Wednesday, 23 November 2016

AFC Champions League

AFC Champions League

In the job I do I expect scrutiny and occasional criticism, it goes with the territory. I understand that in trying to improve and develop football in Hong Kong, I will ruffle a few feathers along the way. However when that criticism is unjust, personally defamatory and questions my integrity, I am entitled to defend myself.

Last Friday (timed perfectly so I was out of the country) Kitchee held a press conference and I was personally blamed for an ‘administrative blunder’ the result of which means that Kitchee will not be playing in the AFC Champions League Group stages. I have received further criticism from Southern (the second club affected) for a lack of communication.

I have to set the record straight on these issues.

I am in a difficult situation here. I do not normally discuss what happens in Board meetings because I do not think it is the right thing to do. However, Kitchee has already made it public knowledge that I disagreed with the original Board decision to nominate Kitchee and Southern for places in AFC Club competitions for 2017. I think it was indiscrete of Kitchee to mention in public what happened behind closed doors and I can only assume that the only reason the club is highlighting this is because they think I somehow failed to implement the Board’s resolution because I didn’t agree with the decision. I have been further accused of impartiality because they think I favoured Eastern over Kitchee. These accusations are untrue and serious. I have asked the club to retract them but I won’t hold my breath waiting for a response.  

It is true that at the Board meeting in August I advised the Board to nominate Eastern and Kitchee in that order in accordance with the AFC criteria. I could see no justification to reject Eastern because they had won the League, had submitted an AFC Champions League Licence application and had written to the HKFA asking to withdraw their previous letter which stated they had financial problems. My advice was rejected. You can argue that it was taken in good faith because at that time we did not know definitively how many places we would have in the AFC CL or whether club licence applications would be successful. It was theoretically possible (but unlikely) that Kitchee would be eligible for the AFC CL (if Eastern did not get an AFC club licence) and Southern eligible to be entered into the AFC Cup (if we only got one place in the AFC CL). However, I believed it was the wrong decision then and I still do. It is one reason why we are in this mess right now.

Another reason of course which no-one seems to be mentioning is that Kitchee did not win the League. If they had, none of this would have happened. Perhaps they should use this as motivation to win the HKPL this season.

There seems to be an assumption that whichever teams Hong Kong nominate will automatically be entered into the competition. I am being blamed for the fact that now it appears that Kitchee can’t play in the group stages. What is being conveniently forgotten is that it is not our competition and therefore not our decision. All we can do is nominate teams. 

The ultimate decision does not even rest with the AFC. To avoid any accusations of bias or misconduct, the AFC has established an independent competitions committee to make decisions in relation to the AFC Club Competitions. At the time of writing this committee has not met. It meets on 24th November.

Based on our ranking now, the HKFA are likely to get two places in the CL. The criteria that the independent committee will apply in deciding which teams from each Member Association will be eligible have not changed. As far as the AFC CL is concerned it has always been the League Champions (Eastern) that should get the number 1 place. That is why it is called the Champions League. The number 2 position goes to the winner of the ‘domestic’ cup competition.

Eligibility to play in the CL is however first and foremost based on whether or not the club has an AFC CL club licence. Eastern had decided in April to apply for this level licence and had submitted all of the documentation required by the AFC deadline of 30th June. It is important to note that this was BEFORE the Board meeting to decide which team to nominate.

Kitchee’s argument that the HKFA (and me in particular) in some way favoured Eastern in relation to the attainment of a club licence is simply not true. It is not the HKFA that grants the licence. There is an independent First Instance Body that assesses applications and ultimately it is the AFC that decides. Again the clue is in the title, it is an AFC CL Club Licence, not a HKFA Club Licence.

It is understandable that Kitchee is upset that Eastern have an AFC Club Licence because that means that Kitchee are not eligible for the number 1 position. This obviously puts the club in a difficult situation with players, coaches, fans, sponsors etc because there has been an expectation following the Board’s decision that they will be playing in the group stages. The truth is that this was only ever an assumption.

