Chung; one is the girlfriend of a central midfielder. The other is me. Neutrality had been firmly in mind when I stepped off the MTR, but then Tai Chung donned a set of red and white hooped shirts and my head was duly turned like a Jane Austen character who’s just glimpsed her first epaulette and sideburn combo. What’s a Doncaster Rovers fan to do?

The referee and his assistants emerge in smart Adidas attire and a collective range of haircuts which suggests they’ve stopped off to raid the bargain bin at Tony & Guy en route. The teams don’t bother going back inside post warm-up. The substitutes clamber into the seats of the stand on either side of the field and we’re ready to go. Almost. Kick-off is delayed. Possibly owing to a slight kit clash. I have no idea. A large Hong Kong FA branded puffer jacket is summoned from the stands and floats onto the field, somewhere beneath it is an FA representative clutching a clipboard. After much shrugging and pointing and tapping of said clipboard the whistle goes for kick-off and the HKFA puffer jacket blends back into the night like a super-villain.

The home side, keeping up the feeling of Empirical nostalgia, appear to be playing 4-2-4; Tai Chung a 4-5-1 with the tall long-limbed Ling Fung Li proving an effective isolated target man. Li has already come close scoring before Tai Chung take a surprise 7th minute lead. The fantastically named Robson Augusto Ka Hei Leung stepping up to curl an excellent free kick into the corner of the net from twenty-five yards. I give a cheer. The Tai Chung substitutes seated in front of me pause from their own elation to turn as one and give me a perplexed stare.

Within three minutes HKFC are level, a lofted ball into the right channel taken on and swept home by Jason Tack. The game is, as two goals in the opening ten minutes suggests, very open. HKFC’s keenness to press from the front combined with Tai Chung’s determination to play the ball out from the back no matter what is in front of them makes for entertaining viewing for me, but not so much for the visitors’ coach who is currently having a breakdown on the touchline in front of me, his assistant translating his anguished yells and mimicking his every move with unintentional hilarity.

Up the other end, whenever the ball is within thirty yards of goal the HKFC ‘keeper emits a blood-curdling yell causing several dozen gin-slings to stain chinos in the Club Bar and noodles to be sent flying cross the dining tables of around 70,000 Happy Valley apartments. Thankfully for all concerned his first half involvement is minimal. Tai Chung’s suicidal back-line – featuring two meandering full-backs and a centre-half playing so deep he’s inadvertently created ‘the false 5’ position – continues to give HKFC opportunities and midway through the half they take advantage with two quick goals. Firstly Tack slaloms his way through the hoops before slotting home, then two minutes later a Allan Freser spots the keeper off his line to lob in the home side’s third.

Things aren’t going Tai Chung’s way. In midfield one of their players offers a hand of acknowledgement to HKFC’s Yiu Hung Lo as the two lie entangled on the turf after an innocuous challenge and promptly receives a set of studs firmly in his calf for his trouble. The Tai Chung coaching duo in front of me see the incident as clearly as I do, the assistant referee stood next to them claims, dubiously, to have seen nothing. Lo pleads innocence, avoids so much as a yellow card, and within a minute HKFC have scored again; Freser rounding the ‘keeper for his second of the game. But even at 4-1 the game is still anyone’s and just before half-time the visitors are awarded a penalty for handball. Set piece specialist Ka Hei Leung duly despatches the spot-kick for his second of the game in front of the disinterested club members on the terrace, their gaze remaining fixed on the screens as the penalty hits the net ten yards over their shoulder.

Tellingly, despite six first-half goals the largest cheer of the night comes during half-time as Manchester United equalise. The ground has been eerily quiet throughout. In close proximity to tens of thousands of people, yet beyond the low hum of traffic on the Aberdeen Expressway and Guy Mowbray’s commentary drifting out from the bar it’s just the players’ yells and the thump of boot on ball echoing into the cityscape.

For the second half I switch to the Main Stand which had hitherto served as a 1,500 seat dugout to the HKFC team. Every so often the HKFC manager spots something he dislikes. He rises from his perch four rows back, charges down the steps, and then bellows something innocuous from the sideline “Allen! More left!” After which he’ll traipse back up to his seat and explain the complexities of the tactical nous he’s just delivered to a man in a hat.

