Kwok helps rebuild game in China
Kwok Ka-ming brought Chinese soccer to its knees in 1985 when the then Hong Kong coach orchestrated a stunning victory over the mainland in the World Cup qualifiers. Now, with the game in China at an all-time low, Kwok is at the heart of its rebuilding
A year of international humiliation on the pitch - and scandal off it with high-powered officials jailed for match-fixing and bribery - has forced much introspection and a declaration by mainland soccer boss Cai Zhenhua to look at development at all levels of the game.
While China salvaged some pride with a 3-1 victory against Jordan on Wednesday in their final 2014 World Cup Asian qualifying match, the damage had already been done earlier with the national team knocked out of the running for a berth in the game's showpiece event. And to compound the misery, the under-23 side also missed out on a place in this year's Olympics Games in London.
But the bad news doesn't end there. China failed to get past the group stage at the Asian Cup in Qatar last year, and even the country's once-powerful women's team are in decline, failing to qualify for the first time for the World Cup in Germany last year.
'All these results have had a great impact on soccer authorities on the mainland. They realise something must have gone wrong and the system needs to be changed,' said former Hong Kong coach Kwok, who is now a technical director of the Chinese Football Association (CFA). 'Before, they focused only on the development at elite level, pumping all their resources into supporting a small group of players at the top. There was no development programme for the sport. The country has had tremendous success in individual sports such as table tennis and badminton, but it is not the case in team sports, especially soccer.'
That Kwok is now working for the CFA may seem ironic; after all, he is the man who masterminded Hong Kong's victory that knocked China out of the World Cup qualifiers in 1985 at the Workers Stadium in Beijing, a result that angered the masses and led to a near-riot. But over the years, Kwok has had strong links with the mainland, both as a coach and in his capacity as a senior official of the Hong Kong Football Association.
He is also one of the few Asians appointed by Fifa as a member of the prestigious Technical Study Group (TSG) at World Cup finals since 2006.
In 2009, when the CFA was looking for a new coach, Kwok was invited to be one of the examiners to help the recruitment process. And two years later, he officially took up the job as the CFA's technical director. 'They [the CFA] had to fill the position [of technical director] as required by the Asian governing body to promote a coach education scheme,' Kwok said. 'They first put in someone from within their own organisation, but this administrator was rejected by the AFC [Asian Football Confederation] because he didn't have the technical background.
'And because I had worked with the CFA on many occasions, they asked me if I would take up the post. After I received permission from the HKFA, I started my dual role of working for two organisations from 2011.'
Kwok now spends two-thirds of his time as a CFA official based at its Beijing headquarters and the rest of his time fulfilling his duties as the HKFA's international relations director. 'It might seem a strange arrangement but the two posts have little conflict,' he said. 'My job at the HKFA is more ceremonial. I have been in this business for so many years - from being a player to coaching and management. I know a lot of people in the soccer community from all over the world and the HKFA needs my network to help it build up international relations. To be fair to both parties, I only get paid by the HKFA when I work in Hong Kong.'
His focus, though, is on China and Kwok readily admits that the job is a huge challenge. 'The AFC requires every member association to adopt the confederation's comprehensive coach education scheme, with the objective of producing and developing quality coaches for all levels of soccer,' he said. 'But in China, all the focus is on the professional league where the big money goes and from which the national team can draft players.
'But they are now rethinking their approach to developing the game, particularly because of the recent off-field scandals related to match-fixing and bribery. There will now be a greater emphasis on grass-roots and junior development and that will require a large number of coaches at different levels.'
After a visit to Japan in November, Cai, who is also the country's deputy sports minister, admitted the mainland was lagging behind its regional counterparts, not only at the professional level but also at every stage of development. Recently, Cai pledged to create a strong soccer population, even if it took 10 years or more.
'They now want to build a strong foundation so as to create a base for changes at the top level,' Kwok said.
In his first year in office, Kwok organised 65 coaching courses, compared to 35 in 2010. He is planning to do 135 courses this year, with the ultimate target of running 200 courses a year to meet Cai's target of having a soccer-savvy nation
'Many of the coaches in China are either ex-players with few coaching credentials or graduates of sports universities who are well versed in theory but with few practical skills. My job is to organise courses so they can be further equipped to grow the game in the country,' Kwok said.
While Kwok is not directly involved with the national men's team, who are coached by Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho, he is a keen observer of their progress. 'If the CFA asks for my advice, I am happy to give it to them,' he said.
The mainland could do worse than take advice from Kwok - after all, he did engineer tiny Hong Kong's famous win in 1985.