It’s time to develop a High Performance Football Culture in Hong Kong
Since our defeat to UAE last week, I have been reflecting on why we were beaten and what we need to do to give our players a better chance to compete. I keep coming back to the same conclusions that I did when I wrote the Project Phoenix report. There are some fundamental long term developmental issues that were identified in the report and that we are now addressing including:
- We don’t have a ‘national’ playing style or system that is taught systematically from the grassroots level all the way through to elite players.
- Youth development is not coordinated across Hong Kong
- Football in schools is limited
- There is no real ‘scouting’ or talent identification system
- Youth leagues are homogenous and based on the lowest common denominator – in other words there is no opportunity for the ‘best to play with the best’
- The quality of coaching is variable and coaches do their own thing rather than following a National Curriculum
- Professional Clubs (with one or two exceptions) place very low emphasis on player academies
- Players do not get enough opportunity to play football as a result of insufficient facilities and a focus on academic attainment
As expected, it is taking time to address these fundamental issues but all of them are being worked on now that we have a functional Technical Department and bigger Secretariat. A Hong Kong system of play is being developed which is set out in a new National Curriculum which will be launched in the near future. Change management is never easy because there are always pockets of resistance to overcome, general inertia and the realignment of processes and budgets. These new and revised football development activities and programmes will eventually produce better footballers for our representative teams but we can’t afford to wait for the changes we are making to the infrastructure and player pathways to come to fruition. We need to give our current and emerging elite athletes more help and support now.
It is commonly accepted that to become world class in an activity, a person should have had the opportunity for 10,000 hours of ‘deep’, quality, purposeful practice by the time they are 18 years of age. Aspiring footballers in Hong Kong currently reach 10,000 hours by the time they are 40, by which time their aspirations have of course expired or become sad delusions! The fact is that by the time our players are ready to pull on the Hong Kong senior jersey they are probably about 5,000 hours behind players in other countries through no fault of their own and yet we expect them to be competitive.
Even when young players reach the top and are selected to play for Hong Kong, the system fails them and we have to rely on their fighting spirit and Coach KIM’s passion. We do not have the resources to develop a ‘High Performance’ culture.
The most important deficiencies are money, facilities and support services.
Looking at the issue of money first, football is not part of the Hong Kong Elite Sports programme funded by the Government and operated through the Hong Kong Sports Institute. The reason for this is that the criteria for gaining elite sports status are based on the attainment of medals in international competition. The problem for football is that without the investment that is given to elite sports, it is unlikely to ever gain that level of performance, it is a chicken and egg scenario. It should also be recognized that football is played in just about every country in the world whereas some of the current elite sports are not universal and it is therefore easier for them to achieve success. For Hong Kong to win medals in football regional competitions we will have to beat world powerhouses such as Australia, Iran, Japan, Jordan, UAE, China and Korea Republic. To compound matters further, it is more difficult to achieve medals in team sports than individual sports. For example in a major games e.g. Olympics there are 34 different swimming events with 102 medals available whereas in football there are two events (men’s and women’s) and therefore 6 medals in total. Taking these factors into account, the chance of football gaining elite sport status is very small, if not impossible.
In reality, it would be difficult for senior football players to be based full time at the HKSI because as a ‘professional’ sport, senior players train with their Clubs. It would however be possible for them to have access to some of the facilities and support and/or for some of our young players (men and women) to train there from time to time. At least there should be some parity in terms of the funding and support given to our elite ‘athletes’. The HKFA would also welcome a partnership with the HKSI involving the sharing of expertise, resources etc, especially when (if) the Football Training Centre is finally built. To put the funding of elite ‘athletes’ in some sort of context, there are 719 ‘athletes’ (if you include the 12 sports under the Individual Athlete Support Scheme) funded by the HKSI at an annual cost of HK$325m. This equates to HK$452,017 per athlete per annum. Each Olympic athlete competing for Hong Kong in London 2012 apparently cost HK$8.9m over 4 years (i.e. HK$2.225m per athlete per annum), because as you would expect the cost of preparing full time Olympic athletes is higher than the average. By contrast, in 2013, the HKFA Government subvention for the Hong Kong Football Association Representative Teams was HK$4.617m. There are circa 288 elite athletes (12 squads x 24 people) in the Hong Kong football ‘high performance’ system. That equates to HK$16,031 per person per annum which is 3.5% of the money spent on each HKSI athlete and 0.7% of the total spent on each Olympic athlete respectively. Even at the lower end of spend per athlete, if the HKFA elite teams’ members were to receive a comparable amount, the HKFA would have a high performance budget of HK$130m instead of under HK$5m. The comparative funding of elite athletes in Hong Kong is shown below.
