Where to go from here for HK's field of failed dreams

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 May, 1998, 12:00am

THE turf war at the Hong Kong Stadium came to an end last week.

When the smoke cleared, the Urban Services Department (USD) led by its chairman Ronald Leung Ding-bong, stood victorious having booted out managing company Wembley. The USD had terminated a 10-year agreement which was due to end in 2004.

Both parties initially fired salvoes promising to see the other in court. Whether or not this will happen is anybody's guess.

But what is certain is that despite the change of ownership (read management), the central issue at stake - the problem pitch - will still be around next season too. This despite the Stadium undergoing another round of re-turfing (begins tomorrow).

Greener pastures have been the dreams of regular hirers of the Stadium, the Hong Kong Football Association and the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. But they have not got it.

Having failed to nurture one, why not look at an artificial pitch. This is the idea proposed by James Middleton, a sporting surfaces expert in town who is selling the latest generation of synthetic pitches called 'FieldTurf'.

Originated in Canada, this pitch looks like grass and feels like grass. It does not injure or give 'grass burns' like astro-turf. It has in-built cushioning (the base comprises recycled Nike shoes). It has low maintenance costs compared to natural grass and is porous and drains well.

Hong Kong Football Club is installing FieldTurf in their training areas and could soon introduce it for its entire pitch. The Hong Kong University is currently thinking about it. Why not the Stadium? 'The benefits are immense. The field could be rented out and used 16 hours a day, seven days a week if need be,' said Middleton. What more it could be installed in less than two months.

He had proposed the idea to Wembley who had shot it down. Wembley said FIFA rules did not allow for an artificial pitch to be put in place at a 'national stadium'. But Middleton points out that if prior notice is given to FIFA (30 days), preliminary World Cup matches can be played on artificial turf.

'Hong Kong are football minnows. They are ranked somewhere in the 130s and going down. Soccer is no longer a Target Sport of the SDB. The chances of Hong Kong progressing beyond the preliminary rounds of the World Cup are quite frankly zero and FIFA allows preliminary rounds of the World Cup and Olympics to be held on synthetic surfaces,' said Middleton.

Rugby has no such qualms. The International Rugby Board does not bother where a game is played.

Recently FieldTurf took HKFC manager Tony Sealy and local rugby representatives Alan Clarke and K. K. Chiu to Portland, USA, to try out the pitch. They came back convinced that this could be the way to go in the future.

By all accounts, it provides a better alternative than the pitch which is currently in place.

It was supposed to be Hong Kong's field of dreams. But those dreams quickly turned to nightmares.

Problems surfaced soon after the Jockey Club-donated Hong Kong Stadium (it cost HK$850 million to re-develop the old Government Stadium) was unveiled in 1994.

When Wembley won the bid to manage the Stadium a year before, its chairman Sir Brian Wolfson said: 'The biggest benefactor would be Hong Kong sport as we are not here to make a huge profit. We can organise anything from a visit by the Pope to Billy Graham.' The new Hong Kong Stadium may have opened to such catholic promises. But these were hollow supplications.

The problem was two-fold. One was the venue of the Stadium. The other was its very heart - the pitch.

Built in a natural amphitheatre the noise soared to ear-splitting levels. Residents in surrounding areas were up in arms ever since an Alan Tam canto-pop concert rocked fans in 1994.

So much for the noise. It was no better at the heart of the problem. The pitch also played out its litany of tragi-comedy roles. Resembling more a beach than hallowed turf, the Stadium hosted events which left principal users the HKFA and the HKRFU angry.

The criticism was universal. Sports fans, players, officials, organisers were all united in the view that the wrong sort of pitch was put down.

Fingers were pointed at the Jockey Club who laid down a sand mesh surface, the type they used at their race courses at Sha Tin and Happy Valley. It may have been good for horses, but it was a different ball game for soccer and rugby.

Many attempts were made to re-turf the Stadium. But if the foundation was sand, how could grass take root? So the problems continued.

It all came to a head last week when the Urban Services sacked managers Wembley from the job.

The reason for terminating the contract was given as: 'Wembley had been in serious and/or persistent breach of its obligations to manage the stadium.' The USD will now spend $1.7 million in re-turfing the pitch. Another patch-work job looks on the cards as the main problem area, the sandy foundation will be left untouched.

'We won't have time to completely restructure the pitch before the season begins next September. This will only be a short-term solution,' said Cynthia Tong, of the USD.

Is artificial turf an alternative? The USD should look into it and see if Middleton's boast that it is the real thing is true or not.

Or they may get bogged down in another turf war.