Monday, 26 October 2015

World Cup/Asian Cup Qualifier - Hong Kong V China, 17th November 2015

In my opinion, not holding the match against China at the Hong Kong Stadium (HKS) is very disheartening and a great shame for local football. Let’s face it, this is the biggest and most important match to be held in Hong Kong for decades. It is more significant even than the 2009 East Asian Games final (against Japan) that was the catalyst for much of the recent revival of Hong Kong football. We have come a long way since then and a lot of hard work has been done by both the Football Association and the Government, often working in partnership.

Some ill-informed media have suggested that the HKFA has been complicit in the decision not to hold the match at the Hong Kong Stadium but let me set the record straight on that point once and for all. The Board of the HKFA unanimously agreed that the match should be played at the HKS. This decision was communicated not only in a press release but also directly to the Government both in writing and verbally on numerous occasions.

The reason for the decision given to us by the Government is that according to their own pitch experts, the playing surface at the HKS will not have time to recover sufficiently from a rugby 7s tournament due to take place there 9 days earlier. For the avoidance of doubt, I attach no blame whatsoever to the HKRU who have simply seen an opportunity and taken it.
If indeed it is the pitch that is the main issue, then it raises some important questions that need to be answered:

·         Why did the Stadium management accept a request by the Rugby Union to host an Olympic Qualifying competition so soon after the anticipated completion of the pitch reconstruction?
·         Why did the Stadium Management not consult the HKFA before accepting the booking when they knew the date was in the middle of the football season?
·         Since the clash of dates was known in January 2015, why has there been no discussion about the options to avoid it? For example, could the rugby matches have been held at a different venue e.g. Sui Sai Wan? I understand that they are prepared to go there (a rugby match is being played there in February) and I believe that the capacity is more than sufficient for the anticipated crowd.
·         Why can other stadia around the world accommodate higher levels of use? 

The Stadium has been shut for pitch reconstruction since March and was due to re-open at the end of September. I understand that the cost of the project is around HK$100m. I have worked in sport for over 30 years and I simply don’t understand why a new, high specification pitch cannot support 2 days of rugby 7s (which is nowhere near as damaging as 15 a-side rugby) and then be ready again to play a football match 9 days later. The Government has apparently relied on its own ‘experts’ in making this decision. Clearly and to some extent understandably, these experts have erred on the side of caution. Whether they have been ‘encouraged’ to do so or not, who knows? Let’s just say that my offer to bring in an expert from FIFA to provide an independent second opinion was not taken up. Bearing in mind the investment, the time involved and the expertise of the Jockey Club (who have managed the reconstruction), it must be a very, very, very close call as to whether or not the pitch will recover in time.  If the local experts are right and if their opinion had been corroborated by an independent expert from FIFA, surely it would have strengthened their case. As it is, I fully expect that we will watch the rugby on the 7th and 8th of November and it will become apparent that the pitch would have been OK for the football on the 17th after all…………but of course it will be too late by then.

Some commentators have suggested that the decision not to play the match at the HKS is more to do with the recent booing of the National Anthem than it is the state of the pitch. They might say that, I couldn’t possibly comment. The HKFA has been fined by FIFA for the booing and warned that further, more serious sanctions will be imposed for any repeat offense. The HKFA has consistently asked the fans not to boo the National Anthem but in reality how are we supposed to stop people voicing their opinion? I am becoming resigned to the fact that it will happen again. FIFA won’t care whether 40,000 or 6,700 people boo the Anthem; so the choice of stadium is actually irrelevant from that perspective or at least it should be.

On this point, it is ironic and somewhat irritating that the HKFA is being punished for the booing when the problem was caused in the first place by the China Football Association’s marketing team by releasing bizarre (and some would say racist) posters about the Hong Kong football team.     
Without doubt, the most disappointing thing about this whole situation is that thousands of people will be deprived of an opportunity to watch the Hong Kong team live. There is a huge difference in capacity between Mong Kok and the HK Stadium. I believe we would have sold out the main stadium and what an atmosphere that would have created! It could have been one of the most memorable nights in Hong Kong sporting history, especially if we win. Huge interest in the Hong Kong Representative team has been built up as a result of our success in this qualification campaign to date and it would have been nice to have been able to build on this success and to reward our many fans.

Similarly, I am convinced that the momentum would have been carried forward into support for other local football initiatives including greater interest in the Premier League and general participation at the community level, both things that we are committed to do and we are measured against. 
Of course there is a financial aspect to this too. The bottom line difference to the HKFA of holding this match at the Mong Kok Stadium rather than the Hong Kong Stadium is around HK$3-4m. This is money that the HKFA and football desperately needs. I intend to raise the issue of compensation with the Government once I have gained approval to do so from the Board.   
I genuinely don’t like being critical of the Government. After all, they were the ones that started the revival of football in Hong Kong, they have provided generous funding for the transformation process and we have to work together on the implementation of our new strategic plan. However the HKFA is an independent body and must remain so if we are to retain our status as a Member Association of FIFA. This incident (together with the 2013 Barclays Asia Trophy pitch fiasco) will always be my biggest disappointment when I eventually reflect on my time in Hong Kong. Both issues have involved problems with the HK Stadium pitch and both could and should have been avoided. Therefore I think it is justified to set out in this blog my personal opinion of the situation. As you can no doubt tell, I am deeply frustrated.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, it won’t change and so we have to plan for the match at Mong Kok. Incidentally, Sui Sai Wan was suggested as an alternative venue but we decided against that. We are often accused of being financially driven but I hope this decision proves otherwise. Yes, we could have taken more revenue by playing there but the pitch is poor, there would have been no atmosphere because of the athletics track and more importantly, the Coach and players stated a preference to play at Mong Kok.

The questions I have raised in this blog can wait until after the match; that has to be our focus now. I would like to end on a positive note by wishing the team every success. It can still be a memorable and successful night, even if it will be remembered, by me at least, as a massive missed opportunity.

Mark Sutcliffe, October 2015