Tackling the football crisis

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Hong Kong’s football industry has been on the back foot over the past few years. But now a new boss has been signed up to the city’s FA, Shirley Zhao looks at his plans to revive the local game 

Chui Kai-fung sits in the spectator stand at Southorn Playground in Wan Chai watching a group of footballers in action. The 59-year-old goes to games in Hong Kong as much as he can, be it professional or amateur. His passion for the sport started more than 30 years ago, when ‘everyone was crazy for local football’. He remembers the 1980s and 90s, when the ‘streets became quieter and traffic smoother’ whenever a game was on. “At that time, every local football match could attract 7,000 to 8,000 spectators,” he says. “But nowadays everything is different. If a local match can attract a few hundred spectators, it’s considered as a success.”

Fans of the local game like Chui are becoming a rare breed. Blame it on the rise of televised games – particularly from England’s Premier League – or the drastic demise of Hong Kong’s national team (our world ranking fell to 169 out of 201 in December last year – an all-time low, despite winning a medal in the 2009 East Asian Games). Or blame the lack of attendance at games on Now TV's coverage of matches. Either way, Hong Kong was once known as ‘the football kingdom of the East’. Before the late 90s, the sport, on a grassroots level, was still highly popular. However, as other Asian football teams get stronger, some say the final whistle may have blown in our city.

But all that could change. On September 17, Mark Sutcliffe took over as the new chief executive of the Hong Kong Football Association, the body behind the development of the local industry. Sutcliffe’s appointment, it is hoped, may be just what’s needed to breathe life into Hong Kong footy. In fact, his number one goal is to push forward a government-funded plan – known as Project Phoenix – which is entirely geared at revitalising the local game.

Sutcliffe is the HKFA’s second chief executive – and he’s been involved in Project Phoenix since its inception in 2009. He’s already written a consultancy study on the local game and also assessed the operations of the association itself. And he’s published 33 recommendations together with his study which have led to the formation of the plan. “Mark Sutcliffe has everything needed to be the HKFA’s CEO,” says Brian Leung Hung-tak, association chairman. “We believe his experience can help raise Hong Kong football’s reputation.”

But how exactly does Sutcliffe plan to do this? He faces complex circumstances. His predecessor, Gordon McKie, resigned in May, less than six months into his three-year contract (the CEO position was new when he joined the team). In an interview with a newspaper in his homeland, the Scot said he’d been in conflict with Hong Kong’s First Division clubs because ‘they didn’t care about the international team’. The HKFA blamed McKie’s inability to move his family to Hong Kong and ‘personal reasons’.

Then there are allegations of bribery. One of the four HKFA club directors, Steven Lo Kit-sing, is involved in a trial which has been adjourned to next January. Lo, the chairman of South China Football Club, together with tycoon Joseph Lau Luen-hung, has been charged with an alleged $20 million bribe linked to Macau’s former public works chief who was sentenced in May to 29 years in jail. Lo has already offered to step down from the nine-director HKFA board.

And what about the departure of a key member of the team? One of the three independent directors on the board, former police commissioner Tang King-shing, has just filed his resignation. The 58-year-old retiree says he's ‘too busy’ to tend to disciplinary and refereeing matters.

Sutcliffe’s already got his work cut out. “As with any plan to transform, there will be some difficulties,” says Sutcliffe. Those difficulties, he says, include ‘overcoming resistance’, ‘generating resources’ and ‘keeping things on track’ while retaining flexibility as the plan is implemented. He says the HKFA needs to work collaboratively with stakeholders such as football clubs, the government, the Jockey Club, sponsors and football fans for Project Phoenix to take flight.

So, the plan itself. Among Sutcliffe’s 33 recommendations, he tells Time Out he will focus on improving the national team (if the national side fares better, then the local scene should, in theory, follow) and establishing a new, more professional and competitive domestic league. He will also help local clubs ‘to be more professional’, and aim to pull women’s, school, district and amateur football leagues into the HKFA’s remit. And he wants to create ‘development pathways’ for potential future stars, as well as reforming the HKFA itself.

He sits on the fence when it comes to calls for Hong Kong to put a team into the Chinese Super League – a move some see as a way of improving the passion for local football here – saying he does not see it as 'crucial to the success of Project Phoenix'.

However Sutcliffe also notes that, to achieve his plans, there are some deep-seated problems – such as a lack of training fields, raw talent and the potential for good revenues – which need to be addressed.

