Monday, 11 September 2017

So Near But Yet So Far

Football is a game of fine margins. I am writing this on the plane back from Malaysia the day after our Asian Cup Qualifier. It was always going to be a close game; the last two matches against Malaysia also finished 1-1. To be honest the first half was a bit uneventful with both sides trying hard, making a few mistakes and not really creating many clear cut chances. However, the second half was anything but dull!

We took the lead early in the half with an excellently crafted and finished goal but we were unable to hold onto the lead for long when they scored a somewhat fortuitous goal four minutes later. It was unlucky for us that the ball deflected into the path of an unmanned player in the box from a blocked shot, and he was left with just our keeper to beat. If I was being harsh I might ask why he was allowed so much space in such a dangerous area and this is something that we will have to work on.

After that the game was very open and entertaining with end to end action and both teams created good chances. Then came one of those fine margins on which games turn. We had a nice little interchange of passes and Alex made a well-timed run into the box with just the keeper to beat (which he did) only to be given off-side. My initial instinct told me that he wasn’t off-side and I believe the replays show that he was in fact on-side when the ball was played. As readers of my blog will know, I don’t criticise referees and this was one of those genuine mistakes that happen from time to time. We created enough chances to win the game anyway including one glorious open goal!

There was more drama to come when in stoppage time Alex was fouled in the box and the referee rightly awarded a penalty. At that point the behaviour of the Malaysian coaches and players was very disappointing. OK, it was the heat of the moment but their players surrounded and berated the referee for several minutes which is unacceptable. Taking a penalty at 1-1 in stoppage time is a pressure situation and the unnecessary delay and unsportsmanlike behaviour can only have made the situation worse. Perhaps that was the plan. Full marks to Sandro for having the courage to step up to take the penalty and full marks to their keeper for making a good save. We just missed from the rebound confirming again that small margins determine the outcome of matches. At the end of the day those two points dropped could make a difference in terms of qualification. It could have been, and arguably should have been very different.

To be blunt there were disgraceful scenes at the final whistle with their Coach, his assistants and a number of the players virtually assaulting the referee. The fact that the Coach could not control himself influenced the other team officials which in turn incited the crowd. It was shocking to see the referee being escorted from the field of play in a barrage of verbal abuse and missiles. Imagine their behaviour if the referee had actually made incorrect decisions against them. If anyone should have been upset it was us because of the earlier incorrect offside decision. The AFC must take some action to prevent this sort of thing happening again and to give support and protection to match officials. Yet again I was left dismayed and angry at the behaviour of people who should know better. It was embarrassing for my hosts from the FAM who at least had the courtesy to apologise to me later.

I said in a previous blog that we were given a tough draw and that it would be difficult to qualify. It still looks that way and three points would have been very handy - it could so easily have happened too if it weren’t for those fine margins. And so the overriding mood in the camp last night and this morning was one of disappointment. Although frustrating we must remember that it’s not over yet and we will continue to fight for qualification.

In typical sensationalist style I note that some of the media are calling for Coach KIM to be sacked. That’s pretty disgusting and disrespectful. It also shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation. Coach KIM has a contract which runs until next summer. His salary is paid for by the Government. If we were to sack him (even if it were justified, which it is not) we would have to pay him six month’s salary in compensation. We would not be able to replace him because the Government would not agree to pay KIM’s compensation and the salary of a replacement. So we would not have a coach for the remainder of the Asian Cup qualifiers - how sensible would that be? So everyone should just shut up and get behind Coach KIM and his team. He is not going anywhere unless he, himself decides it is time to leave. The HKFA will decide on his future at the appropriate time. I hope that ends the ridiculous speculation.

Another issue that seems to generate a lot of debate is the use of ‘naturalised’ players. I know KIM is acutely aware that his selection of so-called ‘foreign’ players is not universally popular. Most countries in most sports have ‘naturalised’ players and we should remember that it is more difficult for a foreign player to become eligible to represent Hong Kong than it is in virtually any other country. Someone who has been in Hong Kong for at least 7 years (plus the time it takes to get a passport) and given up their original nationality should in my opinion be welcomed and accepted. The resentment even seems to apply to those players who were born in Hong Kong or have lived here since they were toddlers. I can’t understand the attitude myself.

