SHANGHAI, China, May 18 – It is known as the “May 19 Incident” and by some estimations it haunts China’s national football team 35 years on.
On May 19, 1985, China were stunned 2-1 at home by neighbours Hong Kong, then still under British rule, on one of the most infamous nights in Chinese football history.
It is notorious not just because China’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time ended in calamity.
After the match fans in Beijing rioted, smashing cars, attacking buses and threatening foreign journalists and diplomatic staff.
It began an intense rivalry between the two teams which has continued to this day, despite the UK handing back Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Recent World Cup qualifying matches between the two sides have been bad-tempered affairs with Hong Kong fans jeering the Chinese national anthem, which their team shares, since pro-democracy protests broke out in the city in 2014.
– The match –
It was a Sunday night and China needed only a draw to reach the next stage of qualifying for the Mexico 1986 World Cup.
They were expected to beat the minnows from Hong Kong easily, but in front of 80,000 fans at the Workers’ Stadium a complacent China’s hopes of reaching the World Cup collapsed.
With a line-up regarded as one of China’s strongest in the last 40 years, they were level 1-1 at half-time but conceded in the 60th minute when Hong Kong defender Ku Kam-fai smashed in the winner.
As their World Cup hopes faded in the drizzle, Chinese supporters became frustrated by what they saw as Hong Kong’s play-acting and reluctance to attack.
Cries of “Hong Kong cowards” rang out and the full-time whistle was greeted with stunned silence, followed by the stamping of feet, then fury.
Kwok Ka-ming, Hong Kong’s coach at the time, told AFP ahead of the 35th anniversary of his team’s momentous victory: “In 1984 then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Beijing and the Joint Declaration was signed (agreeing to return Hong Kong to China).
“So the victory we had in the qualifiers not only meant a lot for football, but also in history.”
– The riot –
Losing was one thing but doing so to “little brother” Hong Kong made it even worse.
“After we won and wanted to return to the changing room, the spectators began to hurl stuff onto the field so we couldn’t make it back to the changing room and had to shelter,” Kwok recalls.
Outside the stadium hundreds of fans, some drunk, rioted.
Some were armed with stones, bricks and bottles, according to reports at the time, and the atmosphere took on a distinctly anti-foreign flavour.
“An AFP correspondent taking photos was accosted by a hostile crowd of more than a hundred people, the police making no effort to intervene,” said an AFP report.
“The crowd, apparently acting on the orders of plainclothes police, did not allow the correspondent to leave until they grabbed his film.”
Other foreign reporters were spat at, threatened and had their cars attacked, while a staff member of the French embassy also saw his car targeted.
The hooliganism lasted about two hours with “several dozen cars” and buses were damaged. A taxi driver attempting to protect his vehicle was beaten up.
About 30 police officers were injured and 127 people were arrested.
– The repercussions –
The official Xinhua news agency called it the most serious incident in Beijing since the founding of communist China in 1949.
AFP noted that foreign residents and diplomatic circles were concerned about “a surge” in xenophobia and police failure to protect the victims.
The fallout was no less ugly for the Chinese team, who went into hiding for several days and made a public apology.
Coach Zeng Xuelin quit and later recalled the episode as “a nightmare”. The Chinese Football Association chairman resigned six months later.
Lee Chun-wing, a lecturer at Hong Kong’s College of Professional and Continuing Education, says there are two theories why fans reacted like they did.
Hong Kong media critical of China blamed xenophobia but Lee — whose research interests include Hong Kong’s football history — points out that buses carrying locals were also targeted.
China in the 1980s was undergoing vast economic changes so another explanation is that fans took the opportunity to protest against price reform which had led to inflation.
China reached the World Cup in 2002, but today stand 76th in the FIFA rankings, a long way from President Xi Jinping’s ambition to become a football super power.
“Probably the players and fans have always been haunted by the defeat whenever China plays a do-or-die match since then (1985),” Lee said.