More soccer pitches to level the playing field
With the World Cup grabbing our attention, now is a good time to revisit the government-funded report on the state of Hong Kong soccer. While it was a very welcome initiative, it did, however, skate over the main problem. And, like so many government-funded consultation papers, the conclusions appear somewhat watered down and fail to prioritise the actions needed.
For example, it says that 'the standard, availability and accessibility of facilities for training and competitive matches are variable' when it should have said that they are grossly inadequate.
The problem is not that the report ignores the need for more and better facilities, it is that it fails to stress that this is the fundamental problem and that, without addressing it, the rest of the recommendations will fail.
Improving the management of the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) will not solve the problem of a lack of facilities. We have 29 turf pitches and 17 artificial pitches; 46 in total. This is far from adequate for 7 million people and is the reason participation in soccer is so low. In spite of its popularity, the number of people playing soccer is minuscule compared with that in other countries. We can do much better, and we should.
For instance, there were five countries at the start of this year's World Cup with smaller populations than Hong Kong's: Denmark, New Zealand, Paraguay, Slovakia and Uruguay.
According to Fifa, Slovakia has almost 430,000 registered players and Denmark more than 300,000. Yet Hong Kong has only 4,176 registered players - an exceptionally low 0.06 per cent of the population. Even Uruguay, with a population of just 3.43 million, has almost 42,000 registered players. The same holds true when you look at the number of registered and unregistered players combined for each place; Hong Kong has the lowest numbers.
It is also clear that, with only 82 clubs and 46 pitches, soccer is very underdeveloped in Hong Kong. Too few soccer pitches has resulted in too few clubs, too few players and too small a talent pool.
The report, first published last December, obsesses about the quality of HKFA management, but does not see that a small talent pool also leads to too few officials. The small talent pool has affected the quality of performance on and off the field. Reorganising the HKFA without addressing the primary problem will be a waste of resources and will only postpone progress.
The lack of pitches is the result of decades of government underinvestment in sport. As a result, we are a very long way behind developed countries in our participation levels and in our ability to compete internationally. For example, Germany has one football club for every 3,070 people and one pitch for every 3,500. If there was a similar level of provision here, we would have 1,982 pitches. Could we possibly attain that figure?
As the government's report graphically illustrates, in Hong Kong the climate and population density make natural turf pitches unsuitable, but artificial turf can withstand significantly more use than natural grass. All our pitches should be converted to floodlit artificial turf sites, except if a grass pitch is needed for international matches. This alone could result in a ten-fold increase in the number of clubs and players.
A construction programme is needed to, literally, make up lost ground. On the basis that one artificial turf pitch is equivalent to 10 grass pitches, we would need 198 pitches to equal the level of Germany's provision. If we add 15 new artificial pitches a year, in 10 years we would have 200 artificial pitches, equivalent to 2,000 grass pitches. It's do-able, so let's do it. We deserve no less.
Robert Wilson is a former member of the Hong Kong Sports Development Board