Hong Kong's historic win over China was about so much more than football
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As of the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, the last time Hong Kong had beaten China in a game of football, it was still under British rule. As of right now, the last time the 'special administrative region' beat their monolithic neighbours was Monday.
Twenty nine years elapsed between Hong Kong's two most recent victories over the Chinese, a dizzying span that enveloped entire lifetimes, unfathomable upheaval, and a political discourse that has - by turns - soured, fermented, and erupted. In essence, this was Hong Kong vs. King Kong, and there was, indeed, a certain beauty to the killing of the beast.
The fundamentals were unremarkable and uncomplicated; a friendly in Abu Dhabi, played behind closed doors to limit publicity for reasons that presumably suited one team more than the other, ending in a 2-1 victory for the island city minnows ahead of their first appearance in an Asian Cup since 1968. China will also participate in the tournament, and will head into their group stage opener against Tajikistan, one week from Saturday, nursing both a bloodied nose and a severely bruised ego.
From a footballing perspective, this was a scoreline that will likely stoke the fires of optimism in Hong Kong. According to FIFA's own ranking, The Dragons sit a hefty 71 rungs beneath Dragon's Team. (People really, really like dragons in that part of the world.) For context, that's the equivalent of the disparity between England and little old Oman. This may have been nothing more than an oxymoronic dead rubber - a hidden exhibition match, an unfriendly friendly - but such a notable upset on the cusp of a considerable zenith in the region's sporting history is hard to ignore.
Evidently and emblematically, however, this was about quite a bit more than football. Relations between Hong Kong and Beijing have become increasingly tense over the past decade or so. Mass protest movements in 2014, and then again five years later, compelled millions of Hongkongers to take to the streets in an overt illustration of their unbridled disgruntlement at stiffening Chinese rule, and, as of April 2020, as many as 15 people had died amid the furore, with a further 2,600 injuries and 10,279 reported arrests.
As is often the case, sport and sporting events have become an outlet through which frustrations have been vented. In 2015, the Hong Kong Football Association was fined HKD$40,000 after supporters booed the Chinese national anthem at a match in Qatar. In more recent times, fans have made a point of singing 'Glory to Hong Kong', a song intrinsically affiliated with the aforementioned protests, so much so that authorities have launched campaigns to have it banned altogether.
And yet even in this narrow sliver of expression, Beijing's influence remains ubiquitous, unshakeable. Just last year, Hong Kong’s various sports associations were ordered to include 'China' in their official names, or risk the threat of funding withdrawal as punishment for failure to comply.
When Hong Kong line up against their adjacent mega-power, therefore, it is always about more than football. It is about reclaiming agency and subverting entrenched norms. It is about the pride in freedom and the freedom in pride. It is about the bark of the underdog and the stubbed toe of a Goliath. It's not much, but it is something.
And nobody puts it better than Hong Kong manager, Jørn Andersen, the man tasked with figuring out how to train these particular dragons. Speaking frankly to the South China Morning Post after his side's momentous win, the Norwegian said: “I don’t have to motivate the team against China". He will no doubt be hoping that some of that rabid drive lingers and bleeds into the dressing room when his team meet the United Arab Emirates in their Asian Cup opener eleven days' from now.