Will a football match turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back?
The “one country, two systems” policy isn’t working out well in the real world, especially in the past three years or so.
From the growing hostility between people on both sides of the border to the round veto of the Beijing-decreed 2017 election package, it appears the only news we hear about Hong Kong-mainland relations is bad.
This summer, however, tensions appear to have subsided.
That’s why we hope the calm will last when Shenzhen hosts the World Cup Asia Division qualifier game between Hong Kong and China on Sept. 3. Tickets have been on sale since this week.
But we can’t help but worry that the much-awaited event may ignite a new round of war of words or, we hope not, something worse.
Sporting events can hardly take place in a vacuum. The two teams are contending for a ticket to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and their respective supporters, having their own political views, may bring something more than their love of the beautiful game into the stadium.
Recent developments don’t augur well for next month’s encounter. Hong Kong fans booed as the Chinese national anthem was played after their heroic team secured neat victories against minnows Maldives and Bhutan in two previous contests.
Many Chinese netizens reacted angrily, and promised to teach the “ludicrous, brainwashed Hongkongers” how to behave at the Shenzhen showdown.
Despite the heated atmosphere, we hope the rivalry between the Hong Kong and Chinese teams will be confined to the football pitch and the fans will be well behaved.
But some people warn that things could get out of hand. They fear that whoever wins the game, the result will only fuel the hostile sentiments already existing between the two sides.
In a recent op-ed, commentator Joseph Lian Yizheng wrote: “If China ends Hong Kong’s winning streak at the much-touted Shenzhen match, but our local fans think the referees are biased or the game is fixed, they may still choose to constrain their emotions as they are at an away match and outnumbered by Chinese spectators.
“But if the city’s team fails to use the second contest, to be held in Hong Kong on Nov. 17, to take revenge, then the ultimate showdown will be particularly prone to incidents or even chaos when local fans vent their anger and disappointment.”
Such a dire scenario is not without precedent.
Thirty years ago — on May 19, 1985, to be exact – Hong Kong faced China in the final match of the first qualifying round for the 1986 World Cup’s Asia division at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing.
The city needed a win to advance while a draw would suffice for China. Hong Kong crushed China 2-1, shattering the Chinese fans’ fervid hope to see their team play in Mexico.
According to media reports, furious Chinese fans blocked the stadium’s exit, barring the victorious team from leaving. Chaos ensued.
At least 40 people were injured, 25 cars and a dozen buses were burned or overturned, and a nearby subway station was also partially damaged.
Police arrested 127 people in the pandemonium that lasted until the wee hours of the following day.
The match was one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated victories as it was at the closest that it got to the World Cup. The city won the group and advanced to the knockout stage, where it lost to Japan.
Unfortunately, it was also the first known case of football hooliganism in China’s history.
The Hong Kong team was called the “Hong Kong National Football Team”, which has been its name since its governing body, the Hong Kong Football Association, became a member of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association in 1954. China joined FIFA in 1979.
However, mainland authorities choose to use the unofficial “Hong Kong, China” to refer to the city’s team, as seen in the promotional posters from the Chinese Football Association.
In fact, Hong Kong fans bewailed those Chinese posters, which they said contained offensive and racist messages.
Chinese fans, on the other hand, will not look kindly at the use of the word “national” to describe the Hong Kong team.
In fact, many of them are profoundly befuddled by the fact that Hong Kong can send its own delegations to international sporting events and even compete with the Chinese national team after China regained sovereignty over the territory in 1997.
One unsolicited advice for these mainlanders is to spare some time to learn about Hong Kong’s autonomy and identity before heading to the match next month.
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