Thursday, 16 November 2017

Looks like we will have to do it the hard way!

We always said that it would be difficult to qualify for the finals of the Asian Cup UAE 2019 - given the draw we were given – and so it has been proven.

Now we have to travel to North Korea next March and win! That sounds improbable but I believe we can do it. In some ways it is better to go for a victory with nothing to lose rather than playing for a draw (which is what we would have needed had we won by two clear goals last night).

My confidence stems from the fact that for the first 40 minutes we were clearly the better team and created some really good chances against the group leaders Lebanon. Unfortunately the game turned on one incident just before half time. I have said many times in this blog that referees are fallible human beings who make mistakes. I have watched the incident many times now and whilst I can see why he awarded a penalty (just) I am still mystified as to why he even thought it was a foul worthy of a straight red. I think most observers would agree that the officials made a mistake.   

The significance of that decision is wide-ranging. Putting to one side the psychological effect that it could have on a young player and the fact that it reinforces poor behavior by rewarding an overreaction by the attacking player, it directly affects our chance of qualification for a major competition, one that we haven’t qualified for since 1968. For a ‘developing’ Football Association the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for a regional tournament is massive. Qualification would be a benchmark for the undoubted improvements we are making. Failure to qualify gives ammunition to the sceptics who say we are making no progress. Furthermore it has a detrimental effect on our FIFA ranking and also on the eligibility of our Clubs to play in regional club competitions like the Champions League. So these factors impact materially on the development of the sport here in Hong Kong. Qualification to the finals would be a massive boost to the sport and could determine whether or not funding partners continue to invest in football. It is that important and it is therefore frustrating when to some extent it hinges or is at least influenced by a poor decision.

I am not exaggerating the significance of the situation and given that, now must be the time to introduce Video Assistant Referees (VAR) for important decisions relating to goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity in international competitive football matches. There is so much at stake now that we can no longer rely on fallible human beings. I sense a consensus moving in this direction too and a number of trials are currently taking place. VAR is only a matter of time.

And whilst we are on the subject, let’s also introduce retrospective action for diving (as has been done in the English Premier League). Diving is prevalent in Asia as was exemplified the other night. One dive was so obvious that I actually laughed out loud (however the player wasn’t even booked). Some of these players must train in a swimming pool! Regular readers of this bog will know that I abhor time wasting, feigning injury, diving, simulation etc. It is beyond me why a team would do that when they have already qualified and are winning a match against ten men. I’m sad to say it but I just think that this sort of behavior is so engrained now, it’s become habitual.

So we re-group, lick our wounds and use the disappointment as a motivator for our last match. We have improved so much recently and as I say looked the better team in the first 40 minutes when it was 11 v 11. Whatever happens I am proud of our team’s performance in these qualifiers and I am sure we can still go through to the finals. We will give it our best shot anyway you can be sure of that.

A word on the booing
Quite frankly it’s getting a bit tedious. The fans who boo have made their point now and I’m pretty sure that if there hadn’t been such interest shown by the politicians and in particular the media, it would have stopped a long time ago. I can’t read most of the papers here but the ones I can read have stopped reporting on the football and are solely interested in the crowd behavior before the match which of course just encourages more booing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, which I am sure the media knows and relishes. Last night one media outlet even had the temerity to broadcast the anthem live on TV from inside the stadium despite the fact that they had no accreditation to do so. They were not the approved broadcaster and should not have been showing a ‘live’ feed. It’s disgusting really that a so-called professional organisation believes it is OK to infringe the regulations so blatantly.

Another sad trend is what I will call the ‘orchestrated anti-booing rent a crowd’, people who are apparently paid to come and oppose those who are booing. I don’t know who these people are or who is paying them but they are clearly not there to watch the football. They have no understanding of the game and even less interest. Last night I watched as they sat through the entire Lebanon anthem. Personally I find it more offensive to disrespect someone else’s anthem than your own. Someone should teach both groups some manners. This situation is a sad indictment on Hong Kong. Our beloved game is being hijacked (to the obvious delight of the media) as a political tool by both sides in a polarized, fractured society. It’s very sad that the action on the pitch is now seen by many as secondary to what is happening off it. Please if you’re not bothered about the football, just stay away.

