Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Happy Christmas and a Prosperous New Year

Another year has flown by; I can’t believe how quickly it has gone! It’s been another busy and successful year for the HKFA with some notable achievements.

2017 promises to be even more eventful and exciting. Some highlights will be:
l   The opening of the long-awaited HK Jockey Club HKFA Football Training Centre in July
l   The Asian Cup Qualifiers starting In March
l   The Asia Trophy (hopefully in July)
l   The AFC Champions League throughout the year

To my mind these high profile events and matches are no more important than the development work we do and I look forward to further growth and improvement in our grass roots programmes, youth training, all representative teams, futsal, girls and women’s football, referee development, coach education course etc.

I could not do the work I do without the help and support of my tremendous colleagues here at the HKFA. We have a great team of professional and passionate people and I would like to thank them for all their efforts and hard work. I would also like to thank the Board and the many Committees we have for their direction and commitment. Once again 2016 has been characterized by teamwork and it would be remiss of my not to thank all of our partners and stakeholders including the Government, the Jockey Club, commercial sponsors, partners and suppliers, clubs, players, coaches, referees, the media and fans. Together we are all determined to make Hong Kong football successful. It is my privilege to be part of that team. Happy Christmas to each and everyone of you.

I am excited about the challenges and opportunities ahead in 2017 and give you my word that I will do everything I can to continue the upward trends in Hong Kong Football.

Mark Sutcliffe CEO, December 2016

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Best In Asia!

Best In Asia!

Last Year the HKFA won the prestigious Developing Member Association Award at the glittering AFC Annual Awards Dinner. We didn’t apply under this category this time because we wanted to give other Member Associations a chance! However, we were nominated for the best Grassroots Football Programme but unfortunately didn’t win that accolade this time.

As most people know the Eastern Head Coach Chan Yuen-ting was nominated for and won the Women’s Coach of the Year Award. This is a fantastic achievement and I offer her my sincere congratulations. It caps an unbelievable year for her. The success of CHAN Yuen-ting has been phenomenal, equaled only by the world-wide attention that has been generated. Whilst undoubtedly being in the right place at the right time initially, she certainly grasped the opportunity with both hands and overcame many challenges that would have been daunting to most people. The success of Eastern in winning the League under her leadership is a testament to her skills, knowledge and dedication. What is equally impressive is that she has retained her humility throughout the blaze of publicity. She is a credit to Hong Kong, to Hong Kong Football but most importantly to herself.

The AFC Award is one of many accolades she has won and they are all important in raising the profile of Hong Kong football. The HKFA leads the way in gender equality. We have a female Director, a female Head of Competitions, a leading lady referee, a female Women's Head Coach and Women's Football Manager not to mention the many females working in senior positions in our clubs. Since integrating girls and women's football into the HKFA in 2011 we have made huge strides in terms of increased participation and we have plans to develop this even further.

I believe that Ms Yuen-ting is a role model generally for young people to ‘follow their dreams’ but more specifically for football too. I am sure she will inspire people to become involved in football in many capacities including as players and coaches, irrespective of gender.

HKFA Competitions Team

I was inspired to write this blog because of a letter I received from the President of the EAFF following our hosting of their Round 2 Qualification Competition in November. For those of you who don’t know him, Kohzo Tashima-san is a former Japan international player and Head Coach and is now a Member of the FIFA Council as well as playing major roles in both the AFC and EAFF. He is one of the most respected and experienced people in football and must have witnessed more tournaments than virtually anyone else. I reproduce below what he had to say about the HKFA. For Kohzo-san to refer to the ‘best competition team in Asia’ is very heartwarming. The staff of the HKFA get very little thanks and recognition for the tireless work they do. It is little things like this that makes the job worthwhile.

I am proud of the work that we do and will continue to do my best to lead the best in Asia! 

