Hong Kong

Hong Kong: Birthplace of professional football in Asia

Saturday, January 30, 2021
Seiko v NY Cosmos

Hong Kong: In the early 1970s, Hong Kong emerged as the birthplace of professional football in Asian as clubs lured some of the world’s best players to the territory. 

the-AFC.com takes a look back at the halcyon days of the game in a city the Asian Football Confederation once called home.

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Throughout the last three decades, Asian football has welcomed the great and the good to the continent’s ever-improving professional leagues as stars from Europe, South America and elsewhere descend upon the region to show off their talents.

The list – from Salvatore Schillaci and Gary Lineker to Andres Iniesta and Oscar – is long and illustrious, often boasting generational stars and FIFA World Cup winners who move to Asia to bolster the domestic talent playing in leagues in Japan, China PR, West Asia and elsewhere

As professionalism has grown across the continent, so Asia has become a destination for players from all over the world. But that was not always the case.

While the bright lights and glamour of the J.League captured headlines when it launched in 1993 and the Chinese Super League’s growth threatened the established order, it was elsewhere that the growth of professionalism and the desire to lure foreign stars first took hold.

Given its history within the regional game, it should not come as no surprise that it was Hong Kong which first enticed players from outside the region to pack their bags and journey to Asia in search of opportunities that might have eluded them elsewhere.

The city has long been at the forefront of the Asian game. As a British colony from 1842 to 1997, Hong Kong’s football introduction came early and soon developed a vibrant, competitive scene featuring clubs representing numerous communities and districts as well as companies and various strands of the armed and civilian services.

It was – and remains - a fertile football scene that became home to the longest-running club competition in the continent, the Hong Kong Senior Challenge Shield, which was first held in 1898, while the Hong Kong First Division was the first league championship in the region when it kicked off in 1908.

The Hong Kong Football Association was founded in 1914 and, 40 years later, the HKFA was one of the 12 founding members of the Asian Football Confederation. The city served as the headquarters for the new body and also hosted the first-ever AFC Asian Cup in 1956 (pictured below, Korea Republic celebrating after emerging the inaugural champions).

With that background, it is perhaps only fitting that professionalism first crept into Asian football through Hong Kong when, in the late 1960s, the First Division officially permitted the paying of players.

“In the early 1960s the top players were earning good money,” says Kwok Ka-ming (pictured below), who made his debut as a 19-year-old for first division side Rangers in 1969 and would go on to become synonymous with Hong Kong football. “Some were making as much as HK$40,000 a year, which was the same as the top jockeys and local movie stars.”

In what was known as Hong Kong’s “shamateurism” era, clubs made under-the-counter payments to players prior to the sport’s switch to professionalism, with the local scene dominated by outfits such as Jardines and South China Athletic Association.

However, those days came to an end ahead of the 1968/69 season when the HKFA’s decision to revoke its membership of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee freed the game of the restrictions that came with appearing to remain amateur and a new era dawned. Not everyone embraced the idea, however.

“Only eight teams wanted to become professional,” says Kwok. “South China and Kitchee didn’t because they didn’t think it should be professional. But clubs like Telephone and Jardines, Fire Service did.”

Little changed in the first season but, by the start of the 1969/70 campaign a shift was beginning to occur, with Ian Petrie – founder of Hong Kong First Division club Rangers – instrumental in a move that would kick start a period that saw Asia welcoming professionals from outside the continent.

Keen to bolster the Rangers squad, Petrie set up trials in his native Scotland that yielded the first European professionals to join a Hong Kong club with the arrival of a trio that were to become among the most revered in the territory’s football scene: Walter Gerrard, Derek Currie (pictured below in his playing days, right) and Jackie Trainer.

“They put an ad in the newspaper: Professional Footballers Wanted for Hong Kong, and you had to go to the Central Hotel in Glasgow,” recalls Currie. “A mate of mine said: ‘Why don’t we go along?’

