Tuesday, 4 September 2018

I’m Leaving the HKFA

After six years as CEO of the HKFA it’s time for me to say ‘goodbye’. My first contract was concluded in November 2014 a month after Project Phoenix had been completed. But by then we were in a critical phase of preparing the next Strategic Plan and applying for a new round of funding. So I was offered and agreed to take a new 3 year contract up until March 2018. To be honest I never intended to stay here this long, my logic in doing so was to be in a position to consolidate the improvements we were able to make as a result of the new funding and to oversee the construction of the new Football Training Centre (FTC), the last piece of the Project Phoenix ‘jigsaw’. I was committed to leaving in March 2018 but unfortunately there were inevitable delays in the FTC and I agreed yet another contract to stay on until it was complete. My original intention was to be here three years maximum. If you remember I was ‘head-hunted’ to take over an organization in crisis. I won’t elaborate but Project Phoenix had got off to a disastrous start and some serious damage limitation was required to get back on an even keel and restore the confidence of stakeholders.
The FTC is now finished and so as far as I am concerned my job here is done. The FTC is fundamental to the long term development of football in Hong Kong. When I came here I found FTC files dating back several decades. I can understand now why nothing happened before I came here. This has been one of the most difficult projects I have ever been involved with and I am proud that it has finally come to fruition.

So what recent media articles have failed to point out is that I have already been here twice as long as I intended and that I have had my contract renewed twice. They also don’t know that I have some personal reasons for needing to go back to the UK. The media like to ‘sensationalise’ issues but the fact is that 6 years is a long time to be away from family and friends and now is a good time for me to go.

I have enjoyed my time here and I believe that I leave football in Hong Kong in a much better place than I found it. In my next blog I will summarise the differences as an ‘end of school’ report. It’s not the ‘impossible’ job that some people say it is but it’s certainly challenging and often made harder than it should be.

It’s sad that some people are focusing on what I am paid rather than what has been achieved. I took what was offered to me on day one without negotiation and I did not seek an increase when my contract was renewed twice. I have never claimed expenses and I have paid my own flights, accommodation etc whenever I have supported Hong Kong teams in places such as Maldives, Bhutan, Qatar, Malaysia, Guam etc etc. In my opinion what people should be focusing on is the more than half a billion dollars (HK$500m+) of extra investment (such as Government funding, HKJC partnership and commercial sponsorship) I have personally brought into Hong Kong football and the things we have been able to do with that money. And make no mistake about it, a lot has been achieved. Of course the successes we have brought about are not just down to me. I need to thank many people including my colleagues here at the HKFA, our Chairman and Board Members as well as many stakeholders including the Government and the HK Jockey Club.

So when I get on that plane home on 1st October I will have some mixed emotion. There will be some sadness in leaving but more so I will be looking forward to the next chapter in my life. It has been a wonderful and overwhelmingly positive experience. I have made some great friends and had some incredible times. I have tried my best every day to make Hong Kong football better. I will leave other people to judge whether that is the case, but thanks to everyone for giving me this opportunity and good luck in the future.

Monday, 29 January 2018

There’s something seriously wrong with Football Economics

According to financial information collated by the accountants Deloitte, the combined turnover of the top 20 football clubs in the world (Europe) is GBP6.97bn or circa HK$73bn. Manchester United was identified as the top club in terms of revenue with a figure of GBP581m (say HK$6bn).  

On the face of it these look like quite large numbers but are they really? Personally I think they are surprisingly small. Arguably Manchester United is one of the world’s best known brands up there in terms of recognition with the likes of Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, etc and yet its turnover figure is miniscule in comparison, as illustrated by the wafer thin bar in the chart below.

Considering the global reach and appeal of both football and the top brands such as Manchester United not to mention the ubiquitous TV/media coverage, the amount of money actually being generated by the clubs is rather pathetic. And of course most of these clubs have huge debts and make a financial loss every year. Operationally the loss can be (at least in part) attributed to the fact that an unsustainable amount of revenue is going on player wages. If the stories about the salary being paid to Sanchez at Man Utd are true, then he alone is getting over 4% of the club’s entire revenue. It’s not unusual for the playing staff alone to account for significantly more than 50% of turnover. Some of the recent transfers have also been ridiculous. My own club Liverpool recently paid GBP75m for a defender (a very good one it has to be said) which is 20% of the club’s annual turnover.

