A rumour doing the rounds is Bob Houghton could be the next coach of Hong Kong. Whether the 63-year-old Englishman, who last month resigned from his job as coach of India, does turn up on our doorstep, or head down to Melbourne to coach in the A-League, is uncertain. But this shows Hong Kong football stands on the cusp of exciting times. The decision by the clubs to unanimously accept a raft of constitutional changes a fortnight ago is perhaps an indication that the winds of change are all set to blow away the cobwebbed and moribund system that has plagued the local game for decades.
At an extraordinary general meeting of the Hong Kong Football Association on April 14, all 84 representatives from 45 clubs voted 'yes' to the recommendations called for by change agent Scott Wilson. Only a 75 per cent majority was needed, but the fact it was a unanimous show of hands gave weight to the belief everyone understood this was the last throw of the dice.
Hong Kong soccer needed saving. By voting 'yes', the stakeholders have sent out an unequivocal message they want to grasp the lifeline thrown their way by the government. This has now paved the way for the government to inject millions of dollars to help the ailing sport. It has been estimated nearly HK$28 million will have to be injected annually if all the recommendations - and there are around 33 - to revive the game are to be undertaken successfully. And this money will have to be spent for the next five years at least, in addition to the annual government subvention soccer gets already.Any change will have to start at the top. And this means putting in place, and quickly, key personnel including a chief executive officer, a financial director and a new head coach. These people have to be carefully chosen as they will carry the hopes of this city and a new professional league of around a dozen teams for the 2012-13 season.
The change agent obviously believes in the economic trickle-down theory. You help the people at the top and hope their success will trickle down to the rest of the community. In this sense, the fortunes of the Hong Kong team are important. We all saw how the whole community got behind the game when the team won the gold medal at the East Asian Games in 2009. There was a surge of pride and patriotism. Sadly, that wave lasted all too briefly.
A man like Houghton would be tailor-made for Hong Kong. He led India to the Asian Cup finals in Qatar in January. It was the first time India had qualified for this tournament since 1984. What was extra-special was that Houghton did it with a young team. He encouraged youth as much as possible. He is gone after a five-year tenure, but Indian soccer will reap the benefits for a long time to come.
Hong Kong needs someone like him, a man with the vision to inject fresh enthusiasm and develop a new sporting culture. Houghton ultimately fell foul of Indian officialdom, unhappy the country lost all their three games at the Asian Cup, but what his critics failed to realise was that simply reaching Qatar was a huge achievement in itself.
HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak warned this week that despite all the optimism surrounding the upcoming changes, the game faces an even bigger challenge - raising its standards. Just because the constitutional changes had been approved it didn't necessarily mean the fans would flock back overnight, he said. They will come back only if they feel the product is worth paying for.
The road ahead will be long and hard. We will need the right people, not just at the top, but those who hold the all-powerful intermediate positions in any organisation. Without them, no organisation is successful. We need people who can handle everything from development and grass-roots programmes right up to the national level.
There has been a lot of talk about money. The clubs and stakeholders now need to see some tangible benefits. The Home Affairs Bureau withheld funding until it had clear proof there was a mandate for change. Well, they have seen that now. The HAB and the HKFA should sit down and start talking about how funds should be used. Facing a tight deadline of putting in a place a 12-team professional league the season after next, makes this a priority. But I suspect the green light for disbursing funds won't be given until the HKFA has a new triumvirate in place - a CEO, a financial director and a head coach. So it is of the utmost importance these people be appointed quickly.
Leung urged all stakeholders to continue working together. He said the hardest part was finding human and financial resources, adding it would not happen overnight. Okay, we don't expect things to happen tomorrow. But this process of change has been going on for long enough, and it would be surprising if choosing all these key people was to take another six months.
Surely the powers-that-be must already have an idea who is available, or who is interested in these jobs. Not only does Hong Kong soccer need change, but it needs it fast. It was a welcome surprise to find the clubs unanimously voting for change. I never thought it would happen so easily. But now that hurdle has been passed, the ball is in the court of the change agents.
They must act fast. We have spent enough time dilly-dallying. Let's rock and roll.