“I was at Motherwell and had had a fall out with them for several reasons and I was only training with them twice a week. It was difficult getting into the first team as I was a part-timer, the usual stuff in those days.

“I went on after about 15 minutes, played 10 minutes, got a goal with my head – which I didn’t score too many of over the years – and Ian took me off and told me: ‘Don’t you leave, I want to speak to you before you go.’

“We finished the game and he said me: ‘We’d like you to come to Hong Kong. You’re fast, you score goals,’ and I wasn’t sure. I never thought about going. They told me they thought I’d be good enough to get into a Hong Kong League XI and, if I got into that team, they’d be playing against Pele and Santos in December.

“I couldn’t believe it. I had sat and watched with my mates the greatest World Cup of all time and then I had a chance to play against Pele! So I said: ‘Where do I sign?!’”

The move was a success for Rangers, who won the league title in the 1970/71 season playing in front of sell-out crowds at the Hong Kong Government Stadium on Hong Kong Island as well as the Boundary Street Stadium in Kowloon.

“Boundary Street didn’t have any floodlights, so the games were always in the afternoon and the place was always full,” says Kwok. “The fans wanted to see Derek Currie because he was fast and Walter Gerard with his heading. And the local Chinese players had good skills too. Rangers were always winning trophies.”

At around the same time, however, moves were afoot elsewhere that would ultimately turbocharge the professional era in the territory.

Wong Chong Shan, a wealthy, Thai-born businessman with a passion for football and a brand to promote, launched the Seiko Sports Association in 1970 and, after successive promotions from the third and second divisions, his new team was taking the league by storm.

Seiko (pictured above) soon established themselves as the dominant force of Hong Kong football for the next 13 years as they hoovered up the league’s best talent, including Currie and Hong Kong international Wu Kwok Hung.

“Seiko was the big driving force, they were what Real Madrid was to European football, that’s what they were to Hong Kong football in the 70s,” says Currie. “They gave a new dimension to the game and they were a new club, so people had to decide who they were going to support.

“You had South China (pictured below in a friendly against Manchester United in 1999) and Happy Valley, to a certain degree. Jardines used to be the best team when I came to Hong Kong, but once we beat them 4-1 and 7-2 the next year they disbanded because the PR wasn’t good for them.”

Resplendent in their blue shirts emblazoned with a striking white V, Seiko quickly established themselves as the preeminent power in Hong Kong football and started a run of unprecedented success that would continue until the mid-1980s, yielding a total of nine league titles.

“There were some great games, especially against South China,” says Currie. “They were a team that liked to play football as well and they were the crowd favourites. They were amazing games.”

As other clubs started to strengthen their squads, Seiko made moves to bolster their position. While the likes of Currie had enjoyed relatively modest careers in their homelands, the quality of talent being drawn to Hong Kong shifted to another level by the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Under threat from recently established Bulova who, like Seiko, were a club established to promote a watch brand as well as Eastern Athletic Association and South China, owner Wong raised the stakes again.

While Bulova brought in British stars such as Scottish World Cup veteran Tommy Hutchison and Eastern – who were briefly coached by England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore (pictured above receiving the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1966) – bolstered their ranks with 1966 World Cup winner Alan Ball, Seiko took a different approach and brought in a host of Dutch players under the experienced gaze of coach George Knobel.

Knobel had a significant pedigree, having led the Netherlands to a third place finish at the European Championships in 1976, during which time he worked with many of the players who would take their country to the final of both the 1974 and 1978 FIFA World Cups.

Throughout the early 1980s, players such as Dick Nanninga (pictured above, left) - who scored in the 1978 World Cup final against Argentina, as well as Rennie van der Kerkhof, Arie Haan and Theo de Jong were among those to pull on the Seiko shirt. Their presence was to have a positive impact on the game in Hong Kong, forcing local players to raise their game week in and week out.