I’m not blaming the clubs by the way. They have little choice in paying vast sums of money to players and their agents. It’s market forces and if they want to stay at the top, they simply have to fork out ever increasing astronomical amounts. The problem as we know is that many fans are being priced out of the market altogether.

The main point I am coming round to making however is that there are even bigger amounts of money being made out of football that never goes near the clubs.

And I’m not talking about the Leagues or even the Governing Bodies such as FIFA. The Premier League generates a lot of money by selling the TV rights (GBP8.4billion between 2016-19) but a large proportion of that goes back to the clubs and contributes to the turnover figures above. FIFA generates money from the World Cup but that gets recycled into football activities and programmes mainly through Member Associations. So in these cases the football ‘product’ is being used to fund football – I have no problem with that.

The problem I have is that the organisations making the most money from football invest nothing in the ‘product’ of football or the infrastructure of football or give much back. They use the ‘product’ of football as a cuckoo uses another bird’s nest. I’m talking about betting companies.

The global football sports betting market is worth HK$7.8trillion (US$1trillion) per annum. That’s US$ 1,000,000,000,000 or not far short of the GDP of Australia. How much of that goes back to the clubs or football in general?

Just one of the many UK betting companies Bet365 had a turnover last year of around four times that of Manchester United and made a healthy profit margin of over 20%. How football clubs would like margins like that!

The Hong Kong Jockey Club generates revenues from football betting (not including horse racing) in excess of the collective turnover of the world’s top 20 football clubs. It’s an astounding amount of money but at least in this case a large percentage of the profit generated goes to good causes (and the Government in tax). Similarly, in England 1% of the ‘pools’ (national tote) money has been used to fund the Football Foundation and this investment has helped to transform grassroots football.

I’m not name dropping but in December I was having lunch with FIFA President Gianni Infantino and he was rightly bemoaning the fact that football sees very little of the money generated from commercial football betting. He mentioned that in France there is legislation to ensure that 1% of betting turnover goes to the sport that generates it. If this model was followed internationally and if my maths is correct it would result in an additional US$10 billion investment back into football. Imagine the power of this money to change people’s lives through social responsibility programmes, grass roots football initiatives and even in tackling the problems caused by football betting such as match-fixing, addiction etc!

Undoubtedly, some of this money should go back to the owners of the ‘product’ that created the wealth in the first place i.e. the clubs as long as there were safeguards in place to stop all of the extra money going to mercenary players and greedy agent! Lower ticket prices maybe? It’s high time that there was a much closer and global symbiotic relationship between football and football betting.

Mark Sutcliffe CEO, January 2018


Sunday, 24 December 2017

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Another year has literally flown by! It’s incredible to think that this is my sixth Christmas since taking up my position in 2012. It makes me laugh now to recall the countless people who told me when I first started that….”you won’t last six months!”

In my Christmas message two years ago I reflected on how 2015 had been a disastrous year for FIFA and I looked forward to a time when it would have a new President and a reform programme. Last week the HKFA hosted a FIFA Summit which was Chaired by the FIFA President Mr Gianni Infantino. There were 15 Member Associations present and we were all consulted by FIFA on some of its future programmes and had an opportunity to question FIFA representatives on a range of topics. This refreshing and inclusive approach simply wouldn’t have happened under the old regime. The fact that this event went virtually unnoticed is also indicative that the ‘new’ FIFA is more interested in doing business than it is in boosting egos through self-promotion. The HKFA is already receiving more than five times as much funding from FIFA than two years ago. There has been a swift and remarkable change at FIFA and I congratulate them for it and wish them a Merry Christmas!