Most clubs in Hong Kong do not have their own football fields. They need to rent government venues for training sessions (costing the club $168 for every hour-and-a-half during the daytime and $336 for every 90-minute session in the evening). “One session is not enough for professional training,” says Ken Ng Kin, general manager of First Division football team – and arguably our best current domestic side – Kitchee. “Yet two are too much. We usually use two hours for training and the half hour left over is a waste.” Ng adds that professional teams often need to compete with the public for pitches. “Venues for spectator sports are of a higher standard than those used for amateur sports,” he says. “They should be separated. But in Hong Kong, professionals and amateurs always need to use same pitches.” In 2010, Honduras footballer Jerry Palacio turned down an invitation to join South China after seeing the local training facilities.

In July, the Jockey Club and Kitchee announced a joint plan to build a football training centre for the team. According to Ng, the government should approve the venue in Shek Mun, Sha Tin district, on condition that 30 percent of its opening time is dedicated to the public. He says the contract should be settled in November, with the centre expected to be built next year. The HKFA also announced a plan 10 years ago to build a National Football Training Centre and a closed landfill in Tseung Kwan O was chosen as the site. But it never materialised, with the reason often cited as ‘financial issues’. However, under Sutcliffe, Project Phoenix has recognised the importance of the centre and, says the association, it is now discussing sponsorship with the Jockey Club.

Ex-footballer Leslie George Santos, one of the most famous local stars in the 1990s, says the insecurity of being a pro player these days has been scaring away potential talent. “I’m running a football school myself,” he says, “but when I find promising young talents, I don’t even know if I should tell them to pursue this career.” Santos says that many current players earn a monthly salary of little more than $10,000 and when they retire, there’s no help available for them in changing career.

Vincent Yuen Man-chuen, HKFA general secretary, admits there’s a huge need to provide players with bigger salaries and post-retirement career options. “We need to work with commercial and educational organisations to change the current situation,” he says. Yuen also feels the need to develop local superstars. “In the past, football stars could attract thousands of spectators to games,” he says. “But over the past decade there have been no major stars.”

When the local industry finds it difficult to attract dedicated players, it should perhaps follow that it’ll be hard to pull in audiences and generate decent revenues. But Project Phoenix provides a solution, says Sutcliffe, as it recommends the establishment of a new league to replace the First Division. The (imaginatively titled) Premier League, taking the number of teams up from 10 to 12 and creating more matches in a bid to ‘promote excitement’, was expected to start this season but the plans were delayed so the First Division resumed as normal at the end of August.

Phoenix also proposes the establishment of a Professional Footballers Association to look after players' welfare. The HKFA would look for major league sponsors, secure broadcasting rights and allow strictly regulated gambling on domestic football.

It could all be up from here, if Sutcliffe’s Project Phoenix takes off and the problems he has faced die down. And he’s optimistic, particularly with the plans for the new league high on his agenda. Tim Bredbury, former Hong Kong star player and First Division team Sun Hei coach, is hopeful. “Hong Kong football has been dying over the past decade. Everybody accepts Project Phoenix but it’s not moving now. It needs the right people to do the right things and the HKFA needs to be professional. We will need to see what the new CEO can do.”

The formerormer greats

Hong Kong football has attracted a few high-profile names over the years. Here are some of the biggest…

George Best
Hong Kong and the legendary Northern Irishman seem to be a match made in heaven. Back in 1982, one of the greatest players the world has ever seen played brief guest stints at two now defunct local teams (two games with Sea Bee and one with Rangers), displaying all his enigmatic talent, footballing and otherwise…

Arie Haan
After being integral to the ‘total football’ revolution of the 70s, the classy Dutch defender finished his playing career in Hong Kong, turning out for Seiko SA five times in 1984 and 1985. It may have been a brief stint but it started a Chinese love affair that saw him go on to coach the China national team as well as Chinese Super League teams.

Bobby Moore
Names in English football don’t get much bigger than the West Ham legend. And while the 1966 World Cup winning captain never played for any local teams, he took up the managerial post at Eastern AA in 1981. Rather unsuccessfully, we should add.

Alan Ball
If there was one success of Bobby Moore’s tenure at Eastern, it was luring his fellow World Cup winner (and Everton, Arsenal and Southampton great) Ball to our shores for a dozen-game stint.

Nicky Butt
In an attempt to push for continental glory, in late 2010, South China convener Steven Lo brought in the biggest name to grace Hong Kong football for decades: Nicky Butt. However, the classless combative midfielder wasn’t exactly what the team needed, dropping out from the AFC Cup early and failing to win the First Division for the first time in five years.

Mateja Kezman
Piece two of Lo’s ‘conquer Asia’ puzzle turned out to be an even greater flop than the first. Slow and out of touch, the Serbian striker arrived last year surrounded by plenty of hype but struggled to get into the South China team, let alone find the form that had him dominate at PSV Eindhoven and earn a big money move to Chelsea.

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