The contention that I am in some way responsible for Eastern obtaining a licence is simply not a sustainable position. It is my job to encourage clubs and to help them to apply for the higher level AFC Licence because it is a good tool for self-improvement and demonstrates to the football authorities that Hong Kong football is professional. I am not paid to block application and in any case as I have pointed out, the application was submitted before the decision as to which clubs to nominate. It is worth pointing out that the Secretariat helped four clubs gain the AFC CL Club Licence, Eastern, Kitchee, South China and Southern. In the case of Southern, the Secretariat worked with the club on an ‘extraordinary’ application after the Board’s decision because they had missed the deadline to apply. This is hardly indicative of an administration working against a Board resolution. At the end of the day the clubs decide whether to apply, not the HKFA. Again, I reiterate the HKFA does not award the licences either.

Another point being overlooked is that if it wasn’t for the hard work of the HKFA Secretariat lead by me to introduce a club licence into Hong Kong football (and many of the clubs fought against it), Hong Kong would not have a place in the group stages of the AFC CL. The fact that we are now one of only 6 Member Associations in East Asia (the others being Australia, China, Japan, Korea Republic and Thailand) eligible for this status is testament to how far we have come. We should be being thanked not denigrated.

Another thing that was missing from Kitchee’s condemnation of me was any reason why I would favour one team over another. It simply doesn’t make sense. I want all of the teams in Hong Kong to be as successful as possible. I hold Kitchee in high regard and have been consistent in saying so. In many respects they are an example to the other clubs in Hong Kong.     

One the main criticisms of me was that in October I was made aware that the AFC independent committee when it meets on 24th November may annul the number 1 position for HK clubs if Eastern is not nominated and they obtain a club licence. It is true that this information was brought to my attention but only indirectly and unofficially. I requested that this information be put in writing so I could take some official action. I was told that this could not happen and to date no official confirmation has ever been received. I can’t act on second hand information that wasn’t even sent to me from a person I don’t know. I did not deliberately withhold information from any of the clubs.

I was not personally aware that the HK application needed to be submitted on Monday 14th until the evening of Sunday 13th. Up until then I assumed that we would need to apply after the AFC independent committee had met on the 24th to confirm how many teams would be eligible to play. Because I was aware that there was a ‘potential’ issue I asked our General Secretary to put an ‘Emergency Item’ on our Board Agenda for 5th December. I thought we would have time to address the issue after the committee decision but before the AFC CL/Cup Draw which is due to be held on 13th December.

As soon as I realized the urgency of the situation I phoned the AFC General Secretary who confirmed the likely outcome i.e. the committee would decide that HK should lose its number one place. Faced with this information I informed the Chairman and had a long conversation with Ken Ng from Kitchee. I tried all that day (Monday 14th) to get the Board to change the resolution but failed to get a sufficient number before the deadline. Therefore the Secretariat had no option but to apply on behalf of Kitchee and Southern in accordance with the original Board resolution.

On Monday 14th I exchanged 34 whatsapp messages with Ken Ng from Kitchee as well as a half hour telephone conversation explaining all of the above. Despite having this background information and rather than trying to sort things out collectively and in private, he chose to go ahead with the press conference using me as a convenient scapegoat. To be honest I am still mystified as to what ‘administrative blunder’ he is referring to. It’s not the HKFA’s decision as to how many teams will play or which teams will be selected. In any case this decision has not been made yet. At the point in time when the press conference was held, the HKFA had applied on behalf of Kitchee and Southern.

Coincidentally I was due to meet with officials from the AFC in Korea on Saturday 19th. Obviously I did not want to end up with a situation where Hong Kong only had one team playing in the AFC CL so I asked if we could resubmit the application. I also discovered that the method for calculating the Member Association ranking will change from next season and that only having one team playing in 2017 could affect the Hong Kong ranking in future years thus putting in jeopardy the chance of retaining our coveted place in the Group stage. It then became even more important that the Board changed its mind. At that point I tried to call Ken Ng to explain the implications for Kitchee. He didn’t take or return my call. I sent him messages which I know he received. From that point in time he changed his stance and started to support a new resolution to re-apply on behalf of Eastern and Kitchee.