As ever 2017 has been an eventful year. As you can see from the picture the long-awaited and much-needed Hong Kong Jockey Club HKFA Football Training Centre is nearing completion. It’s going to be delivered a bit later than we expected due to some adverse weather and technical challenges but it will be worth waiting for, I can assure you of that. This is one of the final recommendations of the original Project Phoenix to fall into place and I can’t help feeling somewhat emotional when I walk around the site and see what has been finally achieved. With a lot of hard work visions can become reality.

Another highlight was the Premier League Asia Trophy which took place in July. The weather tried to spoil it like it had in 2013 but not this time. The new pitch at the HK Stadium performed beautifully and two full-house crowds were thrilled by some of the world’s best players. I will never forget the sea of red and the passionate rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Another very emotional moment to savour for me as a Liverpool fan.

I can’t cover all of the activities and programmes that we provide here in this short blog but suffice to say that I am immensely proud of all of my colleagues and the tremendous job they do. The HKFA staff share a passion for football and work extremely hard. I would like to thank them for all their efforts and successes. And thanks too to our Board, Committee Members and other stakeholders and partners. Collectively we strive to make Hong Kong football better. It’s not an easy task but as they say, ‘the path of true love never runs straight!’

2018 will see the operational phase of the Football Training Centre, Hong Kong teams participating in the AFC Champions League (good luck to them), the culmination of the Asian Cup qualifiers and the World Cup, to name just a few. It’s going to be another busy and exciting year.
Once again, thanks to everyone for their support. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Looks like we will have to do it the hard way!

We always said that it would be difficult to qualify for the finals of the Asian Cup UAE 2019 - given the draw we were given – and so it has been proven.

Now we have to travel to North Korea next March and win! That sounds improbable but I believe we can do it. In some ways it is better to go for a victory with nothing to lose rather than playing for a draw (which is what we would have needed had we won by two clear goals last night).

My confidence stems from the fact that for the first 40 minutes we were clearly the better team and created some really good chances against the group leaders Lebanon. Unfortunately the game turned on one incident just before half time. I have said many times in this blog that referees are fallible human beings who make mistakes. I have watched the incident many times now and whilst I can see why he awarded a penalty (just) I am still mystified as to why he even thought it was a foul worthy of a straight red. I think most observers would agree that the officials made a mistake.   

The significance of that decision is wide-ranging. Putting to one side the psychological effect that it could have on a young player and the fact that it reinforces poor behavior by rewarding an overreaction by the attacking player, it directly affects our chance of qualification for a major competition, one that we haven’t qualified for since 1968. For a ‘developing’ Football Association the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for a regional tournament is massive. Qualification would be a benchmark for the undoubted improvements we are making. Failure to qualify gives ammunition to the sceptics who say we are making no progress. Furthermore it has a detrimental effect on our FIFA ranking and also on the eligibility of our Clubs to play in regional club competitions like the Champions League. So these factors impact materially on the development of the sport here in Hong Kong. Qualification to the finals would be a massive boost to the sport and could determine whether or not funding partners continue to invest in football. It is that important and it is therefore frustrating when to some extent it hinges or is at least influenced by a poor decision.

I am not exaggerating the significance of the situation and given that, now must be the time to introduce Video Assistant Referees (VAR) for important decisions relating to goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity in international competitive football matches. There is so much at stake now that we can no longer rely on fallible human beings. I sense a consensus moving in this direction too and a number of trials are currently taking place. VAR is only a matter of time.

And whilst we are on the subject, let’s also introduce retrospective action for diving (as has been done in the English Premier League). Diving is prevalent in Asia as was exemplified the other night. One dive was so obvious that I actually laughed out loud (however the player wasn’t even booked). Some of these players must train in a swimming pool! Regular readers of this bog will know that I abhor time wasting, feigning injury, diving, simulation etc. It is beyond me why a team would do that when they have already qualified and are winning a match against ten men. I’m sad to say it but I just think that this sort of behavior is so engrained now, it’s become habitual.

So we re-group, lick our wounds and use the disappointment as a motivator for our last match. We have improved so much recently and as I say looked the better team in the first 40 minutes when it was 11 v 11. Whatever happens I am proud of our team’s performance in these qualifiers and I am sure we can still go through to the finals. We will give it our best shot anyway you can be sure of that.

