After being admitted to a year-long exchange programme at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Irish student/sports journalist Chris Foley saw Hong Kong’s domestic football league as the perfect opportunity to immerse himself in local life while offering the football ‘fix’ that would need to be fulfilled. After taking on a role as an editor at offside.hk, Chris went on to cover numerous domestic, continental and international games throughout the country, enjoying some great moments along the way. Here is his reflection on what was a rollercoaster year…
It’s August 2016, and having not yet acclimatised to Hong Kong’s unforgiving summer climate, I am sweating buckets in the stand of this small, atmospheric stadium in East Asia. The passionate crowd are in full voice before kick-off, and people are drinking, singing, and chanting, all in a language which before now I had only heard in old martial arts movies. Before long the team comes out, and my pre-conceived notions of what the Hong Kong football team would look like are instantly dispelled as my eyes are greeted with players of African, European, and South American origin. To cap it all off, the national anthem plays, and instead of singing along, the entire crowd greets it with a chorus of boos. Yes, I had been anticipating a culture shock upon embarking on my new position at offside.hk, and within minutes of my first game in Hong Kong I knew, this was a country with a footballing culture like no other.
Coming from Ireland, with the alluring English Premier League situated right on our door step, we possess a domestic league with a small, passionate fan base, as the majority of the population prefers to watch British football then to go out and support their local team. In this sense, the league I had just been thrust into was not all that different, with geography seemingly no barrier in terms of swaying people’s choice of football allegiance. I remember entering a sports shop in Causeway Bay, which was stocked with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Real Madrid jerseys. I naively asked the store assistant, “Do you sell any Kitchee jerseys?” He looked at me with utter bemusement: “Kitchee?? I do not know what this means, sorry my English is not so good”. Indeed, I was often questioned by local friends as to why I had taken such an interest in the domestic game. They often wrote the league off to me as being of low standard and irrelevant. What has transpired has been a rollercoaster which I could not have imagined back on that summers night in Mong Kok. The Hong Kong Premier League is a league of such innate charm and distinction that to explain one’s interest in it is almost impossible to a non-follower. As a foreigner in this country, following the Hong Kong Premier League brought me to areas of HK I otherwise never would have gone to. A New Territories derby at Tai Po sports ground, a clash between BC Glory Sky and HK Sapling at Hammer Hill, or the ‘Battle of the Buses’ at Yuen Long Stadium. These aren’t exactly typical tourist destinations that visitors here tend to embark on!
But perhaps it is the league’s lack of notoriety which allows it to keep its charm. Free of the excesses of multi-billion dollar sports leagues, the HKPL offers a match day experience featuring passionate, vociferous fans who create an atmosphere far superior to what one could experience in Old Trafford, The Emirates, or beyond. And whether it was watching Fernando embark on a mazy dribble, Yapp Hung Fai plucking a ball out of the clouds, or Nikola Komazec driving the ball into the back of the net, the quality on show was far greater than popular belief would suggest.
Some of my best memories from the year are of continental competition. Kitchee edging past Hanoi FC in a dramatic finale was watched by yours truly from the nose bleed inducing heights of the Hong Kong stadium Press Area, followed up by utter bemusement on my part as I attempted to attain a quote from Alex Chu’s Cantonese post-match press conference. Later on, the visit of Guangzhou Evergrande was a particularly memorable occasion on a personal level, not only for getting the chance to meet a hero of mine in the form of the old fox Luiz Felipe Scolari. But also in witnessing the passion in the stands that night, which, save for an unsavoury incident involving the visiting fans, was a night which I will remember for the sheer noise in Mong Kok stadium that the sell-out crowd produced. To round off my season, who could have asked for a better final game than the season finale between Eastern and Kitchee. What other league in the world had such a tight title race? With both sides having so much to play for, one would have been forgiven for predicting a cagey 0-0 draw with neither side looking to concede. Alas, this is Hong Kong, and 5 goals flew in as Kitchee romped to their 2nd title in 3 seasons.
Now back in Ireland, my all too short sojourn in Hong Kong complete, I have had time to reflect on my experiences of Hong Kong football with the beauty of hindsight. One thing that I have struggled to shake off, is a sense of misunderstanding as to why Hong Kong football is in the state it is today. With football being such a popular sport in the country, and considering the wealth of resources Hong Kong enjoys in comparison with neighbouring countries, one can’t help but feel that the league, and national team, should be doing better, even with the recent improvement in results. Moving forward, as the Chinese Super League’s stock continues to rise, will the Hong Kong Premier League be able to progress in tandem? No sooner had I thought this, that I read that South China had been demoted, and BC Glory Sky ceased to exist, yet 40,000 showed up to Caroline Hill to watch Tottenham play a meaningless friendly. The mind boggles.
For now, my time with the league is over, although I will be following proceedings from afar with great interest…
To the people of Hong Kong: It’s time for you to rise up and take pride in local football in the face of adversity off the pitch. The Hong Kong national team offers the perfect platform to support Hong Kong’s unique identity on a global stage.
To the fans of the Hong Kong Premier League: As the English Premier League’s stranglehold over world football continues, you offer a beacon of hope for a league that deserves a greater status. Long may your un-wavering support continue, as you are the backbone of Hong Kong football, and deserve to be recognised as such.
And to all at offside.hk: Thanks for the memories!
Yours in Sport,