The positive changes we have made over the last few years have still not been enough for some people and unfortunately the fragmentation of stakeholders I identified all those years ago remains an intractable situation. People love to complain here that’s the top and bottom of it. It’s just a sad fact of life. Even now when I talk to people here about football they just shake their head and shrug ‘that’s Hong Kong Football for you’ like it’s a foregone conclusion that it will always be divisive and fractured – so sad.
In fact it’s more than sad because it seriously inhibits the development of football here. The reputation of the HKFA and the perception of the sport is critical to getting stakeholder and partner support. Nobody wants to be associated with something which is tarnished and imploding all of the time because of internal conflict, controversy and negativity. I firmly believe that this is the major stumbling block that needs to be overcome if more people, particularly those from the commercial sector are going to get involved in supporting football. Similarly the Government and the Jockey Club (our two main funding partners) will be reluctant to continue to fund football (even at the current level) when the agreements expire in 2020. In truth these two organisations hold the key to the success of football.
Between now and then they need to be convinced that football is unified, that it has a cohesive and deliverable plan beyond Aiming High and if they support it, there will be less internal strife. The turnover from football betting was over HK$100billion last year, sizeable chunks of which were retained by the Jockey Club and given to the Government in tax. The HKFA receives a miniscule proportion from them in comparison even though we are grateful for what we do receive. Much more could be achieved if more money was committed (including improving the relationship between the HKFA and its Member Clubs if money were allocated for Club youth development programmes linked to the club licence) but you can’t blame them for being reluctant to make that investment as things are at the moment. It’s a classic chicken and egg situation. The onus is on football to be more positive and demonstrate a unified face.
Aiming High is due to finish in March 2020 and concurrent with that the ‘time-limited’ five-year funding from the Government will also conclude. At the end of June 2020 the five-year partnership with the HKJC will also come to an end. Between them these two funding programmes amount to around 50% of the total income of the HKFA. It is critical therefore that the HKFA prepares a new strategic plan to help to secure an on-going commitment from these two partners and others. This plan will need to be completed one year from now to give sufficient time for these two major stakeholders to review the proposals. Bearing in mind that in finalizing the plan the HKFA will need to consult with all of the other football stakeholders including its Members, clubs etc it is clear that work must commence now on preparing the plan. The timetable for completing the plan is also complicated by the fact that there will be elections for a new Chairman and a number of other Directors in June 2019. It is inevitable that this transition will lead to some hiatus in decision making.
The Government’s Mid-Term Review highlighted a number of strengths and weaknesses. The next twelve to eighteen months will be critical to the future of the HKFA. During that period of time the organization must demonstrate positive steps to address the concerns of the Government whilst at the same time making progress on the development of a new Strategic Plan.
My time here has been overwhelmingly positive for me professionally and personally although I firmly believe the time is now right for me to leave and let someone else take up the reigns. I have met some amazing people and made some fantastic friends. I will never forget the home match against China when we drew 0-0. The atmosphere was electric and we could have won that match. We hit the bar in the first half and had a goal disallowed in the second. If we had won that match it would have sent shockwaves around the world, made the players legends and maybe even unified Hong Kong football. It would have certainly shut up the serial detractors. Sometimes in life the margins are small. In this case the thickness of a cross bar!
An equally powerful and emotional moment for me was the PL Asia Trophy 2017 when Liverpool walked into the HK Stadium bathed in a sea of red and with 40,000 people singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear at that point. For me football is all about passion.
The development of girls and women’s football has been particularly rewarding and future investment in this area is essential.
Of course there have been difficult and challenging times but I always knew there would be. I’m proud that I have had the tenacity and resilience to keep going at times when the criticism has been constant, unjust and personal.
In terms of legacy, well I believe I leave Hong Kong football in a better place than it was when I found it. I wrote the plans that have led to the increased investment and I have done my best to implement them effectively. I came to work here full time when the organization was in chaos and turned it around. We now have more people playing football and futsal at a higher level and in a more structured environment.
The FTC is tangible evidence of my ability to get things done in the face of adversity. It took three feasibility studies and a lot of persuasion to get it off the ground. I refused to take no for an answer and now for the first time ever the HKFA has a home for its players to train, for coaches to be educated and referees to be developed. Without me driving the project I know it would still be a plan in a file sat on a shelf.
I sincerely hope that Hong Kong football can one day reach its potential. There is still a long way to go and lots of challenges to overcome. It really needs all stakeholders to work together and that will be the hard bit, particularly over the next twelve months. I believe I have pushed the HKFA in the right direction and I would like to finish by thanking everyone who has supported me and contributed to the work I have done. Good luck Hong Kong Football!
Mark Sutcliffe – soon to be former CEO