AFC Cup success masks Hong Kong’s problems

Kitchee recorded a memorable victory in the AFC Cup on Tuesday, but behind the scenes football in Hong Kong is at a cross-roads.

Kitchee overtook Kaya F.C. as Group F leaders in the AFC Cup after a 1-0 win in Manila on Tuesday.

In a hard-fought encounter, played in 40-degree heat, teenage substitute Harima Hirokane bundled home the winner with five minutes left on the clock.

“I talked to my roommate before the match saying I would score. I am so happy it came true,” Hirokane said afterwards.

Having put the Hong Kong side on the cusp of the knock-outs, the 18-year-old is looking to capitalise on his super-sub appearance; “I hope this is just the beginning and there will be more chances for me in the future, especially in domestic competitions.”

While young guns are taking all the headlines in Europe – the exploits of Marcus Rashford and Dele Alli lighting up the Premier League – this fresh talent is a bit of an anomaly in ‘Asia’s World City’.

With the average age of the Men’s national team at 30 and only two Hong Kongers in the local Premier League’s top scorer table, players like Hirokane are few and far between.

This hides a lively youth football set-up in the city. It’s a system which has been around since the colonial days, and has never been truly tapped into.

“At Easter, I went to Spain and played in the Mediterranean International Cup. One of our matches was against Real Madrid.”

World-class facilities, professional coaches, and convenient transport routes to matches; these are all on offer to the players of tomorrow.

“I’ve been playing with Kitchee for the past five years and most of my friends are boys I’ve been playing football with,” says 12-year-old Benjamin Tandy Ortega.

“I train and play matches with them, watch Kitchee play at Mong Kok Stadium with them, and chat to them about which team they support (and how they’re going to get relegated).”

The opportunities available to Benjamin and his teammates are the stuff every boy dreams of; “At Easter, I went to Spain and played in the Mediterranean International Cup. One of our matches was against Real Madrid, an experience I’ll never forget (even though we lost 3-0).”

This environment has also allowed the women’s game to make strides.

When I played for the Kowloon Cricket Club (KCC) Boys, the Girls team would occasionally train at the same time. There were only a handful of them and they would often struggle to field even a seven-a-side squad.

That was, however, a decade ago.

Now, the women’s game is thriving. At KCC, the number of girls rivals many of the boy’s age groups.

“I love playing football,” 13-year-old Jorja Mei-Li Townson told Fox Sports Asia. “It challenges me and I love the feeling when I score a goal, play well and my team wins.”

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Her sister, Kaela-Mei (15), also represents the KCC Girls; “It gives me a break from the work I get from school, especially around exam periods. I use that stress to fuel me for the game.”

Football still has a long way to go in fully embracing the youth. Player retention is low after 18 when university life comes a-calling. Even during primary and secondary education, school pressures force kids to abandon their love of the game as John Barnes alluded to last week.

There’s also “the passport issue”.

Without a Hong Kong passport players are ineligible to represent the national team, even if they possess an HK Identity Card and have permanent residency. They are required to renounce all other forms of citizenship to play for the SAR, cutting out a huge percentage of the city’s famously diverse population.

This has directly impacted both the men’s and women’s team with the sides missing out on prospective talents. Kaela-Mei is one of Hong Kong’s bright young players.

However, at the end of this season she will be moving to King’s College in Somerset, England; “I would be continuing with the national team if it wasn’t for the passport issue. What makes it so extremely frustrating is that I was born here!”

“Since 1993, the men’s team has slid from 112th to 142nd in the FIFA World Rankings.”

Identity has always been a contentious subject in Hong Kong with the events of the 2014 Umbrella Movement putting it centre stage. Sport has always been a platform for this debate, despite its marriage with politics always proving an unhappy one.

In Hong Kong, those suffering from it are not just the players but also the city’s status as a whole. Since 1993, the men’s team has slid from 112th in the FIFA World Rankings to 142nd, reaching its nadir in 2011 (169th).

To earn a cap for your country is every sportsman and sportswoman’s ultimate achievement. If the likes of Tandy Ortega and the Townsons continue to be prevented from putting on the red and claret of Hong Kong, we may start seeing fewer and fewer Hirokane-style heroics.

Article by Cameron Tucker

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