FEATURE: Hong Kong’s finest hour a dark day for China

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They say football and politics shouldn’t mix, but it’s hard to avoid such collisions when it comes to encounters between and .

Tensions have been simmering between the two nations for some time, with protesters locking down parts of Hong Kong for almost three months last year in protests over proposed electoral reforms by Beijing.

Another round of pro-democracy protests took place earlier this year, and this time football was front and centre.

Ahead of their opening round of World Cup Qualifiers against the Maldives and Bhutan in June, fans at the Mong Kok Stadium openly and loudly booed the Chinese national anthem, which is played before every Hong Kong game, before passionately chanting, “We are Hong Kong.” The message was clear and prompted a rebuke from FIFA, who wrote to the Hong Kong Football Association and warned of sanctions if there was a repeat occurrence at future matches.

With Hong Kong to face China tonight in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier at the Baoan Stadium across the border in Shenzhen, just 32 kilometres from Hong Kong, the potential for trouble between rival fans is high.

“The atmosphere inside the Chinese stadiums can become very hostile,” Tobias Zuser, founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong football website offside.hk told Football Channel . “I have no idea how the Hong Kong fans will be able to cope with that. There will be a lot of police and security.

“I see it (booing the anthem) happening in Hong Kong (in the return leg in November); in China it will be extremely controversial and also quite dangerous to do that. Honestly I am a bit worried.”

Given the disparity between the two in the official FIFA standings, most expect that 79th-ranked China will be far too strong for their 151st-ranked southern neighbours. But as Chinese fans, and 13 of their players, know too well, you can never underestimate Hong Kong.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of what is known as the ‘May 19 Incident,’ when Hong Kong defeated China 2-1 at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing in a crucial 1986 FIFA World Cup Qualifier, to not only embarrass their rivals but advance to the final round of qualifying at their expense.

“That was the match I most remember in my career,” Kwok Ka Ming, the coach of Hong Kong at the time, told Football Channel Asia.

“Everyone was so happy because it was shown live in Hong Kong. Everyone was so glad the next day when we come back, the whole ground floor (of the airport) was blocked because so many fans were coming to the airport.”

Coming into the final match of the group, which also contained Macau and Brunei, Hong Kong were second in their group behind China and needed a win to advance. For the hosts, just a draw would do.

“We still wanted to win the game,” former Chinese defender Zhu Bo explained to Football Channel Asia. “When you are playing Hong Kong at home, there is a lot of pressure on you. Everybody thought it would be a big win.

“At the time we were a stronger side than Hong Kong, (but) we underestimated them. We never considered that we might lose.”

The feeling was similar in the Hong Kong dressing room, with Kwok admitting he didn’t really believe his side could win.

“Not really,” he said when asked if the team was confident ahead of the match.

“The day before we left for Beijing, the sport editor (of the South China Morning Post) called it “Mission Impossible.” So for us, we just (wanted to) do our best, we couldn’t predict the result.

“I told the players we would be unable to compete throughout 90 minutes against [China], so they should do it in the last 20-25 minutes,” he said.

But Kwok’s player’s didn’t listen, taking the lead after just 19 minutes courtesy of 26-year-old defender Cheung Chi Tak.

“I was happy but I was scared because we woke the sleeping giant,” Kwok recalled. “And only 10 minutes later they equalised.”

Locked at 1-1 at half time, Kwok was content that his side were level at the interval.

“In the second half it started to rain, not heavily but it started to rain and get cooler,” he said. “After 15 minutes we asked [the strikers] to warm up, to do a good ten minute warm up, and then we would substitute them for the last 20 minutes.”

Soon after the two strikers begun warming up, Hong Kong scored again, with Ku Kam Fai restoring their lead on the hour mark.

“I told the two players to come back and I asked the defenders to warm up,” the coach said.

It was backs-to-the-wall stuff in the final 30 minutes, however Kwok revealed that, despite a crisis of confidence pre-game, he was confident his side could hold on when he saw China change their tactics.

Goal scorers Ku Kam Fai (L) and Cheung Chi Tak (R) with their coach Kwok Ka Ming (centre) at a reunion in 2010

“If China is going to play high balls, rather than go through the ground then we have a great chance to win,” he recalls. “In Hong Kong in the 1980s, we had a lot of foreign players who always play high balls and our centre backs were really good at dealing with high balls.”

Zhu, capped 123 times for China between 1983 and 1993, admitted his side’s preparation for the match was poor, which contributed to the result.

“Our preparation was a bit lacking,” he said. “We lacked balance and the defence was unable to keep a good mentality.”

The loss sparked what has been described as “the first football hooliganism ever in the People’s Republic of China,” with angry fans rioting outside the Workers’ Stadium after the match.

“We were not able to leave, not even to go back to the change room, because the crowd was throwing things and the change room was on the opposite side,” Kwok recalled.

“We were told to go up to the directors box in the VIP (area). So we were there around two hours before we were able to go back and get on the bus.”

It is those scenes the Chinese Football Association is hoping to avoid in Shenzhen tonight, where China will look to join Hong Kong on top of Group C with their second win of the campaign, after thumping Bhutan 6-0 in their opening qualifier.

The Alain Perrin-coached side has lost only two of their last 20 international matches and boasts a young, settled squad that has adapted well to the former Marseille and Lyon manager.

But he will be aware of what is at stake on Thursday and making sure he avoids a repeat of 19 May 1985.

“I think this (the 1985 match) is a warning for China,” Zhu said. “Whenever China faces any opponent they need to make sure they are 100 percent prepared to ensure victory.”

No one will be underestimating Hong Kong this time.