Mark Sutcliffe CEO, December 2016 

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

Friday, 4 November 2016

Why FIFA has got it wrong this time

Why FIFA has got it wrong this time

FIFA and the home country Member Associations of England, Scotland and Wales have reached an impasse regarding Law 4, The Player’s Equipment part 4, Other Equipment. In a nutshell the Associations want their players to wear black armbands with a red poppy emblem on them during World Cup qualifier matches to be played this month. England play Scotland at Wembley on 11th November which just happens to be Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of the First World War. The poppy is a traditional symbol of remembrance in recognition of those who gave their lives in all conflicts.

In 2011 FIFA agreed that players could wear the same armbands. Indeed it was instrumental in deciding that this mark of respect was appropriate. The Law has not changed since then. It states that ‘Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images’. In 2011 FIFA decided that the poppy symbol did not infringe this law. Clearly they decided then that the poppy was not a political, religious or personal slogan. I would agree and I think most sensible people would.

The FIFA of 2016 is very different to the FIFA of 2011. The transformation has been remarkable and positive. It is now much more transparent, effective and inclusive. So I am perplexed and disappointed that they have taken this stance. I just don’t seem why it is necessary to even get involved. FIFA is very busy rebuilding its reputation and I am sure has more important issues to deal with.

It appears that both England and Scotland are going to defy FIFA and wear the armbands anyway, content to take any punishment that FIFA might apply – and the General Secretary has hinted that sanctions may apply. At the time of writing, Wales is yet to decide.

As we all know the world is an unstable and war-torn place right now. Football has a role to play in bringing people together and promoting harmony. This is an opportunity for FIFA to demonstrate compassion. Surely they should be endorsing and promoting the remembrance of the fallen rather than considering the imposition of draconian measures in direct contradiction of its own previous decisions?

Let’s just hope that in the end common sense prevails. Knowing a little about the ‘new’ FIFA, I am sure it will.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, November 2016 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

When will teams learn?

When will teams learn?

Last night I yet again watched a team implode by adopting unfathomable and deplorable tactics. The match in question was the AFC Cup quarter final between South China AA and Johur Dasul Ta’zim (JDT). The visitors came to Hong Kong with a deservedly high reputation. They won the competition in 2015 (beating SCAA 3-1 in Hong Kong at the same stage), won their R16 match this year 7-2 and are Champions of their domestic league. It promised to be a difficult night for the home team. And so it was at first. The Caroliners were forced to defend and JDT outplayed them, particularly in midfield. Their control, passing and pressing was superior and they were clearly the better team. They went ahead early in the first half with a somewhat fortuitous goal (I’m being generous to the SC defence) and it looked for all the world as if they would win the game comfortably. They should have done!

Then in the second half as South China started to show some signs of improvment, JDT seemed to settle for a 1-0 victory and inexplicably started some frustratingly negative tactics. Serious timewasting, feigning injury, falling over for no reason etc became the norm. In my book this behavior is at best unsportsmanlike and at worst cheating. It ruined the game and for JDT was totally counter-productive. I have no doubt that if they had continued to play football and focused on positive play instead of adopting petulant, pathetic histrionics they would have gone on to win.

In the end both poetic and footballing justice was done when South China equalized deep into the game; much to the delight of the crowd who had become increasingly annoyed with the visitors. When away teams adopt these negative tactics it merely winds the home crowd up which in turns spurs on the home team.

The shift in momentum caused by this behaviour must be apparent to the away team coaches and officials and yet it seems that they often instigate, encourage and condone the negative actions of their players. It’s as much their fault, if not more so because they dictate the tempo, rhythm, personnel and tactics.

South China should be out of this tie by now and yet they have hope in the second leg. OK it’s still an uphill battle but JDT, who should have been home and dry, will have some concerns.

When will teams learn to just play positive football instead of messing around?

I think the AFC needs to do something about it too because if things carry on like this fans will lose patience and simply stop watching. This in turn will reduce the impact of sponsors and broadcasters.

It’s not the first time I’ve highlighted these sorts of incidents and I make no apology for doing so again. Our ‘beautiful’ game was pretty ugly at times last night.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, September 2016   

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

What Lessons Can Hong Kong Learn from the success of Team GB at Rio 2016?

