Hong Kong fans at their team's match with Iran

Doha (AFP) - All international football comes with displays of pride and heritage, but for Hong Kong fans, it is more than that.

“It’s like the last outlet to watch Hong Kong or support Hong Kong,” one fan told AFP in Qatar, where the team have reached the Asian Cup for the first time in 56 years.

“But the government or society is closing that down. That’s why I guess we’re all here, to try and support the team.”

The team ranked lower than anybody else at the tournament at 150 in the world is officially called “Hong Kong, China”, such as on scoreboards at games.

“China” is a recent addition and a subtle example of Beijing’s tightening grip on the southern Chinese city following huge and sometimes violent democracy protests in 2019.

The supporter, and others like him, did not wish to be named – another indication of the fast-changing political climate in the former British colony of 7.5 million people.

The fan, waiting to enter Khalifa International Stadium for Hong Kong’s tough group-stage match with Iran, said that the new name was “kind of expected” after the recent political changes, describing himself as “numb to the whole situation”.

“What we really feel is the team themselves, not the name,” said a second fan.

“I still support the Hong Kong team, and I call them ‘Hong Kong’, not ‘Hong Kong, China’.”

- Booing the anthem -

As political disquiet swelled throughout the 2010s, so too did support for the city’s football team, with many fans finding it a conduit for civic pride and occasionally anti-government sentiment.

Some in the crowd waved Hong Kong and China flags

The Hong Kong and national governments have in recent years remoulded the city’s legal landscape to curb separatism or anti-Beijing sentiment.

Among the acts outlawed is any denigration of the Chinese national anthem, which was previously routinely drowned out by a wail of boos before Hong Kong matches – to the outrage of local and mainland officials.

The second supporter said that the team inspires extra fervour because the fans “think Hong Kong football represents the identity of Hong Kong”.

“Like you never give up. Because Hong Kong is never a great team, but we fight until the end.”

As kickoff approached, the 300-400 fans forming a red bloc shouted “We are Hong Kong”, a long-time chant in a city where many seek to preserve a culture, history and language distinct from those of mainland China.

When the anthems were played, Hong Kong fans were upstanding but mostly silent, with some citing fear of legal repercussions if they jeered, even though they are more than 6,000 kilometres (4,000 miles) from home.

Under a sweeping national security law passed in 2020, acts deemed secessionist can be prosecuted regardless of what country they were committed in.

“There’s no boundary to the law,” said the second fan. “It applies to the whole earth.”

- ‘We are Hong Kong’ -

Ernest Lau, a Hong Konger who had flown from London to watch the team, was more ambivalent about recent changes to the match-day experience.

The 22-year-old said he never previously booed the anthem because “I’m less on that political spectrum”.

Hong Kong's players acknowledge their travelling fans

Despite one of Hong Kong’s best performances in recent memory, Iran won 1-0 in front of a crowd including some waving both Hong Kong and China flags.

After the final whistle, Hong Kong fans – completely outnumbered by Iran supporters – locked arms and bounced up and down, waving scarves and flags.

“We are Hong Kong, allez allez,” the small knot of fans sang.

Hong Kong have one last game to get the points which could get them beyond the group stage, on Tuesday against Palestine.