In a wide-ranging exclusive interview, Hong Kong FA Mark Sutcliffe reveals his belief that entering a team from the SAR into the Chinese FA would be an ideal first step towards some integration with the Mainland Chinese football system. The suggestion that a Hong Kong team may one day play in the CSL has been mooted several times in the past, but nothing solid has ever materialized. The HKFA’s remarks are the clearest indication yet that there is a willingness to make this happen in Hong Kong, on an official level at least, and are timely given that the business end of the CFA cup starts this week.
Hong Kong correspondent Christopher KL Lau met with Sutcliffe for an in-depth chat about the state of the game in Hong Kong, the new Hong Kong Premier League, Argentina’s national team’s forthcoming visit and the World Cup.
Upon reflection, how was the 2013-2014 football season for you? Did the season fulfill your expectations and reach any goals targeted?
The first thing I would probably say is that there were some disappointments. The fact that we had to suspend two teams from the league was a disappointment. Aside from that, I think there was a good standard of football played; by Kitchee in particular. They won the league by sixteen points and other than that, it was good to see other teams coming to the fore, Eastern winning the FA Cup for example and I thought the playoffs were very good and the standard of football played was very good. Earlier in the season, we had South China in the playoffs for the AFC champions League and that was positive and indicates things moving in the right direction and Kithee have also qualified for the quarter finals of the AFC Cup. So it’s a mixture of good and bad as you would expect for most football seasons. There are positives and negatives and the important thing is now we have a basis for the Premier League for next season. This season was always going to be a transitional year.
The HKFA needs up to HKD100 million annually in order for Project Phoenix to fulfill all its goals. Is this number justifiable? Why is the government seemingly so reluctant to assist the city’s most popular game?
I am not sure where the one hundred million (Hong Kong) figure came from to be honest. That’s quite an erroneous number. I won’t bore you with the long story of where the number came from. I think it was something quoted by one of the papers and they got it when I said that one percent of the net revenue from football betting would generate one hundred million. That was not me saying what we need. I have produced a new five year plan and the additional money that we to deliver the entire strategic plan is less than fifty million (HK) more than what we have been getting to date. So in-fact it is not one hundred million (Hong Kong), its less than half of that of what we actually need. So we have put together a five year plan which has got a lot of aims and objectives and targets and areas where we want to improve football; these include the representative teams, youth development, women’s football, coach education and refereeing. The accumulative of that is that we probably need an increase of what we have been we have been getting of between thirty and fifty million (HK) a year for the next three to five years. This is a much more realistic figure than the one hundred million which has been banded around. I don’t think the Hong Kong government is reluctant to fund. We have more or less an agreement in principle now that the Hong Kong government will give us five years extra funding. We presented the strategy to the football task force in May and that was received very well, we had a positive response from the task force and they said they will give us five more years extra funding. What we are doing now is negotiating over the exact amount and where the money will come from and where it will go to. We were never expecting the government to put up all that extra thirty to fifty million anyway so we have to find some of the additional money ourselves either through sponsorship or charities such as the Hong Kong Jockey club so we are looking for a number of sources of funding other than the government so we can implement the strategy.
If money was not an issue to the Hong Kong football association, what would you first propose?
If money was no issue, I would put money into a number of different areas, certainly the premier league, the professional game; we would like to see more money going into the clubs particularly in relation to youth development and the club’s academies. I would also like to see more money going into the training and preparation of our own representative teams and the new youth academy that we have for new elite young players and our own existing ‘A’ team and our under 21s and under 23s. We need more money for them to train more frequently and with higher intensity and I would put more money into better facilities like the football training center that we have planned and obviously the big area of investment of youth development, getting more youths to play more often and having access to better facilities and coaching. It would be a nice position to be in…money no object.
The much vaunted Tseung Kwan O soccer academy recently had its ground breaking ceremony; when is the expected completion date and what aims does the HKFA have for it?