What Lessons Can Hong Kong Learn from the success of Team GB at Rio 2016?

(Image provided by Sportsroad)

As most readers of this blog will know, I grew up in England. As a young child in the late 1960s and early 1970s I instinctively knew that sporting success was part of GBs heritage and culture, it was ingrained and just acknowledged. With, what in retrospect seems like arrogance, we believed we had ‘invented’ most sports and had a right to be good at them. Well, we had just won the Football World Cup! I grew up in a sporting household, my father had been a professional cricketer and physical education teacher. Together with my older brother, I spent every waking hour, when not at school, playing as much sport as possible - cricket, football, swimming, table tennis, snooker, you name it we played it. In my formative years, school sport was important too. We played against other schools after hours during the week and at weekends we often played for the school in the morning and a local club team in the afternoon. Millions of boys were just like me – we all wanted to be the next Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton or in my brother’s case Geoffrey Boycott.

And then towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s there was a change of culture. The liberal-minded people in charge of education decided that competition was bad, because not everyone was capable of winning! Winning was suddenly bad apparently. This change of policy, coupled to teachers refusing to take extra-curricular activities because of a dispute with Margaret Thatcher, led to a steep and immensely damaging decline in GB sport. In a short space of time, we went from world beaters to a nation of heroic failures, personified perfectly by ski-jumper ‘Eddie the Eagle’ in 1988 (if you haven’t seen the film by the way, watch it; it’s brilliant). By that time I had followed my father’s footsteps into a career in sport and for someone who loved sport and reveled in its many intrinsic benefits, the decline was humiliating and depressing.

The slide was brought into sharp focus in 1996 when at the Atlanta Olympics GB finished 36th with a mere 9 medals in total and only 1 gold. That was won by rowers Pinsent and Redgrave whose success was based solely on supreme talent, enormous physical prowess and extreme personal sacrifice. It owed absolutely nothing to the sporting establishment. Sport received very little political support or funding.

Wind the clock forward 20 years to the Rio Olympics. Team GB finished second in the medals table (ahead of China), smashed their targets and became the first ever country to increase the number of medals won having hosted the previous Games. Of the 366 athletes that went to the Rio Games for Team GB, 129 of them - just over 35% - returned with a medal, including every member of the 15-strong track cycling team. Of 31 sports, GB finished on the podium in 19 - a strike rate of just over 61%. In terms of golds, GB was way ahead of the pack, finishing with at least one in 15 sports, more than any other country, even the United States.

This is a remarkable turn-around and has left many people around the world scratching their heads wondering – ‘how have they done it’?

Success in sport is not rocket science. I believe it only needs two things; cultural significance and resources.

Dealing with resources first, it is absolutely clear that the catalyst for the profound improvement and success of GB sport has been the introduction of the National Lottery and the use of a set percentage of funds raised specifically for sport. This has gone into; building world class facilities, the hosting of major events (Commonwealth games 2002 and 2014 and the Olympic Games 2012), funding for Governing Bodies and to pay the training and competition expenses of individual athletes. National Sports Associations have been able to employ expert coaches and to fund the sports science support services that are so vital to athlete progression.

No sport demonstrates this better than cycling. GB dominated track cycling in Rio, winning six of 10 disciplines and collecting 11 medals in total, nine more than the Dutch and Germans in joint second. GB success in cycling transcends the Olympics too as demonstrated by Chris Froome’s success in the Tour de France. Their amazing success has been built on a strategy of ‘marginal gains’ where basically nothing, and I mean nothing (google it and you will see what I mean), has been left to chance. There is no doubt in my mind that with the right resources their success can be copied and replicated. However it is impossible to do so without money.

What hasn’t attracted as much attention as the impact of the National Lottery is that there has also been more investment in school sport in the UK. Specialist Sports Colleges have been established and importantly, links have been made between schools and local sports clubs. Pathways to NSA talent identification programmes have therefore been facilitated.    

