Hong Kong and China were preparing on Monday (November 16) for their World Cup qualifier in the former British colony.
The crowd will be fewer as it will be played in a smaller capacity stadium, but there is likely to be a politically-charged atmosphere to the match as it becomes a focus for any anti-Beijing sentiment lingering after last year’s protests.
The match on Tuesday (November 17) comes after Hong Kong shocked fans by holding China, the favourites in the group, to a 0-0 draw in the Chinese city of Shenzhen in September.
Hong Kong, 145 in FIFA’s world rankings, is currently second in Group C of the Asian section of the competition, with 13 points. China, 84th in the rankings, is third with 10. With Qatar leading the group on 15 points, defeat for China would leave them on the brink of failing to progress to the next stage of qualification. China have only ever reached one World Cup finals, in Japan and South Korea in 2002.
Hong Kong’s coach, South Korean Kim Pan-Gon, acknowledged that China was the stronger team but said tactics counted for a great deal.
“Yes, definitely we respect China,” he said. “Much stronger than us. This is a fact. But there is a strategy, tactic, weak team can win strong team. So we will use all strategy tactic to win tomorrow’s game. So this is also a big challenge for us how to win. But we all make a game planning already, we already have a good communication between players. So we all know how to win tomorrow. So we will try to win tomorrow,” Kim told reporters after a training session at the Mong Kok stadium in downtown Hong Kong.
China’s coach, Frenchman Alain Perrin, said that China needed to win to make up for the unexpected draw.
“Yes we need a victory. We need a win,” he said. “So but okay, the game is even, we are maybe stronger than Hong Kong, we saw in the first game it was always difficult to score one goal because always they play very well in defence.”
Last week China beat Bhutan 12-0, and Perrin said his team needed to learn from that. “So we need to find a solution, and we need to prepare more and what we were doing last week. To prepare this game and be more efficient in front of the goal,” he said.
Only 4,000 tickets will be available for the highly anticipated match between Hong Kong and China after the government finally confirmed that the preferred venue will not be available. After months of discussion, it was revealed the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium’s pitch will not be ready and the much smaller Mongkok Stadium will be used instead.
Perrin said that his players would be hungry to beat Hong Kong although only 500 Chinese fans from the Mainland will be able to cheer them on.
“I expect the players are the same mood than me. When you play very well and you deserve to win and you concede one goal, you are upset. And the next game you have more desire to fight and to get the win,” said Perrin.
China’s captain, Zheng Zhi, said that despite Hong Kong being a stronger side than anticipated, he still thought his team would win.
“My self-confidence comes from that I believe my team is a good team. And I know my team-mates very well. And I know Hong Kong has some new players for tomorrow’s match. But for us, I think we still have the ability to win the match,” said Zheng.
The match could re-ignite tensions that have lingered under the surface since Hong Kong’s massive anti-China protests last year.
Protesters blocked key Hong Kong streets for months in last year’s “Occupy Central” protests, calling for real democracy for the former British colony in the vote for its next leader in 2017. Beijing has allowed a direct vote, but only from among pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.
Passions spilled over on to the soccer field this year when Hong Kong fans jeered at two qualifiers when China’s national anthem was played, drawing the ire of some mainland bloggers who called for the “beating of Hong Kong dogs” at the Shenzhen game, according to media.
Eight group winners and the four best-placed runners-up will proceed to the next stage of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The games also doubles as a means of entry to the 2019 Asian Cup in the UAE.