Academy talk is not so cheap

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


Seven years have passed since the first estimates were released by the Hong Kong Jockey Club for the construction of the Tseung Kwan O soccer academy. In this time, the estimated costs have increased from HK$103 million to HK$500 million. This is the 'gut feeling' of Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.

He can afford to be blithe about it. But one should remember this is public money, which would otherwise go to charity.

Why this delay? Simply because the Hong Kong Football Association couldn't come up with a feasible plan on how it would operate the academy once it was built and handed over by the Jockey Club. Over these years, the HKFA brass has ruminated like cows in a meadow, but with nothing to show for it except a lot of hot air.

As Engelbrecht-Bresges pointed out, 'building a facility like this is easy, but you will have to operate it and make it sustainable'. This has proved to be too much of an obstacle for our soccer chiefs, who had come up with a couple of proposals over the years that failed to impress the Jockey Club.

According to Engelbrecht-Bresges, there has been nothing else concrete from the HKFA, other than a feasibility study. And he pointed out there was a huge difference between a 'feasibility plan and a real proposal'. One is just a dream, the other is reality, something which the HKFA has failed to grasp, so hence the delay.

It is a huge shame and a massive waste of money. The extra HK$400 million it will take to build the academy could have been put to good use to run the place.

The Jockey Club should have gone ahead with construction in 2005 and built this field of dreams and just put another 100 million or two in a kitty for its upkeep. In this way, we would already have had an academy up and running.

Instead, we are left with nothing other than the gloomy prospect of seeing costs escalate. It is a sad state of affairs but something which the HKFA has come to symbolise in recent times.

Just look at the time and money wasted over the appointment of its first chief executive. The Gordon McKie fiasco has been well-documented.

The answer as to who is at fault depends on whose side you are on. If you are on McKie's side, then it is the big bad wolves - the top clubs - who are to blame for the breakdown in communication that led to the Scot being given his marching orders less than six months into the job. If you are on the HKFA's side, then it seems the association picked the wrong person for spearheading the task of revitalising the local game from grass roots to national level.

Either way, the HKFA must carry the responsibility of messing up. It has now picked Mark Sutcliffe as successor to McKie and he will take up the position in September.

Sutcliffe should have been the obvious choice a long time ago, once he had made his views public that he was interested in the hot seat. But a global headhunting firm overlooked his credentials.

Why was Sutcliffe the obvious choice? Simply because he had been involved with the dramatically named 'Dare to Dream' consultancy study undertaken by the government from the very outset, and was one of the architects behind the subsequent Project Phoenix and its 33 recommendations on how to revitalise the local game. He was subsequently appointed as the change agent to oversee the initial implementation of these recommendations. Why someone so involved should have been ignored is beyond comprehension.

Was it because of some misplaced thinking that it would be a conflict of interest picking the change agent as the first chief executive of the HKFA? That may have been the case, but thankfully the board of directors has come to its senses and picked Sutcliffe this time.

He will begin with the advantage of knowing the lay of the land, so to speak. He is not coming in blind to the labyrinthine politics of Hong Kong football and this will give him a headstart that McKie never had.

Sutcliffe's first goal will be to put in place a realistic proposal on how the soccer academy will be run and sustained. He should perhaps talk to the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union on whether the future upkeep can be shared, that is if the HKFA thinks it is too big an entity to run on its own.

This should be the key priority so Hong Kong can have a top-class training facility up and running in 18 months, the time the Jockey Club says it needs to build it. Enough time has been spent vacillating.