I don’t get involved in selection matters but I have told KIM to pick his best team from people who are eligible to represent Hong Kong.  If we want to be successful, that in my opinion, is the only policy to follow. In time things will change anyway, as the standard of local football gradually improves. The ‘local’ players who represented Hong Kong in Malaysia played very well especially the two young substitutes Wong Wai and Tan Chun Lok. I went to the two recent interport matches against Macau last week, which we won. Again the ‘local’ players did very well and showed huge promise. It is very encouraging.

The future for ‘local’ players is looking bright which is great and what we all want. We should not forget however that ‘foreign’ players and coaches have been instrumental in helping these local players to develop and improve as happens in most places around the world. This is especially true of one Mr KIM who has devoted most of his professional life to helping Hong Kong football. It’s about time more people got behind him and all of the Hong Kong players irrespective of where they were born.  

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO September 2017


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  2. Hi Mark

    The controversy over naturalized players is baffling to me on a number of different fronts. For starters, Hong Kong markets itself as "Asia's World City" yet when people from other parts of the world settle here and want to represent us, somehow that's not acceptable to certain groups of people.

    On the pitch, I think you would agree Mark that our player pool is rather thin. We could use all the help we can get to expand the pool and give the representative team managers, at all levels, more selection to choose from. On that topic, I do have a couple of questions:

    1) If naturalizing players is part of the HKFA's long term strategy, would you considering moving to a 4+1+1 rule for foreigners in the HKPL? Each club may register four foreigners of any nationality, plus one player who must be from the AFC, plus one additional foreign player who must have been registered in Hong Kong prior to reaching certain age? The age limit would have to be around 23 or so and the player would remain eligible for this slot even if they a) were no longer under 23 and b) switch clubs, so long as they are switching between two Hong Kong clubs.

    The benefits would be if a player chose to leave for a bigger contract elsewhere, then the reputation of the HKPL would be enhanced a breeding group for young talent. This would encourage clubs to get better at talent identification and improve their scouting networks.

    If a player chose to stay in Hong Kong, then their value would increase as they get closer to naturalization, provided that their talent improves as well. The representative team would benefit because teams would sign more players like Sandro and Alex who were approaching their prime when they became eligible for selection.

    2) As you're aware, many people emigrated from Hong Kong both before and after the handover. Many left as children and retained right of abode or right to land status. Many more are not even aware that they have either of those and can work in Hong Kong without a permit.

    Among clubs, Kitchee led the way in identifying players with right to land status whom they could register as local players under the old HKPL rules. My question is whether the HKFA has a similar internal database of players who have either a parent or grandparent born in Hong Kong or in some other way would be eligible for Hong Kong, pending a passport? Does the organization engage in active recruitment of such players?

  3. Dear Lester, thank you for your long and constructive comment.
    The 'naturalisation' of players is not actually a defined strategic objective of the HKFA. We are lucky (in my opinion but not everyone's) that there have been quite a few good players recently who have wanted to become eligible to represent Hong Kong. We have never pressurised anyone to do so or actively sought out players who would eventually want to. Where players want to become eligible to represent Hong Kong I believe we should encourage them and help them as much as possible, which is something we have done in the past. For example writing to the Immigration Department in support of their application for a passport.
    I agree that the player pool is a bit thin and it will remain so until we have more consistent professional clubs. Therefore determining the number of 'foreign' players that can be signed is always a fine balancing act. On the one hand we need to ensure enough places for local players and on the other we need better foreign players to improve the locals and raise the standard of professional football in Hong Kong. I believe that we have the balance about right now whereby a team can sign 6 and field 4. In AFC Competitions it is field 3 + 1.
    Your suggestion is worthy of consideration and I recognise the benefits that you refer to. It would be decision firstly of our Technical Committee and then a Board Resolution.
    To answer your second question we do not have such a database and we rely on second hand information and word of mouth. I wouldn't say that we actively seek out players who fall into this category. As you say, some of the people may not even realise the situation themselves.
    I would just reiterate what I said in my blog, for me it is of fundamental importance that our Head Coach picks the best team from the group of eligible players. He should not worry too much about where they were born. You can rest assured he would be roundly criticised if he picked 11 'local' players and lost 10 nil.

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