I had expected to like HKFC, their ground and resolutely amateur status appealed to me, but they possess a cynicism, characterised by Lo’s earlier unpunished stamp, which has extinguished that initial flame of intrigue. Midfielder John Casey yells “Get up!” at a player who’s clearly been caught in a challenge, only to go down screaming himself from a faint brush of hips two minutes later. Full-back Gergely Gheczy hurls himself to the turf whenever a player closes down his clearance. Goalkeeper Issey Maholo wastes time banging his boots on the post before a goal-kick. It’s an artificial pitch.

And so with all that in mind, I couldn’t help but yell “Get in!” as Tai Chung pull it back to 4-3. The pre-pubescent number 8 Cheuk Hong Chow capitalising on a defensive error and slotting the ball beyond Maholo. The goal had been coming. Tai Chung had started the second half confidently, successfully exposing the space behind home full-back Ka Ming Poon they were having joy down the left. Unfortunately they were set to experience anguish on the right; HKFC’s Egyptian winger Amro Abbas breaking down that flank before delivering a low cross which Freser sweeps in for his hat-trick.

Tai Chung are not out of it though, not whilst Li remains up front as a focal point of their attack. Twenty minutes from time Li is pole-axed by a crunching challenge from the anti-Weeble Gheczy and has to be helped from the field. Tai Chung are now out of it. They still move the ball about but with no fulcrum to work their attacks from their threat is significantly nullified, and their body language suggests they know it.

With ten minutes to go HKFC add a sixth and final goal; a cross into the box won by Frederick Schipper is poked over the line by Abbas right in front of the HKFC members who celebrate by continuing their conversations. At full-time the scoreboard is turned off before the referee has reached the third blast on his whistle, and I leave just as promptly. I bid goodnight to the Doorman and step back out into the noise and neon of Saturday night in the city

Sunday 29 January 2012

On the gates of Yuen Po Street Bird Market there’s a sign that says “No Hawking”. I don’t know the ins-and-outs of bird selling, but to me it seems unfairly discriminatory. Perhaps they’ve watched Kes and sensed the prospect of disharmony falconry brings. The Bird Market sits beneath the floodlights of the renovated Mong Kok Stadium, the newly erected scoreboard all that stands between an ill-timed clearance and a terrible songbird slaughter.

Standing beneath Yuen Po’s various ornamental cages looking along Flower Market Road the street is neatly divided in two. On the left hand side crowds of couples and women pick their way through the long stretch of flower shops and stalls, winding between crocuses and discarded carts. On the right men file in through the gates of the beautifully refurbished Mong Kok Stadium. All white render and bright seats, able to hold just under 7,000 it is a genuinely fantastic ground. Had it not retained it’s ‘stadium’ moniker I could have quite easily fallen in love, I mean which football fan wouldn’t go weak at the knees at the prospect of watching their matches from the Bird Market End at Flower Market Road from here until eternity.

The stream of men entering the stadium is steady. This is the weekend’s big game in Hong Kong. The home side Sunray Cave JC Sun Hei sit fourth in the 1st Division, three points behind their opponents, second place Kitchee the reigning Hong Kong champions. Outside the gates a girl stands distributing the nearest thing I’ve seen to a programme. I take one. It turns out to be a fan’s publication produced by supporters of Kitchee. It is a glossy four page production written solely in Cantonese. It looks much better than most of the fanzines I have produced, and arguably easier to read too.

A disinterested security steward half glances inside my bag, and I’m directed to a ticket booth. $60HK for adults is the flat fee for all top flight matches in Hong Kong. It’s just over a fiver. The stadium is all-seater; two covered stands down each touchline, with larger uncovered stands behind each goal. Its newness glows on this dull afternoon. Kitchee’s travelling ‘ultras’ have draped the end two sections of the far stand in various sky-blue hued banners. One of their number is already beating a huge Chinese drum. Their Sun Hei counterparts occupy the next blocks along, although I don’t realise this until I take a seat on the back row. Two bags of bright orange shirts are produced and scattered amongst the rows in front of me, whilst flags featuring Sun Hei’s crest (more than a slight copyright infringement on the logo for France ’98) are tied to the railings and a huge drum is hoisted onto the steps at the front. I’m a sucker for the underdog, and so I join in their beaten chant of “Sun Hei” as the teams come out.

