Coach Kim Pan-gon’s young warriors returned home with their heads held high last week after an unbeaten run of three games in their AFC U-23s qualifiers in North Korea. However, a win against Chinese Taipei and draws against DPR Korea and Laos was not enough to qualify for the 2018 AFC U-23 Championships in China. Hong Kong finished in second place, with favourites DPR Korea edging the top spot.
“We definitely deserved to go further,” said Robbie Wu Chun-ming, 19, who scored a magnificent long-range effort to secure a memorable 1-1 draw against DPR Korea. “I’m okay with the performance, but we could have done better in the second game [vs Laos].”
A win against Laos would certainly have improved the team’s chances of qualifying. However, AFC U23 rules allowed only six of the ten runner-ups to reach the final competition due to groups having uneven numbers of teams; some groups had three teams as opposed to the usual four. This meant that all results against fourth-place teams were not taken into consideration, voiding Hong Kong’s 4-0 domination of Chinese Taipei. Hong Kong finished tenth on the runner-up list.
“Even though we didn’t qualify, this was one of our best performances as an U-23 team,” said an optimistic Jordan Lam Lok-kan, 18. “Everyone is super positive and looking ahead to the next Asian tournament.”
Left-winger Lam was struggling to shake off illness throughout his time in North Korea, and was not sure he would even feature. “I was worried. I was supposed to start the second match [against Laos], but Kim Sir told me to rest my body and put me on after 70-odd minutes,” he revealed.
Moments after stepping onto the pitch, Lam made his mark by scoring a wicked equaliser. “Scoring for Hong Kong is obviously an amazing feeling. On a personal note, a goal at such a high level competition is really encouraging,” Lam said.
After the highs and lows, Lam is just relieved to be back home: “Being unwell in a place like North Korea – where I couldn’t always access the Internet – made things more complicated.”
Wu had a different view of the mysterious country neighbouring South Korea. “Surprisingly, North Korea wasn’t that scary,” he said.
Regardless, the players returned with bags of experience and look forward to applying it to future matches. “I was quite nervous because there was a massive amount of fans,” admitted Wu. “As a player, I realised that top level Asian football is very fast. We have to improve our fitness levels and become more familiar with our attacking strategies,” he added.
Coach Kim told Young Post prior to the qualifiers that he would have been delighted if the team took seven of the possible nine points up for grabs.
The five points Hong Kong secured is not far off, and Wu said their South Korean coach was very encouraged by the team’s performance, particularly against the hosts. Let’s see if they can one-up themselves in next year’s qualifiers in Indonesia.