By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong held China to a nil-nil draw in a World Cup qualifying football match on Tuesday played amid lingering political tensions between the two sides after last year’s massive pro-democracy protests in the financial hub.
Hong Kong, footballing minnows ranked 145 by FIFA, had been expected to struggle against China which is ranked 84, but gave a gutsy display that could put into jeopardy China’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia.
Relations between Hong Kong and China have worsened since last year’s nearly three-month long democracy protests, when tens of thousands of activists blocked major roads in a bid to pressure Beijing to allow full democracy in the city.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the pledge that Beijing allow wide-ranging autonomies — a promise that some in the city feel has been eroded as China’s Communist leaders squeeze the city’s freedoms.
Despite appeals from officials for the match not to become politicised, hundreds of Hong Kong fans in the stadium booed during the playing of China’s national anthem and held up defiant banners.
“Hong Kong is not China,” read one message written on six sheets of white paper in the stands, as thousands of other home fans waved red banners and chanted: “We are Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai kept the game goalless amid a Chinese onslaught, a result that China’s manager acknowsledged would now make it a struggle for China to qualify for Russia.
“I tell my players not to give up so I won’t give up,” Frenchman Alain Perrin told reporters after the game.
China have now to win its remaining two games against the Maldives and group leaders Qatar to progress to the third Asian qualifying round, with Hong Kong too in contention.
The previous match between the two sides, also a 0-0 draw, had been played in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, with riot police deployed in case of trouble.
Hong Kong’s bold performances will be a blow to Chinese president Xi Jinping, who has repeatedly expressed his footballing hopes for China — a global sporting giant that has nevertheless perenially underperformed in the beautiful game.
“My greatest expectation on Chinese football is for the Chinese team to be one of the best in the world,” Xi told Reuters in an interview last month.
After the match, the mood was one of euphoria on the streets of Hong Kong, with some saying the result showed Hong Kong could still defy the odds and hold its own.
“There are things people are not satisfied about with the Chinese government and I admit there are tensions,” said Eric Chan, who was waiting with other fans outside the stadium for the autographs of Hong Kong’s players.
“This may be a draw but it’s a victory for us. It shows that Hong Kong can stand up for itself and stand up to China.”
(Additional reporting by Diana Chan and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Richard Balmforth)