Kitchee look the stronger side early on, their Spanish duo of Jorge and Yago combining well with Kwan Yee Lo in attack. The Kitchee ‘ultras’ appear to have used up all their imagination in their banner making; the opening ten minutes of play backed by the stubbornly monotonous drumming of their sole chant. The visitors’ determination to play out from the back looks as danger-laden as it did for Tai Chung the previous night, but fortunately for the Kitchee back-line, which includes debutant Zesh Rehman, Sun Hei forward Mamadou Barry is as ineffective as he is tall.

Talented Sun Hei midfielder Siu Wai Cheng looks good on the ball and he and the nippy Michael Chi Ho Luk help bring the hosts into the game. Playing in the hole Luk is an effective foil for Barry, or at least he would be if Barry were any good. Having clumsily missed a couple of through balls Barry moves out to the left in an effort to have more influence on the game, and he duly succeeds, by being offside twice in quick succession. With Sun Hei’s attacks floundering in the gravitational pull of Barry’s woefulness Kitchee press themselves and only a perfectly timed challenge by Cristiano Cordeiro prevents Ka Wai Lam from getting in one-on-one.

Midway through the half the opening goal arrives, and inevitably, given the nature of my last paragraph, it is scored by Barry. The Guinean brings down a high ball, holds off his man on the edge of the box, turns and fires an unstoppable half-volley into the bottom corner. The reaction from myself and the three young lads next to me is chiefly made up of laughter, suggesting I’m not the only one to deem this out of character. Barry trots alone over to the Sun Hei supporters, arm raised in acknowledgement of the waving flags and beating drum, as if the previous twenty minutes were all part of a grand plan to make Kitchee decide he wasn’t worth marking. After three seasons spent watching Leo Fortune-West the whole scenario is satisfyingly familiar.

Presumably out of embarrassment as much as disappointment at going behind Kitchee look for an immediate reply as Zicheng Liang gets onto Lo’s excellent slide-rule pass, but the flag is raised for offside before he can round the keeper. Within minutes though Kitchee are level; breaking forward quickly Jorge feeds Lam on the right and bursts onto the return ball to somehow beat the keeper at his near post with a superb angled finish. As the ball hits the net I realise that Kitchee’s fan-base far exceeds the bright blue dressed hordes to my right, as around half the 2,026 in attendance leap up and applaud.

In the following ten minutes both sides lose players through innocuous fifty-fifty challenges. Sun Hei have to go without the impressive Luk who is stretchered off, whilst Kitchee lose captain Siu Kei Chu. Whilst the latter being treated all around me goes oddly music hall. A Kitchee fan yells something. The crowd laugh. A Sun Hei fan yells something in return. The crowd laugh more. It’s like the resolute closing scene in an Ealing Comedy. The bloke in front of me is quite the comedian. Apparently. He gets light applause for his follow-up comment and duly stands and takes a bow. Sadly, by this time Chu has hobbled off and the match is back underway so I couldn’t thumb through my Cantonese phrase-book quick enough to be able to regale you with the wit of the man in Row K.

A minute before half-time Kitchee go in front, and like their first goal it comes through neat interplay on the deck. Jorge this times turn provider as he’s played into the right-channel, squaring for his compatriot Yago to turn the ball home from close range. The visitors celebrate in front of their support, now a Sky-Blue blur of waved flags and fists. Half-time, and having watched a man two rows in front shovel an odd black gelatinous substance into his face for much of the previous forty-five minutes I pass on the refreshment queue and instead take advantage of the warming temperature, moving away from the drums for a seat behind the goal Sun Hei will be attacking.

It appears a shrewd switch early in the second half as the home side look the more threatening; a low drive from Roberto Affonso Junior forcing Kitchee’s Zhenpeng Wang to save at the base of his post. Minutes later they have an even better opportunity as Barry somehow creeps unnoticed into the box despite possessing all the subtlety of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. However, rather than shoot he tries to cushion the high cross back across goal toward Jia Pan and Kitchee hoof the ball clear.

