Scandalous sponsorship deals catch FA offside

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 June, 1993, 12:00am

THE Hongkong Football Association must take a long, hard look at itself in the build-up to the annual meeting on Sunday, July 18.

For events during the past week have presented the decision-makers and administrators with urgent matters which need addressing if the Hongkong FA is to be respected as the governing body.

The withdrawal from the First Division of Ernest Borel after three seasons and the cash problems of debt-ridden Michelotti have put Hongkong football and its players at the mercy of the business community.

And while all sport needs the corporate dollar, in this instance the tail is most certainly wagging the dog.

Although the circumstances surrounding Ernest Borel and Michelotti vary vastly, the cases are linked in that both clubs have used an archaic FA registration system to promote their products in the football world.

And it is up to the FA to show strong leadership, take firm action and make changes in the league's constitution to create a more stable environment and prevent these problems from re-surfacing in the near future.

The FA's lack of leadership has been evident in what began as the Michelotti affair but has now turned into a scandal.

The Michelotti management, their cash reserves exhausted, owe the players almost $1 million in wages, bonuses, housing allowances and flights - $400,000 of it to their three full-time expatriates, Alan Walsh, Tony Sealy and John Bottomley.

Michelotti's problems began early in the season and, by the turn of the year, the players had grown accustomed to their wages being paid late and in various forms.

The money has not arrived at all, though, for more than three months and the Italian watch and sports goods manufacturing company who sponsor the football club have been served with a winding up order by Hongkong sports promoters Spectrum Plus over unpaidfees for sponsoring last year's Macau Marathon.

One of the three expats at the centre of the controversy, Bottomley, has already left for home in Manchester, $130,000 out of pocket and accusing the Hongkong FA of leaving them all alone to fight for their money.

And Bottomley is quite right. While the FA have been happy to advise the players to visit the legal department and the labour tribunal, they have not been too receptive to pleas from the English Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) to pay the players out of general FA funds and then try to sort out the Michelotti management.

All the Michelotti players did a magnificent job in taking the club to a fourth place finish - and the FA must not forget they played on to uphold the good name of Hongkong football when they could easily have caused turmoil by withdrawing their labour.

Contracts between club and player throughout Hongkong football are FA-endorsed but the governing body has been slow to act when this legal document is clearly flouted by the club.

Instead of sending the players here, there and everywhere and having the case brought to the attention of the PFA and maybe even world governing body FIFA, the Hongkong FA should have stepped in, paid the players and cleared up the mess before it got out of control.

After all, they were quick to come up with an $800,000 bonus pool for the national team before World Cup qualifiers in Lebanon last month.

While the money could be raised from within the FA, what it needs in future is a fund put aside for problems such as this. Professional clubs in the First Division could contribute a registration fee at the start of each season - $100,000 would be enough - and this would be available for cases of hardship. If the fund was not needed, the money would be returned or held over.

Not only have the Michelotti management taken advantage of the players, they are now giving the FA the runaround . . . and are getting away with it.

The Borel case is totally different. The Swiss watch makers have stacks of money but, after putting $25 million into the football club over three years and winning two trophies, company president Steven Lam Wai-wah wants to switch to motor racing and the Macau Grand Prix.

What Michelotti and Ernest Borel do have in common, though, is that both companies took over a registration of a club with rights to a place in the First Division.

In Michelotti's case it was the Po Chai Pills Athletic Association; in Borel's it was the Sea Bee Athletic Association.

All it takes for a new sponsor to join professional football, via a vacant registration, is a $200,000 payment for the first season, $100,000 the second and $50,000 the third.

In normal circumstances a sponsor joins an established club - such as Coca-Cola backing South China and Crocodile backing Eastern - but this form of registration allows a sponsor to take control of the club . . . and drop it at will.

The FA may attempt to console themselves in the fact that it is pure coincidence the Borel and Michelotti problems have surfaced at the same time.

But they have combined to present them with some serious subjects for discussion which, if allowed to be swept under the carpet this time, will be back.

And who in Hongkong football wants another Michelotti?