In terms of cultural significance, what is interesting is that the success of Team GB i.e. elite sport has been achieved without a corresponding increase in mass participation. Grass roots participation in sport has actually declined in many sports (not cycling) in the UK, even after the Olympic Games in 2012. It just goes to show that there is no direct correlation between the absolute number of people playing sport at the base and the level of success at the top. The sports development continuum is not necessarily a pyramid, but more of a ladder. The secret is identifying those with talent (at a very early age), exposing them to the right (sporting) environment and providing them with the resources (time and expert advice) they need to climb from one rung to the next. No stone unturned, nil compromise.

So why is the cultural significance of sport so important? Well for me if the decision-makers are going to take sport seriously they need to be confident that the majority of the population of a country appreciate that sport is important, even if most people have no aspiration to be world-class themselves. The majority of people in the UK know they will never win the lottery or Olympic Gold but they are happy to buy a ticket in the knowledge that the proceeds will go to ‘good causes’. A country needs politicians who understand the value of sport and are prepared to develop a coherent strategy and divert resources to make it happen. Success in sport needs to be part of a nation’s DNA like it used to be in the UK and like, thankfully it is once again. Success breeds success.

In terms of Hong Kong, I just don’t see that sport has reached that level of cultural significance (yet). It’s just not that important to people, to society and therefore to politicians. As a result sport does not receive the same level of recognition, priority or the all-important resources. Of course it would not be true to say that no resources or thought go into sport in Hong Kong. We have the HKSI for elite athletes, we have some new facilities (such as the Velodrome) and more in the pipeline hopefully (such as a new Stadium). We have a new Sports Commissioner who understands sport, which is a step in the right direction. We have the SF & OC that overseas NSA activities. We have the HK Schools Sports Federation etc. We have the HK Jockey Club that administers horseracing and football betting and puts money into sport. In recent years the HKFA has benefitted from additional funding as a result of a more strategic approach and better governance, so it would be churlish for me to say that there is no sporting culture at all. 

The reality is though that these are only strands and facets of a sporting infrastructure. Are they enough and are they joined up as part of a coherent sports strategy? Having witnessed firsthand the Renaissance of sport in the UK, I would have to say ‘categorically no’. In my opinion, there are a number of things that Hong Kong needs to do:

  1. The first thing is to decide whether, and to what extent, sport is important. If it’s not, that’s fine; let’s focus on something else, like commerce or tourism. But if the answer is ‘yes’, then we need to do it properly, rather than the fragmented and half-hearted way in which it is being done at the moment.
  2. If I were the Sports Commissioner I would go to the UK right now and borrow the blueprint.
  3.  We then need to establish a Governmental Agency or NGO with specific responsibility for all sport across Hong Kong (like UK Sport).
  4.  As a priority we must also prepare a Hong Kong Sports Strategy defining the priorities, objectives and targets. For example do we see sport as something for everyone for health and societal benefit or do we want to be successful on a world stage? The plan would be different depending on the agreed policy objectives. The plan should cover facilities, participation, events, structures, systems and resources.
  5. All of the sporting stakeholders in Hong Kong must buy-into the strategy in a coordinated way, particularly the Education system and NSAs.
  6. If they do so, the strategy should find ways in which they can be given the resources to implement the plan. Most NSAs in Hong Kong are significantly under-funded.
  7. The Jockey Club gives a lot of money to sport which is great (and I would be the first to admit that football has benefitted from this) but I think it is sometimes allocated reactively rather than strategically. Maybe now is the time to set up a fund specifically for sports activities, programmes and facilities, linked of course to the new sports strategy.
  8. We cannot under-estimate the importance of schools. The Education system must be at the heart of any new sports strategy. The HKSI does a great job but often by the time the athletes go there full time, it’s too late. Specialist sports schools are key, like the Singapore Sports School that helped deliver its first gold medal in swimming in Rio. If aspiring athletes are to reach the 10,000 hours benchmark by the time they are 18 they must find a way to combine intensive sports training with academic work. This is not happening now.
Hong Kong was one of the 119 countries not to win any medals at Rio 2016, so we are not alone. However many of the countries that did win medals have a smaller populations than Hong Kong and less ability to provide the necessary resources. There should be no excuses if we want to improve. It took twenty years in the UK for the transformation to happen. In all probability it would take longer here because we are starting from a lower base. The point is that if we don’t make a start now, it will never happen. If Hong Kong is to enjoy any sustained success in sport, we must all join forces to develop a sporting culture and to devote more resources to sport.

