I am proud that a team from Hong Kong is playing in the group stage of the AFC Champions League. Also let’s not forget that we almost had two teams competing, following Kitchee’s brave performance in the qualification phase.
Playing at this level marks real progress and is a stepping stone to where we want to be (one of the top countries in East Asia) but make no mistake the step up in terms of quality and intensity of football is huge. The difference between the HKPL/AFC Cup level and the AFC CL is a gulf.
This was exemplified perfectly by Eastern’s recent baptism of fire against Guangzhou Evergrande away from home. As I sat in the stand watching as the players walked out before the match, the adrenaline was flowing, I wondered what it must be like to play in front of 38,000 people and in such a hostile atmosphere. I was joyful and hopeful at the thought of a Hong Kong team competing at that level but also fearful for what could lie ahead. After all, Eastern were up against a team reputedly worth US$400m, who are serial winners of the CSL, have a World Cup winning Coach and are previous winners of the competition. David v Goliath was a much more evenly matched contest by comparison.
Almost immediately after the kickoff my fear turned to dread. Seldom have I seen a dream unravel so quickly. From where I was sat the sending off was harsh but it became apparent that it was going to be a long hard night. I was just thinking that things couldn’t get any worse when the second player was sent off for a second bookable offence. The game was effectively over and ‘damage limitation’ became the only viable game plan. Symbolically it then started raining heavily and because I wasn’t under cover I got soaked. I refused to let my mood become as black as the sky because I kept reminding myself that a team from Hong Kong was out there on the pitch competing at the highest level in Asia. I felt warm inside.
9 v 11 was never going to be easy especially when playing against better players who are on a HK$3m bonus per goal! (Ultimately the bonus pot was larger than Eastern’s budget for the whole season). I think the team did well to keep the score down to 7-0 with the goalkeeper again making some great saves, including one from the penalty spot. He was arguably the ‘man of the match’.
What impressed me most was the attitude of the coach and players in defeat. That is the true mark of quality. Their heads were held high and they vowed to use it as a learning experience.
Last night playing at home to Mong Kok against Kawasaki Frontale provided evidence of this good team spirit and also that Hong Kong clubs deserve their place in this competition. Eastern created a chance in the first 30 seconds and came out confident, positive and fast. The capacity crowd made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. This is what it’s all about! Passion, noise, intensity – I love it and so do the people of Hong Kong. Champions League football was one of my goals when I came here and collectively we have achieved it.
Eastern played well and to their credit rather than being traumatized by their experience in Guangzhou, they seemed galvanized and determined. The reality is they could have won. Granted they had a man advantage for most of the match but let’s not forget that the team from Japan have much more experience and are arguably man for man better players – for now.
What impressed me most was that immediately after the game I went to congratulate the coach on gaining the first ever point for a Hong Kong team in the Champions League. She looked at me and said ‘We should have had three’. Great attitude and it augurs well for the future.
There will be more tough nights ahead in this campaign and hopefully in future competitions too. There is truth in the old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ or to put it another way…no pain, no gain.