A word on the booing
Quite frankly it’s getting a bit tedious. The fans who boo have made their point now and I’m pretty sure that if there hadn’t been such interest shown by the politicians and in particular the media, it would have stopped a long time ago. I can’t read most of the papers here but the ones I can read have stopped reporting on the football and are solely interested in the crowd behavior before the match which of course just encourages more booing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I am sure the media knows and relishes. Last night one media outlet even had the temerity to broadcast the anthem live on TV from inside the stadium despite the fact that they had no accreditation to do so. They were not the approved broadcaster and should not have been showing a ‘live’ feed. It’s disgusting really that a so-called professional organisation believes it is OK to infringe the regulations so blatantly.

Another sad trend is what I will call the ‘orchestrated anti-booing rent a crowd’, people who are apparently paid to come and oppose those who are booing. I don’t know who these people are or who is paying them but they are clearly not there to watch the football. They have no understanding of the game and even less interest. Last night I watched as they sat through the entire Lebanon anthem. Personally I find it more offensive to disrespect someone else’s anthem than your own. Someone should teach both groups some manners. This situation is a sad indictment on Hong Kong. Our beloved game is being hijacked (to the obvious delight of the media) as a political tool by both sides in a polarized, fractured society. It’s very sad that the action on the pitch is now seen by many as secondary to what is happening off it. Please if you’re not bothered about the football, just stay away.

The HKFA will wait to see what action is taken against us by the AFC, for it is us that will be penalized once again.

When I came to Hong Kong one of my objectives was to arrange more matches for the Hong Kong Representative Teams and that is what we have done. We have done this because we want to improve the standard of football in Hong Kong and also to give the fans some more interest and excitement. Considering what has happened recently, I think we could be forgiven for not hosting too many international friendly matches at home in the near future. There are no competitive matches lined up so we could just have a hiatus with no games if we wanted. However, we will continue to arrange matches to give our players experience and to reward the true fans. We will not give up and we will not allow negative interests to win. Football will prevail.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO November 2017

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The HKFA Says ‘NO’ to Match Fixing

Match fixing is a threat to the integrity of our sport and the HKFA takes it very seriously. To illustrate this point we recently ran a series of workshops for all HK Premier League and 1st Division teams. The workshops were presented by Sportradar our integrity partner. Sportradar is an international Fraud Prevention and Monitoring Company that specializes in identifying fixed matches and match fixers. Sportradar has a contract with the AFC to monitor all 1st and 2nd tier league matches across all 47 Member Associations of the HKFA. In addition to that the HKFA has a separate contract with them to monitor our Reserve Division and to present the workshops to players and officials.

Sportradar has very sophisticated betting monitoring systems and they follow over 550 legitimate betting sites and over 5 billion data sets daily. Mathematical algorithms trigger alarms if betting patterns deviate from the norm. I won’t go into detail but basically their systems are so robust that many match fixers have been convicted on the basis of their evidence.

If we receive an alert from Sportradar regarding an ‘ESCALATED’ match i.e. one that has been fixed, the information is routinely passed to the law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong. As recent arrests and previous convictions prove, there really is no place to hide anymore. If you fix, you will be found out, reported and investigated. As our players, coaches and officials heard from Sportradar at the briefings, being found guilty of match fixing will lead to an automatic life ban from football as well as more serious consequences such as imprisonment.

The emphasis of the workshops was on education and prevention. More often than not players are the victim and they are ‘hooked into’ this type of thing by unscrupulous criminals. Once involved in this type of activity it is almost impossible to back out because players (and their families) are blackmailed and threatened by people who had previously pretended to be their friend. Players and officials were taught how to recognize an approach from match fixers and what to do if it happens.

Match fixing is a world-wide sports problem and not just football. However Hong Kong football is identified as being particularly susceptible because Asia is the heart of the problem, players are paid relatively poorly compared to some other places and our matches are offered by betting sites all over the world.