I explained all of this to the Board when I returned to Hong Kong and a new resolution was agreed at a Board meeting on Monday afternoon to apply on behalf of Eastern and Kitchee. We will all have to wait and see what the committee decides tomorrow but I am confident that Hong Kong will have two places in the AFC CL, Eastern in the group stages and Kitchee in the preliminary knock out.

If this is the outcome then I am sorry that this will affect Kitchee’s plans for the CNY. I am happy to work with the club to find amicable solutions. I do not bear a grudge and remain supportive of the club.

I also understand that it is disappointing for Southern. I have been criticized for a lack of communication with Southern. I received an email from the club when I switched on my phone in Korea to which I immediately replied. I also wrote to the club after the new Board decision before we issued a press release. I can’t say any more than that other than I continue to communicate with the club and think that they now have a very clear picture of what has transpired.

I hope this detailed explanation helps people to understand how this unfortunate situation has evolved. I think there are lessons to be learnt on all sides. The important decisions are yet to be made by the AFC independent competition committee. I hope that the result of this is that Hong Kong has two teams in the AFC CL and that they will be placed in the right order to maintain the sporting integrity of the competition.

The sad thing for me is that we should be celebrating the fact that we have achieved two teams playing in the Region’s most prestigious club competition. Instead Hong Kong football has shot itself in the foot and reinforced negative public perceptions.

Mark Sutcliffe CEO, November 2016


  1. Hi Mark,
    Very informative, but dread to think how long your job is going to last after this piece.

    1. Well Bob I know how things work here and I was fully aware that this might make things difficult before I posted it. Sometimes you have to stand by your principles. Let's see how things go. Regards

    2. Well said and well done, Mark.

  2. I can’t act on second hand information that wasn’t even sent to me from a person I don’t know. I did not deliberately withhold information from any of the clubs.

    Dear Mark,

    You maybe right in doing what you did regarding the above paragraph, but the Hong Kong club owners still expect you to call them and/or alert them of these things informally over a cup of tea or coffee or even just a whatsapp. "Hey have you seen this?" kind of thing. It is up to them what they want to do but they want to know everything.



  3. Dear Allan,
    Thanks for your point of view. I did think about that but the information I had was so flimsy I decided not to. I asked for the information to be put in writing and if I had received something official of course it would have been shared.
    As I say in the blog, I thought I had time to sort this issue out in early December. It only became urgent when I knew we had to submit an application before the committee meeting scheduled for today.
    There are also other issues at play that I don't want to go into right now.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for giving us your side of the story. As a football fan in HK, the fact that we may lose our direct spot in the ACL group stage despite having qualified for it is heartbreaking. I hope the Competitions Committee will approve Eastern's application.

    Given the level of detail you have provided here, I have no doubt about the accuracy of the facts and the sequence of events that you have mentioned. However, one thing that is still a little bothering to me is that you said you only got to know the 14 November deadline in the evening of 13 November. How could this happen? Is there a communication breakdown between AFC and HKFA or between you and the Secretariat? I understand that the domestic seasons of some other participating countries have not yet completed, how could AFC require MAs to submit the applications of participating teams in such an early date?

    I agree that it is a real achievement in gaining a place in the ACL and so much progress has been made in HK football since you joined the HKFA. However, I don't think the stories you have provided in this blog have got enough coverage in the local media. From what I have read on the internet, local people generally have a perception that you are overpaid and have done little for HK football. I think you may need to find a more effective way to communicate with the locals.