The fact that football is not seen as an elite sport is hugely detrimental because it is starved of the resources it needs to improve and to compete. Yet football is the most popular and high profile participant sport in both Hong Kong and the world and our elite players are expected to compete equally with footballers from other countries in high profile matches televised across the globe.
It was stated above that there are insufficient accessible and good quality football facilities in Hong Kong and that this hinders grassroots and youth development activities and programmes. This means that our young players will always struggle to get 10,000 hours contact time with the ball by the time they are 18. At the elite level the situation is even worse, there are no dedicated elite football facilities. When I first came to Hong Kong in 2009 to work on the Government’s strategy ‘Dare to Dream’ I was shown plans drawn up in 2003 for a National Football Training Centre at Tseung Kwan O. Of course developing this facility was a key recommendation of that strategy and then again a key recommendation of Project Phoenix. It’s almost 2014 now and we are still at the ‘planning’ stage. Meanwhile our senior team has to train for international competitions on over-used public pitches across Hong Kong. It might be a synthetic pitch one week and a grass pitch the next. Some weeks we don’t train at all because there are no facilities available. It is difficult to imagine this ‘nomadic’ and ad hoc approach being acceptable in any other country that is serious about football. No disrespect to Guam, but even they have a training centre! I’ve been there, it’s great and I’m very envious – more to the point, so are our players and coaches. If we had a dedicated training centre and/or the resources to organize proper training camps before important matches, we would have the right to expect positive results. We don’t and we shouldn’t.
Support for Elite Footballers
In terms of sports science support footballers are again massively disadvantaged compared to elite athletes based at the HKSI and elite footballers in other countries. I have been to the multi-billion dollar HKSI and it is fantastic with new state of the art sports science support services as well as accommodation, classrooms, rehabilitation facilities and access to high level professional expertise. Literally no expense is spared to develop the HKSI elite athletes, which is how it should be. I have no problem with the resources invested in the HKSI and its elite athletes, indeed I am an advocate of the approach to high performance taken at the HKSI and a firm believer in leaving no stone unturned in fostering excellence in sport. That is what we so desperately need in football but the problem is that the HKFA has no money to provide even the most basic support. We have no sports science support (physiology, psychology, bio-mechanics, nutrition etc), no gym, no conditioning coach, no analysis software etc etc because we can’t afford them. It does seem a bit paradoxical that some sports have optimal resources and others including football have virtually none.
The HKFA is just about to launch a new 5-year Strategic Plan called Aiming High – Together which builds on Project Phoenix and sets out what needs to change if football in Hong Kong is going to prosper once again. It addresses all of the areas of concern from the grassroots up and includes a chapter on ‘high performance’ football. The strategic plan proposes solutions to all of the issues raised in the introduction to this blog.
In terms of facilities, this is actually a difficult issue to address because there are simply too few facilities in Hong Kong to cater for the demand. I sympathize with the Government – it has an impossible job trying to cater for everyone. So rather than trying to do so, maybe it is time to prioritize access and change the current quota system and allocation policy. The further ‘roll-out’ of the conversion of grass pitches to synthetic pitches will help. The real ‘game-changer’ would be the development of the Football Training Centre at Tseung Kwan O. That has to be the number one priority for everyone involved in football and surely can’t be too difficult to bring to fruition.
Of course that will require the allocation of resources but to me that is the easy part for a place like Hong Kong – it just requires the commitment of funding partners and the buy-in to the vision set out in the Strategic Plan. We are just looking for some parity with the other elite sports in Hong Kong. Hong Kong football teams already compete in international competitions (albeit with their hands tied behind their back metaphorically speaking) e.g. National Games of China, East Asian Games, Asian Games, Asian Cup, Olympics and World Cup. We have to prepare properly for these high profile events where being elite is a prerequisite. It is patently absurd that football in Hong Kong is categorized as ‘non-elite’? The pride of the nation is at stake.
I hear some people saying ‘where will the money come from and why should football get it’? Well in terms of where, here are some ideas:
- Use some of the interest made on the Elite Athletes Development Fund set up by the Government and used to fund existing ‘elite’ sports
- Establish a new fund linked to the existing football betting licence*
- Consider allowing betting on Hong Kong football and establishing a new endowment fund specifically for football development including high performance
- Reduce the stadia ‘levy’ from its current 20% of gross ticket sales to (say) 10%.