The figures involved in betting on sport are mind-boggling and are the route of the problem. The world-wide sports betting market is worth 12.9 trillion HK$ per annum. That’s 12.9 million million or 12,900,000,000,000! Of that 7.8 trillion HK$ is bet on football, 70% of which is in Asia. It’s illegal to bet on HK football in Hong Kong however, the HK Premier League attracts global betting of HK$1.8 billion each season, that’s HK$25.6m per match! And that’s only the regulated betting market. Estimates vary but the unregulated betting market (including under the table betting in Hong Kong) is estimated to be worth at least as much again. Perhaps it’s time to legalise betting on HK football in HK so it’s easier to monitor and so a percentage of the revenue could be used to combat the problem, but that’s a discussion for another time.

It’s no wonder that with such vast sums involved, match ‘manipulation’ attracts the criminal fraternity. With over 65 ‘in-play’ bets, you don’t even need to fix the result. You can bet on the total number of goals, the half time score, the number of corners, the number of bookings etc. There was even the famous case of an English international being paid to ensure there was a throw in during the first minute of the match. It failed by the way.

This problem is not going to go away so the HKFA must be vigilant and proactive. We believe that the partnership with Sportradar and the compulsory workshops demonstrate our commitment to combatting match fixing but more importantly to protecting our players and officials.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO November 2017           

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Congratulations to Wai Ki

A few months ago I wrote a blog stating that I thought girls and women’s football in Hong Kong had turned the corner. We have had another example this week and many congratulations go to Hong Kong Women’s Representative Team player Wai Ki for getting a professional contract with Brisbane Roar in the Australian W – League. This is a fantastic achievement and I wish her well. Over the last few years I have taken pride in watching her and others in her cohort developing from players with enthusiasm and potential into really talented footballers. In that blog I highlighted how we had dominated the match against Singapore. Wai Ki was brilliant that day. I am so pleased that the girls and women are doing so well because their passion for the game is as intense as any male, as is their dedication and hard work.

This success is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s only about five years ago that the HKFA took over the responsibility for girls and women’s football. We now spend many millions of dollars on developing this side of the game. To some people it’s not important but to me it is fundamental. Girls and women have just as much right as boys and men to play football and they derive an equal amount of benefit and pleasure from playing. Girls and women’s football is the fastest growing sport in the world and Hong Kong is at the forefront of this change. The phenomenal success of Coach Chan Yuen Ting and Referee Gigi Law are just two examples of Hong Kong’s preeminence.

Most of the credit for this transformation must go to our Women’s Football Manager, Betty Wong. She has been involved in football for a long time and I was delighted when she decided to join us fulltime in May 2013. Since then she has established girls youth leagues, a women’s league and HKRTs at U12, U14, U16, U18 as well as further enhancing the senior women’s team. Betty has done an amazing job and we are lucky to have her.

I hope that Wai Ki is the first of many ‘exports’ to professional women’s leagues because she will undoubtedly develop even more by training and playing at a higher level. This can only be good for us moving forward. It will not be easy for her either personally or professionally and we should give her as much support as possible.

When I eventually look back on my time in Hong Kong I know that the growth of the women’s game, and the improvements we have made, will be one of the things that gives me most satisfaction. Good luck Wai KI, do yourself and Hong Kong proud.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO September 2017

Monday, 11 September 2017

So Near But Yet So Far

Football is a game of fine margins. I am writing this on the plane back from Malaysia the day after our Asian Cup Qualifier. It was always going to be a close game; the last two matches against Malaysia also finished 1-1. To be honest the first half was a bit uneventful with both sides trying hard, making a few mistakes and not really creating many clear cut chances. However, the second half was anything but dull!

We took the lead early in the half with an excellently crafted and finished goal but we were unable to hold onto the lead for long when they scored a somewhat fortuitous goal four minutes later. It was unlucky for us that the ball deflected into the path of an unmanned player in the box from a blocked shot, and he was left with just our keeper to beat. If I was being harsh I might ask why he was allowed so much space in such a dangerous area and this is something that we will have to work on.