  5. Thanks for your comment Albert.
    I do not attach any blame whatsoever to the AFC. Their criteria are very clear and their communication is excellent. There is no problem in communication between me and the Secretariat either. I have very effective colleagues who I delegate day to day matters to and I don't see every piece of paper that comes into or goes out from the office. In this case I genuinely didn't know about the deadline. I will accept that there is an argument that I should have known but as I said I had assumed that the Committee would tell us how many places we would have based on our ranking and that we would then be able to nominate teams between that decision and the draw. I think that is a fair assumption but as I said in my blog there are lessons that can be learnt on both sides.
    It is difficult to change perceptions and although more enlightened observers like you can see the progress that is being made, others either can't or choose not to. I will always defend the difference that I have made and I take your point about improving communication with the locals. The perception that people have about me is not really a priority for me. However, maybe next time I will write a blog about why football is now different here than it used to be.
    I don't really care what people think about my pay. To come here I gave up another well paid job, my own business as well as making huge personal sacrifices. My friends and more importantly my family are back in the UK. Nobody knows how much I miss them and that I wish I was closer to them everyday. By the way I have personally bought in over HK$600m additional funding to Hong Kong football. What I get paid is very small compared to this. I think the HKFA and HK football has had a pretty good return on the investment they have made in me.

  6. Hi Mark,
    If a crazy dog desperately needs to bark, let him do so. Once he's out of breath, he will stop. The above is a detailed piece about the whole situation. I personally think that you have done the best you can. And knowing you, a man with integrity, you would NEVER choose favoritism over which Club to participate in the AFC CL. After all, wouldn't you be happier if ALL can participate. - Only a fool, shallow scumbag will think in terms of favoritism.

    1. Dear Pui Wah,
      Thank you for your support. One thing I am puzzled about is why Kitchee seem to think that I have got something against them. I have always supported all of the teams in Hong Kong and will always do so.
      As you say, it is in my interest for all of the teams to be successful.
      My only concern at the original Board meeting was that any decision needed to be justifiable, to take into account the AFC criteria and to be related to sporting merit. Eastern were the Champions and I could see no reason why they shouldn't play. The decision to nominate Kitchee above them made no sense to me then and it still doesn't.
      Having said that, I still respected the Board's decision and was of course prepared to implement it. CEO's often don't agree with their Boards and vice versa but once the decision is taken, that is it.
      I only tried to pursued them to change their mind once the AFC made it clear that if Eastern got a club licence and didn't participate, Hong Kong would lose the chance to take part in the group stages. My conscience is clear.

    2. Hi Mark,
      It is because Ken Ng is a woman....hahaha. I know it sounds direct. I am a person who is no afraid of authority and will never hold my tongue when the truth needs to reveal. I do know you too Mark. Your principle in life is straight forward - honesty, integrity and justice. I have always admired that. There are too many shallow people on earth. Kitchee is angry, can't you see. They always think they are above other clubs....but little do they realize it is only their own perception. So, when Eastern made it to the top, they were sour grapes. To me, Kitchee absolutely has no sportsmanship and what so ever. NOTE: I wish Kitchee can understand what it means by being a Champ - Able to loose and to win back "IN GLORY". NOTE: The word "In Glory" is in parenthesis. To me, that's the true merit for sports !

  7. Mark,
    You have outlined and clarified the issue at hand clearly. Any reasonable man would easily understand. And if there is a problem of any kind, you had suggested, “to sort things out collectively and in private”. For those who do not understand this---how the real world operates, it is time to learn.
    Instead, Kitchen (Ken Ng) resorted to public forums (i.e. press conference and website) to make his ad hominem remarks and started his blame game; while he deliberately refused to engage in a dialogue (as you indicated, on November 19 phone calls not returned by Ng etc.)
    I find his behavior unprofessional, and beyond the pale. It is alarming that his unacceptable conduct is taken seriously anywhere. I question the people who would even listen and believe his rhetoric –-I question their integrity and honor.

    1. correction to the above comment: Kitchee and not "Kitchen"

    2. Hi chou chou,
      I must say I have been shocked and disappointed that this issue has been made so public and personal. It is quite unnecessary.
      I'm really looking forward to the 'independent' tribunal. I will have lots to say in this forum that I have not wanted to say in public. I am 100% sure that I will be vindicated. Bring it on!