Soccer in Hong Kong

This apparently most unpolitical subject is actually highly politically charged.

The subject was triggered by these comments on Steve Gilliard's The News Blog:

I saw Barca play Yokahama, Real Madrid play the Taiwanese national team, as well as the US matches. This is no accident. The exhibition matches get good attendence and good press. What is clear is that there is a growing audience for soccer in the US, because they understand the game.

The Taiwanese national team?  No, Steve, it was the Chinese national team.  Besides, what Taiwanese national team?  There is no professional soccer league in Taiwan.  If they put together a Taiwanese national team, it will be a bunch of truck drivers who play amateur soccer on Sundays.  During the preliminary qualifying round for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, the team from Taiwan finished their group with no points, six defeats, no goals for and 25 against.

But that was not how I remembered as a child.  Here, I must warn you that the following is based upon my recollections as a child, and therefore it may not be completely accurate as far as the real facts go.  But this is the way I remembered it.  It would be an extremely interesting exercise if this turned out to be completely wrong here.

Once upon a time, there was a competitive team representing the Republic of China in Taiwan.  According to Wikipedia (which I cannot guarantee as being completely accurate), that team finished third in the Asian Cup in 1960 and fourth in 1968.  But soccer has always been in a dismal state in Taiwan, so what happened during the 1960's that allowed them to field a competitive team?

The secret is this: the entire Republic of China team in those years came from Hong Kong.  There was a competitive soccer league in Hong Kong.  Interest and playing level in soccer back then in Hong Kong were siginificantly higher than nowadays.  Today, if you go to a soccer league game in Hong Kong, the number of spectators may be fewer than the number of players, staff members, officials and ball boys on the field.  Back then, a game between the powerhouse clubs South China and Happy Valley would have filled Hong Kong stadium, and the surrounding hillsides would be crawling with the masses who watch for free from above and afar with their portable radios on.

Those soccer players were also not professionals.  The best players may receive a sufficient stipend not to have to dig ditches or clean latrines.  But the majority of them had day jobs and play soccer on weekend.  For example, one team was the KMB (Kowloon Motor Bus), on which many of the players worked as gatekeepers (note: the bus doors were not electronically operated back then -- someone had to manually open and close the mechanical gates).

As persons of Chinese descent, some of the Hong Kong players had the option of playing either for Hong Kong or the Republic of China.  The pay checks and incentive bonuses were probably a lot heftier from the Republic of China for reasons of propaganda.  Therefore, the best players such as those from the South China club would sign up for the Republic of China team.  Out of political sensitivity, that Republic of China team never played in Hong Kong, and they only displayed their skills at the Asian Games, the Medaka Cup and other tournaments.

There was also a Hong Kong team that participated in international events.  Who played on that team?  First of all, there are the Chinese 'patriots' such as those from the Happy Valley club would not never ever play for the Nationalist government.  Secondly, there were Hong Kong government workers (such as policemen) who could not play for another country.  Thirdly, there were non-Chinese nationals (such as British army officers).  In later years, foreign professional soccer players began to come to Hong Kong and they could play for this team.

When a foreign team (such as Real Madrid of Spain, Liverpool of England or Santos of Brazil) came to play in Hong Kong, there were usually two local matches scheduled.  The first is with a team known as the Hong Kong United team (港聯) which is effectively the Hong Kong 'national' team.  The second and better match is with a team known as the Chinese United team (華聯) which is an all-Chinese team that usually also represents the Republic of China.

Soccer in Hong Kong never had anything much to do with mainland China.  Before the 1949 liberation, some Hong Kong players represented China.  No Hong Kong person ever represented the People's Republic of China after the liberation.  Under FIFA classification, Hong Kong has a separate team of its own, just as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate territorial entries from the United Kingdom.  The closest 'relationship' between Hong Kong and China came in 1985 when the team from Hong Kong went to Beijing and shocked the Chinese national team with a 2-1 victory that knocked China out of the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico City.  After that particular match, there were riots in the street and enraged Beijing residents scoured the streets to beat up Hong Kong'ers.

The history of who represented what was obviously very political.  My childhood memories were about the concerted effort to co-brand the best of Hong Kong soccer with Free China (aka the Republic of China).  Before the concept of branding was even introduced into the marketing literature, there was already a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong through recruiting their favorite soccer players to play for the Free China national team.  All of this explains my reactions whenever I read some revisionist history today about how the people of Taiwan were never ever Chinese -- well, that wasn't what you were telling me as a child.  Frankly, my dear, I don't care what you want to do today, but please do not deny what you were doing back then!