An investment in the future
At last the Hong Kong Football Association seems to have got its act together, taking the bold decision to include the city's under-21 team in the First Division in the new season.
The refusal by newly promoted Mutual to take up their spot in Hong Kong's premier competition has turned out to be a blessing in disguise, with the HKFA deciding that, to maintain a 10-team league, it will include the city's under-21 squad, named a fortnight ago.
This squad has been picked looking ahead to the 2013 East Asian Games in Tianjin, when Hong Kong will defend the gold medal they won after defeating Japan in a memorable final at Hong Kong Stadium in December 2009.
What better preparation than playing in the First Division, where the players will come up against higher quality teams like Kitchee and South China, teams with foreign legions who will give the youngsters the perfect learning curve.
The HKFA must be applauded for this move, and so must the clubs who have agreed to release youth players to the squad. It seems, at last, as if everyone is pulling together for the greater good.
In the past, club politics have bedevilled selection for the Hong Kong team. But if this development is any indication, then there is hope for the future. If the clubs can realise the city's team takes preference at junior level, then hopefully this approach will be adopted when it comes to the senior side, too. It seems the HKFA's Project Phoenix, a scheme to reform local soccer, has given everyone a shot in the arm.
Vincent Yuen Man-chuen, general secretary of the HKFA, is hopeful the under-21s can be bolstered in their league games by a couple of overseas players. He says getting them will depend on whether the HKFA can sort out the finances and find sponsors. It will be good if a few key players - a striker, a midfield marshal and a solid defender or goalkeeper - can be brought in to stiffen the spine of the neophyte team. Winning league games will be the best formula for the long-term success of the under-21s, for that will spur them on to greater achievements. This is not the first time the HKFA has taken this approach. A couple of seasons ago, we had the Beijing 2008 team, put together in a bid to qualify for the Olympic Games. That goal never came to fruition, but that doesn't mean the HKFA was wrong in trying.
Back in the '80s, when football was very much part of the elite programme at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, it was felt the way forward for the city's squad was to have a band of young players (under-23s) training together and playing as a unit.
Kwok Ka-ming and his band proved that system worked in 1985, when Hong Kong scored their most famous victory on the international field, knocking China out of the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup. Kwok was head coach at the Sports Institute until 1990, when soccer lost its status as an elite sport.
Since then there has been no central body in control of the Hong Kong youth squads. Yes, the HKFA is in charge, but with clubs calling the shots, players have been either unavailable for duty for the city, or they have chosen club over Hong Kong to fill their wallets.
Dennis Whitby, who was director of the Sports Institute in the mid 90s, believed that for Hong Kong to be successful at soccer at the Asian Games (under-21s) and Olympics (under-23s), a central body had to have full control of the youth squads, totally independent of the clubs. In the past, that role was filled by the Sports Institute - which has 15 sports under its umbrella - but today it has to be the HKFA that must take responsibility.
Soccer was briefly supported by the Sports Institute, after the East Asian Games success in 2009 when the players were included in the Individual Athletes Support Scheme for one year. That ended in March, when soccer failed to produce subsequent results.
At present, there is only one team sport supported under this scheme at the Sports Institute - the men's rugby sevens team who, in addition to winning a silver medal at the East Asian Games in 2009, followed it up by winning silver at last year's Asian Games.
The money for the footballers has dried up. Now, the decision to include the under-21 squad - a group of 30 players - in the league will be a boon for all concerned.
If sponsors can be found, the players will benefit financially. But what is most important for them is they will get invaluable game time. At a club like South China, a young player rarely gets the chance to come off the bench, or even be part of the match-day squad. Clubs use their foreign players and the more experienced locals, who are well paid. The focus of the clubs is to win, not to develop players.
That won't be the case with the under-21 squad. All the focus will be on bringing on the players. Winning will be a bonus.