Actually the ground breaking ceremony was in relation to the Kitchee Training Centre and not the Hong Kong Football Association centre so Kitchee have had a grant from the Hong Kong Jockey Club and will be getting additional money to build the training centre specifically for Kitchee. The Tseung Kwan O training centre remains a plan on a piece of paper but we are working on a proposal now which we will submit hopefully in September which is in relation to the development of a phase one Tseung Kwan O site and we are responding to the Hong Kong government’s Chief Executive’s initiative which he has set-up in relation to the landfill site and the landfill revitalization project and they have set up a fund and we will be bidding for funding from the government to develop phase 1 of the Tseung Kwan O site so hopefully, we will be successful in that application and we will able to ideally begin work in 2015.
The proposed Premier League has a number of teams who have signed up. What will happen to the premier league if not enough teams / a minimum number of teams signs up?
We have different approaches from different clubs as you would expect. We have twelve teams in the first division this season and some have responded positively so again Kitchee and South China have worked with us last season to put in extraordinary applications for an AFC club license and were successful. Some of the other clubs have been very enthusiastic about the new Premier League because it helps them to become more professional, helps to raise the standard and enables them to possibly participate in AFC competitions as well. So we have some clubs which are very positive and some clubs which are less than enthusiastic and there are various reasons for that some of which I will not speculate on. I have some sympathy for some of the smaller clubs because they are struggling to make ends meet financially. The premier league is not requiring them to make any significant investments over and above what they have been spending at the moment. That has been certainly used as a reason why they not as enthusiastic about the premier league. Its a little bit of an incorrect premise to say that we are asking them to spend more money next year. We are not, we are actually renegotiating broadcasting arrangements to make it more cost effective for those clubs. We have had nine applications for the premier league next year so nine clubs have decided they want to be part of the league which is good.
How many licenses are there for the premier league?
There are twelve licenses available so that is the maximum number and we have always said we would start with less teams. It about quality not quantity so we said we would start with a minimum of eight so we have achieved that objective so the new premier league will be starting in September.
Will there be a new marketing and branding campaign for the new premier league?
We will have a meeting tomorrow (at the time of the interview) to discuss marketing and branding and how to promote the new league. We are looking at merchandizing and in talks about the television deals. We want make the league different from the previous leagues but we are limited by what we can do by finances as we don’t have a major sponsor at the moment which is a disappointment.
Are you actively looking for sponsors for the new premier league?
We have a couple of organizations, we are talking too but cant divulge if a deal can be done.
About a decade ago, nations like Belgium and Germany launched widespread reforms in their footballing systems and cultures which have reaped immeasurable rewards on the international stage; ultimately does Project Phoenix have the same goals?
I think we have the same goals but if it will reach the same standards or not is another matter but clearly ‘Project Phoenix’ is about transforming football in Hong Kong and the analogy is a good one because it does take five to ten years to work everything through the system. It also takes that long to develop a good quality footballer but we do have the same objectives clearly which is about raising the standard and going through similar processes, I am familiar with the work they did and other countries as well in terms of transforming sports. Its about root and branch transformation of all the systems and structures and of the people and the resources getting better facilities and making sure that all the organizations involved in football and all the stakeholders are joined up in the same direction. Football; in Hong Kong, like some of those countries is a little fragmented so ‘Project Phoenix’ is about bringing everything together with a new strategic plan which is called “Aiming High Together”. It’s specifically named that because we are recognized as a football association, we cannot do everything ourselves, we need to work together with the other stakeholders, the government and other parties involved in delivering football through programs so that there is a coordinated and systematic framework in place so that good quality footballers can emerge from this process.
What are the positives of the Hong Kong game? What does it have going for it?