“Many of these players were coming to the end of their careers, but they were good quality pros,” says former Hong Kong international Tim Bredbury, who played for Seiko from 1982 to 1984. “Yes, they’d have a beer and what have you but 99 percent of them would be the first ones at training and leading the way forward.

“When you look at the quality of players that was coming there were very few who just came to take the money, so they gave the best they had to offer. Hong Kong was a great place for players to come at that time and, on the whole, the majority delivered on the pitch.

“There were good quality players being put together with good quality coaches, with players being told if they weren’t good enough that they’d get a kick up the backside. That helped in the long run.”

Seiko Champions 1983/84 pic.twitter.com/O7q8dqjHDa

— Tim Bredbury (@timbredbury) August 11, 2019

Seiko’s superiority was such that, in addition to their nine league titles they also claimed the Hong Kong Senior Challenge Shield – the oldest club knockout competition in Asia – eight times as well as six Hong Kong FA Cups. The quality of their foreign stars delivered success but it also ensured the domestic talent benefitted.

“Because there were so many foreign players, our local players were able to train to go up against these foreigners,” says Kwok who, by the mid-80s, was head coach of the Hong Kong representative team.

“It’s why we were able to do well because our players were coming up against big strikers like Nanninga, training to play against their heading. When we played against China PR we were prepared. We weren’t scared. It was a good thing, they helped us develop. There might have been too many foreign players, but they helped us.”

The positive impact all came to fruition on the night of May 19, 1985 as Hong Kong pulled off one of the biggest surprise results in the history of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Pinals when, under the control of Kwok, the territory’s team travelled to the imposing Workers’ Stadium in Beijing and handed China PR a 2-1 defeat.

Goals from Cheung Chi Tak and Ku Kam Fai either side of a solitary effort from China’s Li Hui earned Hong Kong a result that is still talked about today, but which also marked the end of a golden period for the game in the city.

“Because of the success of the 1985 team, the league decided there were already too many foreign players and they cut them from seven down to six and five and so on,” says Kwok.

“But South China had good young players and they insisted that we scrap the foreign players, so that’s why Bulova pulled out in 85/86 season and then Seiko pulled out the following year. Because of the restrictions on the foreign players they couldn’t use their big names.”

Seiko’s dissolution came in 1986, but only after making a huge impression on the continental scene with victory over Chinese champions Liaoning FC in the relaunched Asian Club Championship. Time, though, was ticking down on the club and a remarkable era for the game in the city.

Political changes beyond football had an impact, with the Sino-British declaration signed in 1984, which meant the territory would return to Chinese rule in 1997, creating an uncertain future for the city as a whole.

“Hong Kong football depends on the economy,” says Kwok. “There’s no business in Hong Kong football, you don’t make money. Seiko were able to promote themselves, Bulova too. It’s different compared to China, where they can promote their brands to a big market. Evergrande, for example, are using football to promote their brand.”

With the launch of the K-League in 1984 in Korea Republic and the arrival of the professional game in Japan in 1993, plus the two countries’ co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, attention continued to shift away from Hong Kong. The emergence of the Chinese Super League as a major player on the global scene has further reduced the territory’s profile.

“In the 1980s and 90s, as Korea and Japan became stronger we deteriorated because players would go there,” says Kwok. “They could pay more and they wouldn’t come to Hong Kong.

“But before that big names would come here because we could pay and it was a good life. It was just like Major League Soccer now. Players would come here and enjoy life, there’s a lot to see and this is what happened.

“At the beginning we had players come from the United Kingdom, but we also had players come from Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia; Indonesia, Thailand, Korea. We had the top league in Asia.”

The glory days of Hong Kong’s golden era may be behind it, but the city can always lay claim to being the launchpad for professionalism across Asia.

Photos: Kwok Ka-ming, Derek Currie, AFP, FIFA via Getty Images, UEFA.com, Kitchee SC, AFC

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