Protesters blocked Hong Kong’s main streets for months last year during the “Occupy Central” protests, calling for real democracy for the former British colony in the vote for its next leader in 2017.
Beijing has allowed a direct vote, but only from among pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.
Hundreds of Chinese paramilitary and riot police were deployed in and around the 40,000-seat stadium in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, bordering the Chinese “Special Administrative Region” of Hong Kong.
The match, a spirited contest dominated by China, ended in a 0-0 draw, sparking wild celebrations from 2,000 or so Hong Kong fans, hemmed in by tens of thousands of red-clad mainland China supporters banging drums and waving flags.
“We’ve faced so much pressure from China over the past year. This is the only way we can release some of our anger, on the sports field,” said Roy Choi, a fan with a group called “Power for Hong Kong” at the game. “I’m so proud of Hong Kong.”
Passions had already spilled over earlier in the year when Hong Kong fans jeered as China’s national anthem was played for a previous qualifier, drawing the ire of some mainland bloggers who called for the “beating of Hong Kong dogs” in Shenzhen.
A controversial poster issued by China’s National Football Association to promote the qualifier had also raised the heat.
“This team has people with black skin, yellow skin and white skin. For such a diverse team, be on guard!” the poster read. The Hong Kong team has a number of foreign-born players.
Most mainland Chinese fans streamed out of the stadium peacefully, watched by scores of riot police clutching shields and batons.
“I’m disappointed,” said Cai Ronghua, with a red China flag drawn on his forehead. “Politics shouldn’t intrude into sports … but I do admit that ties between Hong Kong and China aren’t great right now.”
While most football encounters have been peaceful, a 1985 World Cup qualifier in Beijing that was won by Hong Kong sparked riots by Chinese fans.
Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under a promise that core individual and commercial freedoms, backed by a British-style legal system, would be protected for 50 years.
(Story refiles to add dropped ‘Hong Kong’ in paragraph 3)
(Additional reporting by Ever Tang; Editing by Nick Macfie/Ruth Pitchford)