Part 1 – Hong Kong
Over the next few months I will be following the sunshine through south-east Asia all the way to down under in Australia.
Football is a global language, but every country has its own different take on the game from watching and playing it to wearing your favourite team’s colours. I will be meeting locals, players and supporters to hopefully learn how the beautiful game affects so many lives in plenty of different ways.
In the past 15 years in particular, Asia has influenced the English game in many ways; most notably with players such as Park Ji-Sung becoming an ambassador for one of the world’s biggest clubs, plus Japan and South Korea hosting the first World Cup in Asia and the takeovers of clubs from Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour to Air Asia tycoon Tony Fernandes’ persual of Queens Park Rangers.
My first port of call was to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.
The Premier League season was less than a fortnight old and when I embarked on this journey from Heathrow, the majority of the 12 hour flight was thinking of ways to not lose connection with the English game and how I could keep up knowing the time difference.
After a long summer of Middlesbrough losing in the Play-Off Final and then waiting for the new season to begin I was leaving after three games, but was determined as ever to watch every match I could whilst on my travels.
My first port of call was to try and find Sports Road, near the Times Square area of the city. This road is the home to Hong Kong Football Club, as well as Happy Valley Racecourse and the Queen Elizabeth Stadium; a 3,500 seater arena with a gym, badminton and squash courts, plus a multi-purpose hall.
I caught up with a security guard from Hong Kong Football Club inside their impressive stadium that has a backdrop of the cities’ skyscrapers and Victoria Peak. He explained to me the football system in Hong Kong, and told me how multiple teams use the HKFC facilities, as well as the club themselves. The venue is home to the prestigious Rugby 10’s and soccer 7’s tournaments, which is when they see their biggest influx of visitors and has been graced by many professional stars of both sports.
Multiple nationalities, including Dutch, Swiss and Scottish play for HKFC, which is not to be confused with the Hong Kong national team. The national team is currently 151st in the FIFA world rankings, sandwiched between minnows such as Liechtenstein and Puerto Rico. They take part in competitions such as the Asian Cup, East Asian Football Championship and the FIFA World Cup, although have never qualified for the latter, nor the Asian Cup since their fifth place finish in 1968.
There were plenty of football shirts on show around the city, with the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona by far the most popular, but my personal favourite was Nike’s take on the Hong Kong national team. The unusual red and white kit is hard to find, but the design is unique and well worth looking for as a souvenir of a trip to Asia’s financial capital.
Whilst walking through the popular and very busy Kowloon Park and Victoria Park I came across what looked like state of the art 5-a-side soccer pitches with adults and children all playing football throughout the grounds of both parks. In between the parks is the world-famous Hong Kong skyline and when the sun sets and symphony of lights begins, there is only one place to be; the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront.
One of the first things I noticed whilst staring at the spectacular flashing nights were the names of giant brands that we see week in, week out on football shirts. Tottenham Hotspur’s kit sponsor AIA was the first to catch my eye, followed by the bright shining of Chelsea’s former sponsor Samsung.
One of the top priorities on my radar was to find somewhere to watch what was meant to be one of the games of the season, Arsenal versus Liverpool. I wanted to see Petr Cech in action and how Arsenal would fare after a quiet summer, plus how Liverpool’s new boys Christian Benteke, Danny Ings & Roberto Firmino would try and shrug off Wenger’s tightened back four.
The place was very different to what I expected. I walked around for hours prior to kick off, through countless interconnecting shopping malls to find somewhere to watch the game but to no avail.
After circulating the central part of the city twice, dodging skyscrapers on the way, I finally found a pub showing the game in the lively part of Lan Kwai Fong. With just 15 minutes left on the clock I entered the bar to find drunk women dancing and one screen showing the match. Either any fans that were watching the game had disappeared through sheer boredom or tiredness through jetlag, or Hong Kong’s football scene was virtually non-existent.
Maybe I was searching in the wrong places, but it seemed Hong Kong was largely financial and didn’t cater for football fans as much as other major Asian cities such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Overall, I’d say that although Hong Kong has the sporting facilities, trying to watch live football (both live local and international on TV) may not be the best use of time in the city as it has much more to offer, with their unique culture and other sports such as Horse Racing taking a much higher precedence.
My next stop is Malaysia, where I will be visiting remote islands and embarking on a hunt to find live soccer matches in the country’s capital.