HONG KONG: Hong Kong soccer fans sang protest songs and waved anti-government banners as politics spilled into the sporting arena on Wednesday during a friendly game involving English Premier League champions Manchester City in the China-ruled city.
Before the game, a few protesters handed out fliers outside the stadium where Man City played local outfit Kitchee.
“We must protest. We are many,” said one protester, who covered his face and declined to be named, just yards away from where police marshalled fans into the stadium.
Over past months, Hong Kong has been embroiled by a series of sometimes violent protests – its most serious crisis since the city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 but with democratic freedoms under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Fresh conflicts broke out on Sunday in a widening crisis over an extradition bill that could see people from the territory sent to China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
Once Wednesday’s game was underway, some fans sang “can you hear the people sing?” and many in the 20,000 crowd began chanting “Free Hong Kong”.
Others held up “No Extradition” signs calling on the Hong Kong government to categorically scrap the extradition bill rather than merely suspend it as they have done now.
One man dressed in black, the preferred colour of many protesters, also ran onto the pitch, briefing disrupting the match towards the end.
Manchester City won the game 6-1 with goals from David Silva and Raheem Sterling among others on a hot and humid night.
City manager Pep Guardiola had earlier said he was affected by such protests at a human level. The former Barcelona coach was born in the Spanish region of Catalonia, and has been a staunch supporter of its push for independence from Spain.
“Always in society we have to accept protests,” Guardiola was quoted as saying by local media.
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises it would be granted a high degree of autonomy. But Beijing’s increasingly tight control of the city has stoked discontent and protests. Some have even called for a split from China.
In a post-match news conference, Guardiola said his team had not been affected, and that he hoped a solution could be found to Hong Kong’s problems. “Here the game was normal,” he said.
Kitchee’s captain, Huang Yang, said he hoped football could help ease tensions. “We use football to unite people, getting together and (to) see a future in Hong Kong.”
(Reporting by Simon Gardner; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)