Though I’ve warmed greatly to Barry, my favourite man out on the field is by far the portly referee; jogging about with a smile on his face, but loath to take any crap. In the first half Kitchee’s Yang Huang had made a meal of a soft foul. The referee gave the free-kick, but not before he had greatly admonished Huang for exaggerating the contact. He irons out some hostility on the sideline by bringing the two managers together and making them shake hands, giving a ‘see was that so difficult?’ shrug to the pair before restarting the game. Most entertaining though is the sub-plot developing between the official and Daniel Cancela. The Kitchee full-back has continuously hurled himself to the turf throughout the game; the referee has continuously not bought it. On one occasion he makes a point of waiting for Cancela to look his way before shaking his head with a smile and jogging cheerfully onwards.

Though Sun Hei are boasting more possession they miss the creative Luk; his replacement Ayala is skilful, but sluggish with it, and several attacks break down between his fifth and sixth step-overs allowing Kitchee to break. On the hour mark substitute Quankun Lu comes close to securing victory for the visitors in memorable style; the winger making it from his own area to the opposite end of the field, hurdling three challenges and sidestepping two attempts on his life en route before ending his eighty-yard run with a ball across goal that sadly eludes both a team-mate and the bottom corner

One facet of the Hong Kong crowd which fascinates me is the tendency to take greater delight in failure than in skill. The most telling example of this comes as Liang breaks forward for Kitchee. He picks up the ball (murmur of excitement), he shrugs off a challenge with a clever side-step (small cheer), and then shanks his shot off toward the Bird Market (huge roar). It’s not the only odd nuance of spectator behaviour either. Late in the game the ball is hoofed out of play and drops squarely onto the head of middle-aged man making his way along the front of the stand. Not only does no-one in the ground laugh, but the old man himself doesn’t even flinch. He just walks resolutely onward, not even breaking stride.

Anyway, back on the field Sun Hei are stepping up their pursuit of an equaliser; Ayala nobly forgoing his usual step-over or four to rattle the post with a first-time strike from an acute angle. A set-piece is hoisted into the area and met by Barry, but his downward header is again well-saved by Wang. It’ll take more than late pressure and frantic chances to deter the referee and Cancela from their mini-drama though, this time the official not only insists Cancela get up off the turf, but also hands him the ball as he does so and makes him go and take the throw-in he’s just awarded.

With time running out Sun Hei force one last corner, goalkeeper Yu Hou trots up to add his lanky frame to the mix. It’s a good ball in. It skims the head of Hou at the near post, is met by Barry at the back post, but the forward’s header is straight at Wang. The Kitchee ‘keeper holds on. Barry turns and tears off his own shirt in frustration as the referee brings the game to a close. The Kitchee players make their way over to acknowledge their drum-banging, flag-waving, horn-toting support, the 2-1 victory has taken them back to the summit of Hong Kong’s top flight. I edge my way out the stadium. A group of elderly men study a poster pinned to the gates detailing upcoming matches. Beyond them the Flower Market continues, bird song from Yuen Po drifting down the street.

Wednesday 1 February 2012 (and onwards)

“Did you watch any football out there? What was it like?”

It was like watching football is the short answer. On the pitch sides tried to play on the floor a bit more, there was less reliance on the long ball, but as HKFC showed all leagues have their problems with diving “foreigners”. Yes the play was inevitably of a lower standard than the comparative levels in England, but refreshingly cheap as a result. Beneath the top division football is poorly supported, and clubs dropping down from the top flight are finding it increasingly hard to make their way back up, whilst all teams struggle to win the battle against the lure of watching the Premier League on TV. In the stands fans were fans; old men bemoaned and berated, younger fans tried to whip up an atmosphere that was delightfully tension free; celebration rather than derision. When new sides are formed almost annually it is presumably hard to maintain the sort of irrational grudges that form between rivals in Europe. It was football, without the self-importance. It was a relief.

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2 thoughts on “Saturday Night, Sunday Mong Kok – A football adventure in Hong Kong

  1. Having played for HKFC I’m a little disappointed in the way the club has been portrayed, as if continuing to run a highly successful multi-sport club (and the oldest in the territory) is some sort of sleight against the poor locals. Having spent a year in Hong Kong playing for HKFC I have only words of praise for the way the club is run and the calibre of the people involved in it.

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