(HK), Happy Valley 2 New Radiant 1 (07/05/2007)
Hong Kong. A land where skyscrapers grow like trees on the tiny slivers of habitable ground, shoehorning seven and a half million people into a number of square miles that would be considered small for a suburb in some nations. Among those adding to that population, other than myself, were the players of New Radiant FC of the Maldives, whose club motto of “to find players, train them, and give them the chance to expose themselves locally and internationally” promised an interesting spectacle.
They’d come to play Hong Kong’s Happy Valley FC in an Asian Cup group stage match – a tournament which appears to capture the local imagination as well as a spider’s web captures a Chieftain Tank. The Happy Valley Racecourse is world famous – a spectacular track with impressive towering grandstands, set among the skyscrapers of central Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Stadium, just down the road, is nearly as impressive, with 40,000 seats covered by two curving roofs, like two halves of a giant egg-shell. Unfortunately, the Mong Kok stadium, the venue for tonight’s fixture, has a more prosaic appeal. On the plus side, it is nestled in among two markets. Directly behind one goal is the Bird Market, where Michael Palin once had his knees pecked by a parrot while attempting to go round the world in 80 days, which unsurprisingly sells just birds and offers a rather unique soundtrack to any match. Along the other side is the flower market – a market dedicated to just flowers and plants, and for some reason one shop selling motorbike helmets, as if the owner thought he’d spotted a niche in the market, where romantics who felt flowers just didn’t cut the mustard could spell out their true love with a multi-coloured crash-helmet instead.
I’d done my homework on Hong Kong football and knew this wouldn’t exactly be the biggest crowd I’d ever been in, but as I made my way from the station of the excellent and spotless Hong Kong metro (one of the few metros in the world to have the simple but brilliant realisation that as people changing from one northern bound line to another are most likely to be going in the same direction, it therefore makes sense to place both northbound platforms opposite each other, rather than having to go to a different part of the station to change lines) I didn’t exactly sense a throng of people heading to the game. I think if I’d followed the crowds I’d have ended up in a noodle bar instead.
Maybe in Hong Kong they love tourists going to their sporting events. The following night I appeared to be let into the Happy Valley racecourse for free after being asked if I was a tourist, although they did recoup $200 through my night’s wild, reckless, and not too successful gambling. Despite the $200 loss it was a fun evening that I’d recommend – a good night out, a lot of fun, and garnished with the chance to buy a Happy Valley postcard to send to a female friend of mine, for whom the term Happy Valley was a nickname for her cleavage. It made losing those $200 easier to bear. That and the fact the exchange rate for the Hong Kong Dollar makes $200 about the same as the price of a pub meal.
There had been a previous indication of their keenness for westerners at sporting events in Mong Kok too, as before I’d been able to reach into my wallet for the $60 entry fee (which I could possibly uniquely have paid for with three completely different, yet still legal tender $20 notes, as Hong Kong has a bizarre system of letting each bank print its own banknotes) I was approached by a man who gave me a free ticket, complimentary and signed by a member of the Hong Kong FA. I thanked him, and after jostling through the throng of one person at the turnstiles, made my way inside.
There isn’t too much than can be said about the Mong Kok Stadium itself. It could be listed in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as an illustration for “Spartan”, being not much more than four stands of bench seating. About 10 or 15 rows of solid and sturdy rust-coloured benches on the sides, and slightly higher aluminium decking at the ends. A scoreboard, which looks to be worth more than the rest of the ground put together without even being that impressive, just about fills one corner, while a palm-tree fringed fence skirts suggestively close to another.
With incredibly little to divert my attention until the game kicked off just over half an hour later, I chose a spot at the back of the main stand and waited for the ground to fill, or at least to get less empty. I hadn’t expected anything like a capacity 8000 crowd and I wasn’t wrong. The crowd for this match wasn’t so much thin as anorexic, but the bulk of the support also went for the main stand. Clearly it was the place to be as the Happy Valley “ultras” to my right put together a perfectly choreographed display of putting a small banner over the seats and sitting down.
Being an official FIFA tournament, the officials and players came out to the official FIFA music, preceded by the fair play flag carried out by four officials. Normally this is a large enough flag to gift-wrap an elephant, but today, with things scaled down a tad, it was roughly the size of a large beach towel. It really didn’t require four people to carry it out, one at each corner, but I suppose if they’d gone for just two then it would have looked like removal men moving a sideboard, and the moment needed every bit of pageantry it could muster.
As usual, the FIFA message of peace and fair play was read out, to the tangible apathy of those present, and then the lined up teams turned and waved to the crowd. For three of the stands it would have been easier to just have gone over and greet the fans in them individually. All this was greeted with a smattering of polite applause which would have been more at home at a village cricket match after a good bit of fielding.
The match got underway to a ripple of excitement, and very quickly it was clear that Happy Valley were a step above their Maldives counterparts. Not that the Hong Kong side were fantastic, more than the only thing the New Radiant were exposing was their comparative lack of football ability. In terms of basic technique, neither team was poor. It was more that like a teenager getting lucky for the first time, they had a lot of good first touches, but didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to do beyond that. This was perhaps a factor in despite strong territorial pressure, it took Happy Valley until midway through the first half to open the scoring. It was easy to see why the 7745 people who could have filled the other seats decided to find other things to do that night. If you’d already been to that neck of the woods earlier, and picked up a toucan, a bunch or geraniums, and a nice crash-helmet, the game wouldn’t have added anything to your day.
The loyal faithful did stay loyal though, occasionally doing their best to raise their team with chants, which unfortunately in the Mong Kok’s atmospheric black hole were as effective as farting into a hot-air balloon. They got their reward twenty minutes from the end. A rather lazy cross into the box was met by an equally lazy attempt by the New Radiant defence to clear, and an almost apologetic header looped its way on a scenic route of an arc into the bottom corner. For the second time that night the Mong Kok scoreboard erupted in an epilepsy-inducing frenzy, completely out of kilter with the subliminally occupied stands nearby, while the PA system responded with a feminine voiced burst of semi-automatic rapid fire Chinese which makes you suspect that if the Chinese play charades, then the clue for “number of syllables” would be of little use.
Things were now pretty desperate for New Radiant, as became their football. Attempts to get forward were often tempered by an inability for passes to find the pitch, let alone pick out team mates on it. But maybe it was all a cunning plan to lull Happy Valley into a false sense of security. As plans go, you have to say the initial phase was carried out to perfection, but phase two was being left a little late – but pull a goal back they did. A rather needless penalty was conceded, and with three minutes left New Radiant tucked away a goal to make the miracle that New radiant required be downgraded from biblical. Sadly, their chances of survival still looked slimmer than a guy who is due to get married in a war movie, and so it proved to be. 2-1 was indeed to final score and the crowd sneaked off into the night, on an evening where the Happy Valley fans would be Happy, and the New Radiant positively not so.