Rio is not Hong Kong’s ‘Atlanta’ because we have different cultural expectations, but we must find a catalyst from somewhere.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO August 2016 

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17

Back in May when the final whistles were blown in the English Premier League and the three divisions of the English Football League, everyone knew immediately which teams would be promoted and relegated and which teams would therefore be playing in which competitions in 2016/17. Of course they also knew WHERE all of these teams would be playing.

Here in Hong Kong it’s taken until August (the month when the season is due to start) to finalise teams and venues. This timescale is equally frustrating for the HKFA, clubs, fans, media, indeed all stakeholders. I’m afraid it’s a reflection of where professional football in Hong Kong is right now; it’s still very unsophisticated. “Wasn’t Project Phoenix supposed to solve the problems”, I hear you say.

Well let’s look at that objectively. In relation to professional football, Project Phoenix recommended a number of things including; the creation of a new Premier League, implementing a Club Licensing system etc. When the recommendations were formulated it was recognized that extra funding would be required. However for understandable reasons, no additional money was actually allocated by the Government to go directly to clubs. As a result the HKFA had the resources to administer changes to the professional tier but not to strengthen the clubs themselves. So the new Hong Kong Premier League was established and I believe there have been some positive changes including:
·         New brand and title sponsorship
·         Club licencing provides a framework for professionalization of clubs and improves our position in AFC competitions
·         Significantly increased prize money (x 4)
·         Solidarity fund for poorer clubs
·         Creation of player support unit
·         Match-manipulation monitoring has reduced the potential for fixing games
·         The Government has increased the funding to District Teams (x 3)

These are all steps in the right direction and have had some benefit. For example we are now ranked higher by the AFC and have gained entry into the AFC CL play-offs. However I can fully understand why some people say that these changes are merely cosmetic and why clubs criticize the HKFA for not doing enough to help, especially financially. The fact is that HKFA is doing what it can with the resources available. It costs us around HK$5m per annum to run the Premier League. More or less everything is done for the clubs. The HKFA takes care of all match day operations, provides referees, spends HK$1m+ on marketing and promotion, organizes and administers the broadcasting arrangements, negotiates the use of venues etc etc. 

You might well ask whether the HKFA should really be subsidizing professional clubs in this way? I think in the short term, the answer is yes. A strong professional football league is fundamental to the overall success of football. It encourages young people to start playing and of course it ensures a player pathway into the HK Representative Team. The importance of a strong representative team speaks for itself. 

I would much prefer the League to be run as an independent entity (as in many other countries) and indeed this was one of the recommendations of Project Phoenix. A couple of years ago we tried to make this happen and established a working party which was supposed to be led by the clubs to look at structures, resources, timescale etc. The outcome was very disappointing. There was huge apathy from the clubs once they knew what was involved. So we are a long way off having an independent league and so in the meantime it will continue to be run by the HKFA. It is a challenging task, made more difficult for a number of reasons some of which I will elaborate on below.

Continuity and strength of Clubs: As I said at the start of this blog it is very difficult to plan effectively if you don’t know which teams will exist from one season to the next. Many clubs in Hong Kong operate very precariously and are totally dependent on ‘bosses’ and/or sponsors. Most people know that we target 12 teams for the PL. At one stage this summer it looked like we could go down from 9 to 8. We would have been criticized for this and so a number of initiatives were put in place to increase the number.