In terms of local football, the Hong Kong football association, over two and a half years has transformed itself and we have very very solid foundations. We have more resources and we are better organized. We are more effective and efficient so now we are starting to see improvements on the pitch. We have teams performing well in the Asian competitions, our U16 team has qualified for the Asian regional finals for the first time ever. At the recent Soccer 7s, our U21, U23 and Kitchee performed exceedingly well. There is now a momentum shift and I know there are some people who are still critical of ‘Project Phoenix’ but it is dying down a little bit because people can start to see the changes and start to see that the FA is different and we can also start to see things improving on the pitch and that will only build further with the new premier league. In terms of marketing, teams have transformed their approach. So for example, Sun Pegasus who play their home games in Mong Kok. If you go to their games now, the atmosphere is better, they dress the stadium, they provide more services to their fans and have match day programs and so on. The clubs are trying to react to the fact that football in Hong Kong is changing so that is positive.
Will there be a a new national stadium soon?
I would hope so. The Hong Kong government are keen to build a new stadium at Kai Tak. My hope is that they will retain the existing Hong Kong stadium and then perhaps take the top tier off so they reduce the capacity to fifteen and twenty thousand and then we would have three tiers of facility scales. We could have the new Kai Tak stadium which is either fifty to fifty-five thousand capacity on one scale and then we have Mong Kok which is on a smaller scale. If we had a fifteen to twenty thousand capacity stadium then that would be ideal. Hong Kong stadium is great if you have a Barclays Asia cup or Manchester United or Argentina but at moment it is too big. Mong Kok is better but hopefully soon it will too small for those events. We are caught between a stadium which is too big or too small.
Football is the most popular viewing and participatory sport in Hong Kong. Why is there seemingly so much inertia in developing the game here?
There maybe inertia in terms of watching local football so that is probably what the question is alluding too and you are right, our average number of spectators at games this season has been just under one thousand which when you consider there is seven and a half million people in Hong Kong, a lot of whom are passionate about local football then it does seem like a bit of a low number. I think historically, it is the result of a number of factors and we are going to address some of those and some we cant. One we can’t is that it is now possible to watch good quality football from the comfort of your own living room, You can watch the English premier league on television and we are not going to be able to compete with that in terms of quality. One thing we can do is that we can try and improve the standard of our own quality of football.
We can try and improve the experience of going to a football match through better facilities and we are trying to do that with the government. To draw people back, fans need to know and be confident that they are watching a clean match and there are steps we are taking to make sure that matches are not fixed or manipulated in anyway through our new integrity initiatives. Hopefully, this will give people confidence that they are watching a competitive match with players playing to the best of their ability. Its a combination of improved marketing, so we promote the game better, we get a better standard on the pitch, we get some good foreign players, we get some locals players with a good image and through a whole series of incremental changes, hopefully we start to generate more interest in local football and that going to take time.
Will Hong Kong ever join the Chinese Super League?
I would never say never but there are some impediments to that; so for example, we would have to decide which team would play in China. Would we have one of our existing teams or do we set up a new team? We have discussed this with the Chinese FA. They would not rule us out of joining the league but we would have to start in the lower divisions and we simply would not go in at the top tier of the Chinese Super League and it would take some time to progress if we were of the right quality to play at the higher league. We would also have to address things, like what would happen if that team got relegated out of the Chinese Super league so there are practical problems. So I think the most realistic opportunity is to enter a team into the Chinese FA Cup. It’s a good idea in principal and we are trying to develop all those relationships between ourselves and China but ultimately, the key thing is that we want to develop our independence as a member of FIFA. The closer we come (to China), we may jeopardize our own independence.
Who will win the FIFA World Cup?
Well, I have a hope that and well obviously my allegiance is with England (before World Cup at the time of the interview) as I am from England although I am not convinced that my heart would like England to win and my head says we probably wont but the other nation I would like to see do well now is Argentina as this is a result of a deal signed yesterday (at the time of the interview); Argentina is coming to Hong Kong in October for the Hong Kong Football Association’s centenary celebrations and that’s confirmed and so if Argentina come to Hong Kong as world champions then that would be fantastic!
Christopher KL Lau is the Hong Kong Correspondent for Wildeast Football. All pictures courtesy of Chris K L Lau and the HKFA
He has figured out twitter and can be found here: https://twitter.com/Chris_KL_Lau
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