Only China can save HK soccer

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong soccer is taking a leaf out of US President Barack Obama's mantra 'Yes we can' but after two decades of dwindling interest in the local game, change is easier said than done.

If the professional game is to survive in the city then change - maybe even a revolution - is necessary. One group, led by First Division clubs South China and Kitchee, is ready to lead the charge and has proposed a new 'Hong Kong Professional League' that would offer a 300 per cent increase in prize money to HK$3 million when the new season begins in September.

The new league would replace the current structure set up more than 30 years ago. The halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when teams like Seiko, South China and Bulova could fill the old Hong Kong Stadium's 28,000 seats are a distant memory.

This group and their partners have come up with a plan that would professionalise the operations of the Hong Kong Football Association. The group's plans include a club licensing committee, a marketing and sponsorship committee and a dispute resolution panel.

Far from increasing bureaucracy in the game, the new structure's aim is to have a more transparent set of rules that would encourage clubs to invest in their teams. Under the current regime, decisions are often made on an ad hoc basis by the HKFA's board of directors; teams relegated from the top flight can win a reprieve simply to make up numbers, while promoted sides often refuse to move up the ladder due to a lack of resources.

A vivid example can be found in the recently concluded season when 13 teams competed in the First Division, with some of the new faces hopelessly out of their depth.

Some of the proposals, however, are simply a rehash of old ideas - primarily the strengthening of district teams to energise a core base of support. With or without a new league, that is an inevitable development because of the closure of Mong Kong Stadium for two years for major renovation.

WoFoo Tai Po are among the teams keen to foster district loyalty. They used their home ground to host nine matches out of 12 last season as their pitch deteriorated and became unplayable, while Pegasus also scheduled three games in Yuen Long as the venue wasn't available for the whole season.

However, only Tai Po's home match against South China was able to attract more than 2,000 fans, while attendance at their other home games averaged fewer than 1,000. Whether district teams can attract a strong fan base for home matches is still very much unproven. And it will be interesting to see, when the renovated Mong Kok Stadium reopens in 2011, if teams will still be eager to host matches in Siu Sai Wan, Tsing Yi or Sham Shui Po.

The HKFA has to recognise that times have changed. With top-class football from Europe now being aired live on television, fans are less inclined to attend local matches. The highest attendance last season for domestic competition was 4,228 for a league doubleheader at Mong Kok Stadium - Kitchee v South China and Fourway v TSW Pegasus.

Three seasons ago, a game between South China and Kitchee pulled in 7,000 fans, the highest attendance at the Mong Kok ground in more than 10 years.

The Hong Kong league was a powerhouse in Asia in the days after the second world war. A match between South China and KMB in 1951-52 is still one of the most talked-about games in the history of Hong Kong football when thousands of fans lined up for pre-sale tickets as the league's two frontrunners that season went head to head at the old Hong Kong Stadium.

A new professional league may go some way towards addressing the problems. But a surefire way to lift football to the next level would be to enter a Hong Kong team in the Chinese Super League.

With one home match every two weeks against quality opposition from the mainland, fans would have a lot to look forward to.

Of course, there are details to be ironed out: Would the Chinese league welcome a team from Hong Kong to join the Super League immediately or start in the lower division? And who would be given the right to form this team? How will that clash with the local First Division?

But these are technical problems that can be solved, because this, ultimately, is the future of Hong Kong football.

Front runners

Hong Kong Football Club were the first team established team in the old British colony in: 1886

Super Seiko

Seiko won the First Division from 1978 to 1985 before folding. The only team to win (titles) in a row: 7

First up

The Senior Shield was introduced in the 1896-97 season, long before the Hong Kong Football Association was established in: 1914

Sweet Caroliners

Since they joined the HKFA in 1916 (in the second division) South China have won (league titles): 39

Ger in there

In 1969, the HKFA set up a professional league. Scottish side Rangers were the first foreign team invited in: 1970