After that the game was very open and entertaining with end to end action and both teams created good chances. Then came one of those fine margins on which games turn. We had a nice little interchange of passes and Alex made a well-timed run into the box with just the keeper to beat (which he did) only to be given off-side. My initial instinct told me that he wasn’t off-side and I believe the replays show that he was in fact on-side when the ball was played. As readers of my blog will know, I don’t criticise referees and this was one of those genuine mistakes that happen from time to time. We created enough chances to win the game anyway including one glorious open goal!

There was more drama to come when in stoppage time Alex was fouled in the box and the referee rightly awarded a penalty. At that point the behaviour of the Malaysian coaches and players was very disappointing. OK, it was the heat of the moment but their players surrounded and berated the referee for several minutes which is unacceptable. Taking a penalty at 1-1 in stoppage time is a pressure situation and the unnecessary delay and unsportsmanlike behaviour can only have made the situation worse. Perhaps that was the plan. Full marks to Sandro for having the courage to step up to take the penalty and full marks to their keeper for making a good save. We just missed from the rebound confirming again that small margins determine the outcome of matches. At the end of the day those two points dropped could make a difference in terms of qualification. It could have been, and arguably should have been very different.

To be blunt there were disgraceful scenes at the final whistle with their Coach, his assistants and a number of the players virtually assaulting the referee. The fact that the Coach could not control himself influenced the other team officials which in turn incited the crowd. It was shocking to see the referee being escorted from the field of play in a barrage of verbal abuse and missiles. Imagine their behaviour if the referee had actually made incorrect decisions against them. If anyone should have been upset it was us because of the earlier incorrect offside decision. The AFC must take some action to prevent this sort of thing happening again and to give support and protection to match officials. Yet again I was left dismayed and angry at the behaviour of people who should know better. It was embarrassing for my hosts from the FAM who at least had the courtesy to apologise to me later.

I said in a previous blog that we were given a tough draw and that it would be difficult to qualify. It still looks that way and three points would have been very handy - it could so easily have happened too if it weren’t for those fine margins. And so the overriding mood in the camp last night and this morning was one of disappointment. Although frustrating we must remember that it’s not over yet and we will continue to fight for qualification.

In typical sensationalist style I note that some of the media are calling for Coach KIM to be sacked. That’s pretty disgusting and disrespectful. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation. Coach KIM has a contract which runs until next summer. His salary is paid for by the Government. If we were to sack him (even if it were justified, which it is not) we would have to pay him six month’s salary in compensation. We would not be able to replace him because the Government would not agree to pay KIM’s compensation and the salary of a replacement. So we would not have a coach for the remainder of the Asian Cup qualifiers - how sensible would that be? So everyone should just shut up and get behind Coach KIM and his team. He is not going anywhere unless he, himself decides it is time to leave. The HKFA will decide on his future at the appropriate time. I hope that ends the ridiculous speculation.

Another issue that seems to generate a lot of debate is the use of ‘naturalised’ players. I know KIM is acutely aware that his selection of so-called ‘foreign’ players is not universally popular. Most countries in most sports have ‘naturalised’ players and we should remember that it is more difficult for a foreign player to become eligible to represent Hong Kong than it is in virtually any other country. Someone who has been in Hong Kong for at least 7 years (plus the time it takes to get a passport) and given up their original nationality should in my opinion be welcomed and accepted. The resentment even seems to apply to those players who were born in Hong Kong or have lived here since they were toddlers. I can’t understand the attitude myself.

I don’t get involved in selection matters but I have told KIM to pick his best team from people who are eligible to represent Hong Kong.  If we want to be successful, that in my opinion, is the only policy to follow. In time things will change anyway, as the standard of local football gradually improves. The ‘local’ players who represented Hong Kong in Malaysia played very well especially the two young substitutes Wong Wai and Tan Chun Lok. I went to the two recent interport matches against Macau last week, which we won. Again the ‘local’ players did very well and showed huge promise. It is very encouraging.

The future for ‘local’ players is looking bright which is great and what we all want. We should not forget however that ‘foreign’ players and coaches have been instrumental in helping these local players to develop and improve as happens in most places around the world. This is especially true of one Mr KIM who has devoted most of his professional life to helping Hong Kong football. It’s about time more people got behind him and all of the Hong Kong players irrespective of where they were born.  

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO September 2017