So for example we reacted positively to Guangzhou R and F’s request to play in our league. We also encouraged the HK Football Club to consider promotion. We also looked to re-establish the former team ‘Saplings’. As it happens all of these initiatives came to fruition and we have ended up with 11 teams.

This has resulted in criticism too. Take the case of R and F for example. On the face of it, this is no different to Swansea City from Wales playing in the EPL or Wellington Phoenix from New Zealand playing in the A League. Of course the political situation is very different here and I am sure this has stoked some of the negativity. We have done our best to make the league more sustainable, interesting and competitive by allowing them to play, subject to meeting certain criteria. They will have to sign local players, be based in Hong Kong and pay a significant entry fee (which will be filtered down to the other clubs). I believe they will want to be competitive and that it will not merely be a development squad. There are two ways to look at this situation and I would accept there are pros and cons. Time will tell whether it was the right decision or not.

Similarly in the case of the HK Football Club some people have criticized us for allowing an ‘amateur’ team to participate. Firstly they did finish second in Division 1 last season so on sporting merit they have a case. All players will be given a ‘professional’ player’s contract and although I accept that very little money will be payed to players, there is no ‘minimum wage’ in the Club Licence or League Rules. They will have to abide by all of the Club Licence requirements and comply with all other rules and regulations. Whether they will be competitive also remains to be seen. I have watched a couple of their pre-season friendlies and they are looking quite solid.

The financial resilience of some of the professional clubs in Hong Kong is so weak that throughout June and July we could not confirm which teams would play in 2016/17. Even the Champions, Eastern have had well-publicised financial problems in the closed season. Faced with these uncertainties, difficult decisions have had to be made. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but they have been based on what we believe is the best for HK Football. Like I said, it would be nice to know at the end of every season which clubs will be playing next season. Club sustainability needs to be addressed for that to happen.

Which brings me onto the next major issue.

Venues: Another perennial issue is the availability, quality and choice of venue. There are so many issues here, it is difficult to know where to start. With the exception of the HK Stadium and Mong Kok all of the other venues cater for community use as well as being the home to a professional football team. The wear and tear inevitably results in the need for maintenance closures. This season it is particularly bad with a number of stadia being closed for extended periods of time. It is impossible to plan a regular schedule under these circumstances. The HK Stadium itself will not be available for December and from mid-March onwards. This will put huge pressure on the playing surface at Mong Kok. If it lasts the season in reasonable condition I will be amazed. Many venues don’t have floodlights, which precludes mid-week fixtures and some still restrict cheering activities, like banging drums. Until there is a strategy for addressing these deficiencies, there will always be problems. These manifest themselves in many ways, not least the spectator numbers. Watching football is a habit and fans need to know where their team will be playing rather than the continual move from venue to venue.

Club Licence: The CL is an important and accepted part of football. The HKPL Licence is based on the AFC CL Club Licence criteria but with certain allowances made in recognition that some of our clubs are starting from a low base. I would contend that there is nothing in the HKPL Licence that a good professional football club shouldn’t already be doing. It is based on common sense principles. Some clubs in Hong Kong take it seriously (especially the ones that aspire to play in AFC Competitions). The sad truth is that other clubs pay lip service to it and do the minimum to pass - whilst others try and ignore it altogether. The clubs that fall into the latter category clearly feel that we need them more than they need the Licence! In other words; would we really kick them out of the League if they fail? Some will fail this year and I will be recommending sanctions to the Board. It is unlikely that they will be kicked out though because this would be counter-productive. It is disappointing that some clubs view the Licence as something to avoid rather than viewing it as a tool for self-improvement.   

There are other issues and problems that impact negatively on professional football in Hong Kong such as a lack of club-based marketing and fan engagement, the legacy of integrity issues, poor treatment of players, lack of respect for officials; I could go on.