The HKFA will wait to see what action is taken against us by the AFC, for it is us that will be penalized once again.

When I came to Hong Kong one of my objectives was to arrange more matches for the Hong Kong Representative Teams and that is what we have done. We have done this because we want to improve the standard of football in Hong Kong and also to give the fans some more interest and excitement. Considering what has happened recently, I think we could be forgiven for not hosting too many international friendly matches at home in the near future. There are no competitive matches lined up so we could just have a hiatus with no games if we wanted. However, we will continue to arrange matches to give our players experience and to reward the true fans. We will not give up and we will not allow negative interests to win. Football will prevail.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO November 2017

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The HKFA Says ‘NO’ to Match Fixing

Match fixing is a threat to the integrity of our sport and the HKFA takes it very seriously. To illustrate this point we recently ran a series of workshops for all HK Premier League and 1st Division teams. The workshops were presented by Sportradar our integrity partner. Sportradar is an international Fraud Prevention and Monitoring Company that specializes in identifying fixed matches and match fixers. Sportradar has a contract with the AFC to monitor all 1st and 2nd tier league matches across all 47 Member Associations of the HKFA. In addition to that the HKFA has a separate contract with them to monitor our Reserve Division and to present the workshops to players and officials.

Sportradar has very sophisticated betting monitoring systems and they follow over 550 legitimate betting sites and over 5 billion data sets daily. Mathematical algorithms trigger alarms if betting patterns deviate from the norm. I won’t go into detail but basically their systems are so robust that many match fixers have been convicted on the basis of their evidence.

If we receive an alert from Sportradar regarding an ‘ESCALATED’ match i.e. one that has been fixed, the information is routinely passed to the law enforcement agencies in Hong Kong. As recent arrests and previous convictions prove, there really is no place to hide anymore. If you fix, you will be found out, reported and investigated. As our players, coaches and officials heard from Sportradar at the briefings, being found guilty of match fixing will lead to an automatic life ban from football as well as more serious consequences such as imprisonment.

The emphasis of the workshops was on education and prevention. More often than not players are the victim and they are ‘hooked into’ this type of thing by unscrupulous criminals. Once involved in this type of activity it is almost impossible to back out because players (and their families) are blackmailed and threatened by people who had previously pretended to be their friend. Players and officials were taught how to recognize an approach from match fixers and what to do if it happens.

Match fixing is a world-wide sports problem and not just football. However Hong Kong football is identified as being particularly susceptible because Asia is the heart of the problem, players are paid relatively poorly compared to some other places and our matches are offered by betting sites all over the world.

The figures involved in betting on sport are mind-boggling and are the route of the problem. The world-wide sports betting market is worth 12.9 trillion HK$ per annum. That’s 12.9 million million or 12,900,000,000,000! Of that 7.8 trillion HK$ is bet on football, 70% of which is in Asia. It’s illegal to bet on HK football in Hong Kong however, the HK Premier League attracts global betting of HK$1.8 billion each season, that’s HK$25.6m per match! And that’s only the regulated betting market. Estimates vary but the unregulated betting market (including under the table betting in Hong Kong) is estimated to be worth at least as much again. Perhaps it’s time to legalise betting on HK football in HK so it’s easier to monitor and so a percentage of the revenue could be used to combat the problem, but that’s a discussion for another time.

It’s no wonder that with such vast sums involved, match ‘manipulation’ attracts the criminal fraternity. With over 65 ‘in-play’ bets, you don’t even need to fix the result. You can bet on the total number of goals, the half time score, the number of corners, the number of bookings etc. There was even the famous case of an English international being paid to ensure there was a throw in during the first minute of the match. It failed by the way.

This problem is not going to go away so the HKFA must be vigilant and proactive. We believe that the partnership with Sportradar and the compulsory workshops demonstrate our commitment to combatting match fixing but more importantly to protecting our players and officials.

Mark Sutcliffe, CEO November 2017