*An annual surplus of circa HK$20billion is generated from football betting in Hong Kong. The HKFA receives an amount equivalent to 0.17% of this in the form of Government grants and charitable sponsorship (which is similar in scale to a one year old child stood next to the ICC building). If this was increased to half of one percent (circa HK$100m) it would still be a drop in the ocean but it would literally transform the sport. The slice of the ‘football betting pie’ given to the HKFA is illustrated below – you will have to look closely though.
Why should football be given more money? I can’t think of any other sport in Hong Kong that generates a surplus of HK$20billion a year. It might come from betting and from betting on foreign football but it is still money derived from people in Hong Kong and it wouldn’t exist without football. Furthermore football generates significant economic multipliers from major events such as the Barclays Asia Trophy. It is the most popular participation and spectator sport in Hong Kong and as such it contributes to health and well-being, community cohesion, and pride of place. It is easy to construct a case for investment in football - there are social, economic and cultural benefits on a scale much bigger than other sports and pastimes.
Of course there is an onus on the HKFA to generate more commercial revenue and we are trying to do that. It is difficult however to get the corporates to invest when football is starting from such a low base. Some public sector or charitable funding is needed to pump prime football in Hong Kong. Project Phoenix money helps and we are grateful for it but in terms of major change, we are still scratching the surface. We are really trying hard to improve things and I believe we are making progress. We have established the criteria for the Premier League starting in 2014/15, we are working with two of our Clubs on an Extraordinary Application to gain entry into the 2014 AFC Champions League, we are introducing new age groups into our youth development programmes, we have enhanced the governance, management and operation of the HKFA, we have recruited a team of skilled and enthusiastic football professionals and we have prepared an ambitious strategy to develop grassroots football, youth development, high performance football, futsal, women’s football, refereeing, coaching and coach education etc.
However our plans will not have the impact that they should and could have unless we get more money into the sport. We have reached a tipping point. Together with our partners and football stakeholders, it really is time to take stock of the situation, to decide how important football is to individuals, to communities and to Hong Kong society as a whole and to give it the help it so desperately needs. If we do not get better facilities and a level of resources comparable to other sports we will not be able to develop a ‘high performance’ culture (or fulfill our other plans) and we will simply fall further and further behind other countries. I do not think that is what the football-mad Hong Kong people want – please correct me if I’m wrong.
- 專業球會(一至兩間除外) 將青訓的考量放至較低位置；
現實生活中，我們很難要求本地職業足球員全天候「紮根」在香港體育學院中，因為作為一項「專業」運動，球員皆會在所屬球會操練，然而他們亦可以接觸該學院的部分設施及支援，以及/或我們的年青球員(男女子)偶爾在那裡接受訓練，這裡至少能夠獲得部份的財政援助給予我們的精英「運動員」。香港足球總會歡迎與香港體育學院緊密合作，特別當足球訓練中心成功落成後，互相分享不同的專業知識、資源等等。在投放在精英運動員的資助上，由香港體育學院資助的運動員數目達七百一十九人(包含在個別運動支援計劃的十二項運動中)，涉及每年金額達港幣三億二千五百萬元，以每年計平均每一位運動員獲得港幣四十五萬二千零十七元。為出戰二零一二年倫敦奧運會，在四年間耗資了港幣八百九十萬元在每一位香港代表隊成員身上 (每年度每位運動員約為港幣二百二十二萬五千元)，皆因全職備戰奧運的會較參加一般比賽的運動員開支為大。相反，在二零一三年度中，香港足球總會代表隊獲得由香港特區政府資助的金額為港幣四百六十一萬七千元，當中涉及香港足球「高效」系統下的二百八十八名精英運動員(十二支球隊陣容 x 二十四人)，平均每年每人獲港幣一萬六千零三十一元資助，分別為每名體院運動員所資助金額的百分之三點五和每名奧運香港代表隊成員所資助金額的百分之零點七。假若香港足球總會的精英隊員能夠獲得較為接近的金額，我們理應獲得港幣一億三千萬元而非低於港幣五百萬元下作為高效預算方季。目前香港各類型精英運動員的資助金額，如下圖所示：
- 建立一個新基金， 並與現時本地足球賭博牌照*掛鉤。
- 考慮容許本地足球賭博事業及成立一個全新的捐贈基金，特別是支持足球發展包括「高 效」 足球。
*本地足球賭博業的年度盈餘為港幣二百億元，香港足球總會收到政府撥出當中金額相等於0.17%的收益以及其他慈善機構的贊助(情況猶如一歲小孩站立在環球貿易廣場相似)。 若能夠增加至百分之一的一半(約港幣一億元)，雖如海洋中的小水滴，但足以將運動事業作翻天覆地的改變。 有關足總能夠獲分一片「足球賭博事業的大餅」，請看以下插圖。