If I am brutally honest I would say that Project Phoenix and some of the changes we have tried to introduce have brought into focus the long term structural and cultural problems that have existed for some time, rather than solved them. Some issues have been addressed but others haven’t. We simply haven’t had the resources to make sufficient interventions in professional football to make a difference. I think it’s time to face facts and understand that the ‘evolutionary’ approach (which is all that could be achieved under Project Phoenix) needs to be replaced by more of a ‘revolutionary’ approach. You only have to look at what is being done across the border to see that it is possible to do this if there is support from all stakeholders including the Government, the commercial/corporate sector, Clubs, fans, the media and yes, the Football Association too. This will mean finding ways to give the clubs more money but make it conditional on taking the Club Licence more seriously and actively delivering on youth development, coaching standards etc. Money has made a difference to us in other areas such as Referee Development, Women’s Football, Futsal, Grassroots Football etc and it could make a difference to professional football too. The public sector must be a more proactive catalyst for commercial investment. I am coming to the view that nothing will change significantly unless there are wholesale, radical changes.

This summer has been a frustrating one for those of us who want professional football in Hong Kong to be competitive, sustainable and attractive. We at the HKFA have done our best to plan and prepare for 2016/17. It’s good that we have 11 teams and that each team will play 20 matches in the League and take part in 3 cup competitions. I really hope that it will be an exciting season with good quality football and that the gap between the top and bottom clubs is not too great. Now that the season is upon us, I sincerely wish that everyone can focus on matters on the pitch. I would urge fans to get behind their teams and the League.

Whilst my ever-enthusiastic and conscientious colleagues here at the HKFA will be doing their best to organize and promote the HKPL, I will be putting together a more ambitious and ‘revolutionary’ plan for the future of professional football in Hong Kong for future seasons. I already have lots of ideas, but these need to be formulated into a coherent plan. I hope to be able to share a discussion document on this subject before Christmas.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, August 2016


2016-17 香港超級聯賽

與外國其他頂級聯賽不同,香港超級聯賽僅於8月才可確定參賽隊伍及比賽場地,倉促的時間難免令本會、廣大球迷、傳媒以及一眾持分者感到無奈。我認為這亦反映出本地聯賽的現況 仍然不成熟。我聽到你們的疑問「鳳凰計劃不是應可解決所有問題嗎?」。


  • 全新品牌及冠名贊助
  • 球會牌照制度提供球會職業化的框架,亦改善我們於亞洲賽事中的排名
  • 獎金顯著提升(4)
  • 為較小型的球會籌備資金
  • 成立球員支援小組
  • 監管比賽操縱問題,減少了賽事作假的可能性
  • 政府增加了對區隊的資金援助 (3)



我個人較希望聯賽可以由一家獨立機構營運 (如其他國家一樣),而這正正是鳳凰計劃內的提議之一。兩年前,我們曾嘗試成立一個由眾球會所組成的工作小組,以管理架構、資源及時間表等,但因球會的冷淡導致結果令人失望。因此,我們仍與成立獨立機構營運聯賽的模式有一段距離,在這段期間,聯賽仍會由足總營運。這是一個挑戰,其中包括以下原因:


這結果受到不少批評,以廣州富力的情況為例,表面上與威爾斯球隊史雲斯於英超作賽或紐西蘭球隊威靈頓鳳凰於澳職作賽一樣,但這裡的政治環境截然不同,導致得到不少負面聲音。我們要求廣州富力必須簽入多位本地球員以及繳付一筆參賽費用 (可讓其他球會受惠)以令聯賽的競爭性及可觀性不受影響。我亦相信他們會有一定競爭力。凡事均有兩面,我認為事情往往會有優點及缺點,時間會證明這決定正確與否。









Friday, 24 June 2016

Strategic Plan - Aiming High

Strategic Plan - Aiming High

In 2014 and in fulfillment of one of the recommendations of Project Phoenix, the HKFA prepared a new five-year Strategic Plan entitled Aiming High – Together. This was presented to the Government’s Football Task Force and was used as the basis for the five-year funding agreement with the Government. The grant provided is conditional upon the delivery of the strategic plan and specific key performance indicators. The strategy was also used to underpin an application to the Hong Kong Jockey Club for a financial contribution to football development activities and the construction of the Football Training Centre.

