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Can Hong Kong prosper at the East Asian Championship?

Friday 13th December 2019
The Strength hope to do more than make weight for Japan, China and hosts South Korea in the four-nation tournament.
The Strength hope to do more than make weight for Japan, China and hosts South Korea in the four-nation tournament.

News stations broadcast continued troubles in Hong Kong. Tempers flare over the prospect of the mainland government curtailing freedoms the island enjoyed for so long under British rule. The political struggle drains vibrancy from a city which for many years celebrated the joys of modern metropolitan life.

Despite the troubles, people defiantly live their lives. That includes turning up to watch the ‘national side'. More than 4,000 attended a friendly with Bahrain last month. Another 6,000 surfaced to see their side prevail 2-0 against Cambodia five days later. As it does everywhere, football offers a momentary escape.

Hong Kong’s football association is like every other, actively promoting football and the positive contributions it can make to a community. Creating civic pride, social cohesion and allowing participation are all missions the HKFA lists on its website. Winning football matches won’t end the unrest but it does offer a forum for people on either side to connect. Rioters, protesters, government officials, passers-by, players, fans are all Hong Kong for 90 minutes, providing opportunities to reflect. Hong Kong loves it’s football, having built a brand new base for its national team operations earlier this year. Now they're focussed on the East Asia Football Federation Championship in South Korea.

If you aren’t so hot on your Asian football, maybe you’re confused as to why there’s an international tournament when there's no international break. East Asia doesn't keep the same calendar as major European leagues. EAFF leagues usually run from February to December. Domestic players in the J.League, K-League and Chinese Super League, as well as all the smaller competitions, are in their closed season. Like the Euros, AFCON and Copa America, the regional championship follows hot on the heels of the completed campaigns. This year, the tournament is hosted in Busan.

Ther tournament doesn't feature Maya Yoshida, Son Heung-min or Wu Lei, all plying their trade in Europe and unavailable as this is a time where FIFA cedes priority to clubs rather than nations. The EAFF E-1 is more like the African Nations Cup, the AFCON alternative that features only players based on the continent.

Mixu Paatelainen, the former Finnish international striker manages Hong Kong.  He played for Bolton and Wolverhampton Wanderers as well as six different Scottish clubs. Now in his ninth managerial post, the Helsinki native picks the fruits laid out before him by predecessor, Gary White. The Englishman left the job to seek new pastures after already qualifying Hong Kong for the tournament.

Japan, South Korea and China automatically qualify as the top FIFA-ranked nations. The other spot in the four-team event is up for grabs via qualifiers involving Mongolia, Macau, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Taiwan, North Korea and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong entered their last qualifier against Mongolia level on points with North Korea. Starting a few hours earlier than their rivals, Paitelainen's side wanted to set the bar too high for North Korea to clear. Job done with a 5-1 thrashing. Following full-time in both games, Hong Kong qualified for the final tournament on goals scored. Nigerian-born Alex Akande’s 87th-minute goal assured qualification.

Between White's resignation and the finals, Paitelainen struggled to match the Englishman's success in World Cup qualifying for 2022. His five matches produced five points and fewer goals than the squad scored previously. While the opposition was inarguably stronger, White set out a vision the HKFA expect the Finn to continue.

James Ha, born in England, was recalled to the squad after initially failing to produce on a shining youth career, being named Hong Kong's best young player seven years ago. The Middlesbrough-born forward stuck with the Hong Kong league system despite spending time overseas, including a trial at Birmingham City. So far he’s done his bit, coming up with a goal against Cambodia and more recently scoring a brace for Southern, his Hong Kong Premier League club.

In their first match in Busan, Hong Kong fell to the hosts 2-0. As you might expect when encountering a side ranked more than a 100 places higher, the Strength ceded possession on a 4:1 ratio. Even so, they defended ferociously, ceding both goals from dead-ball situations. Matches against Japan and their political bully, China, follow. The contest against Samurai Blue takes place tomorrow at 10.30 am GMT. The encounter with Marcelo Lippi's Team Dragon is set for Wednesday at 7.15 am.

Many on both sides will see that game as a way to prove who is right off the pitch rather than an opportunity to show mutual respect. Certainly, political tensions threaten to affect the match. One hopes they don't and, if Hong Kong put forth a strong showing, the Mainland doesn't feel the need to retaliate in the streets.

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Warren Smith

Yokohama F•Marinos supporter. Seen it all in the J.League, relegation fights and being crowned champions. Play five-a-side, pretty good too. Once scored an overhead kick.

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