As with all plans it is subject to regular review and appraisal. In 2015/16 the HKFA has been reviewing the strategy via the Strategy Committee and has produced the latest iteration in English and Chinese (see attachments below).

The Strategy Committee undertook a thorough review of the Strategic plan and drew a number of conclusions:
  • The broad direction of travel and strategic priorities remain correct
  • The principles cannot deviate too much from the plan already agreed with the Government and used as justification for the Jockey Club funding
  • The KPI’s must remain in accordance with those already agreed with the Government
  • The previous document is too long (even the Executive Summary version) if it is to be read and understood by stakeholders and partners
  • The strategy focuses solely on football development ‘on the pitch’ issues
  • For it to be an holistic plan, there is a need for greater focus on ‘off the pitch’ issues; specifically governance, management and organization
The latest version has been produced taking into account the above principles and comments. The new plan therefore retains the themes, priorities and targets of the original version but includes goals, strategic objectives and targets for other aspects of the HKFA, notably governance and management; all in a shorter more ‘digestible’ format. 

The document is based on the standard approach of, where are we now, where do we want to be and how are we going to get there. The plan includes a vision, mission statement and core values for the HKFA. It has goals and strategic objectives for three main areas:
  • Football Development (the area focused on in the ‘old’ version)
  • Governance
  • Management and Organisation
The plan also has targets and milestones for each objective which are consistent with those previously agreed with the funding partners. New ones have been added for the governance and management areas. Implementation is covered also and key roles and responsibilities have been identified both for Committees and Secretarial staff.

Each HKFA Department will need to prepare individual (annual) plans (to be approved by the relevant committee) that are in accordance with and contribute to the strategic plan. For example the Technical Department will produce an annual Football Development Plan setting out detailed activities and programmes for grass roots development, youth development, high performance football, women’s football, futsal, coach education etc. This plan will incorporate the ‘game changers’ set out in the previous version of the plan. The Football Development Plan will be approved by the Technical Committee and ultimately the Board.

Annual Plans will cascade down to individual members of staff who will be given specific tasks and targets. These will form part of the annual appraisal process, thus developing a formal performance management system.

The revised plan has been approved by the HKFA Strategy Committee and subsequently formally adopted by the HKFA Board. It will now be used to communicate the priorities and direction of the HKFA to all interested parties and stakeholders. There should be no ambiguity now about the HKFA’s direction, priorities, remit and rationale.

Comments on the plan are welcomed. 

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, June 2016


力爭上游 策略性計劃

為配合及達致鳳凰計劃的建議,香港足總於2014年提出名為《力爭上游 — 萬眾一心》的足球發展計劃,並向香港特區政府所委任的足球專責小組匯報,以及作為政府五年資助的協議基礎。資助的款項亦受該計劃以及其關鍵績效指標的成效所影響。該計劃亦用作向香港賽馬會申請於足球發展活動上以及興建足球訓練中心的財政資助。

如所有計劃一樣,《力爭上游 — 萬眾一心》會定期進行審核及評價。香港足總策略委員會於2015/16球季對該計劃進行審核並修訂出最新版本。

  • 董事局的方向及策略的考慮優次方針維持正確
  • 原計劃已經得到政府同意,並用作香港賽馬會資助的基礎,所以新版本於原則上不可與原計劃偏差太遠
  • 所有已經得到政府同意的關鍵績效指標必須維持不變
  • 原計劃文件太冗長 (包括執行摘要),令持分者及工作夥伴難以理解
  • 計劃過份集中於「球場上」的足球發展
  • 為令計劃更全面,有必要將計劃焦點擴闊至「球場外」的事項,尤其於管治、管理及組織架構上

  • 足球發展 (「舊版本」所聚焦的範圍)
  • 管治
  • 管理及組織架構