Junior teams 'need tighter regulation'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


When video of a 10-year-old boy kicking a 12-year-old rival in the face during a junior soccer match last week appeared on the internet, it wasn't long before it went viral. Now, the hard question has to be asked, says a qualified Hong Kong referee, instructor and assessor. Who is ultimately responsible for curbing violence and dealing with unsporting behaviour?

Stephen Lam Tak-shing, the operational director of Kitchee FC-FCB Escola, the soccer school that the victim attends, appeared ready to settle for an apology, saying: 'We don't want to cause any trouble.'

But the referee, who wished to remain anonymous, says a simple 'sorry' could be underplaying the seriousness of the incident. And even if an apology would suffice, who should offer it? The boy, his parents or the adults who run the team, in this case the ESF Lions?

The victim's father decided to file a complaint with the police, because he had nowhere else to turn, the referee says. This resulted this week in the arrest of the boy who delivered the kick.

Lawyers acting for the ESF, meanwhile, have managed to get the video removed from the internet, though the nature of the World Wide Web means it can still be found if you are persistent enough.

An underlying problem in Hong Kong is that junior soccer has no central governing body or organisational structure, the ref says. There are a plethora of soccer schools in the city with European giants such as Chelsea, Barcelona and AC Milan lending their names to some of these usually profitable programmes. Private clubs like Hong Kong Football Club and Kowloon Cricket Club also run soccer programmes, as do educational institutes like the English Schools Foundation.

There are various leagues, organised privately, in which teams compete. The city's official soccer body, the Hong Kong Football Association, often plays no part in regulating either the schools or the private leagues, the referee says. So who sets the rules? And more importantly, who enforces them?

Referees immediately springs to mind. Their word is law on the field and must be respected. But in junior leagues, in particular, referees must also be prepared to handle incidents off the field - mainly overly passionate parents and coaches who go overboard by shouting abuse at opposition players or even encouraging their own players to 'have a go'. Such coaches and parents forget that, at youth level, the most important thing is for the kids to enjoy themselves, develop their footballing skills and learn sportsmanship.

By screaming like banshees from the sidelines, they are setting a terrible example and this is where the referee must step in. Stopping the match and giving problem coaches and parents a good talking to usually does the trick, the referee says. However, many local referees are not trained to confront potential troublemakers, which means things can get out of hand.

Most of the youth soccer schools and youth leagues have codes of conducts, which are aimed at coaches, players, and parents and supporters. There are penalties and sanctions such as suspension of coaches and monetary fines. There is also, as mentioned on the Hong Kong Junior Football League website, a zero tolerance policy.

The problem is how are the codes enforced?

The sensible way to address this problem is for the HKFA to endorse a uniform code of conduct and run programmes aimed specifically at training referees for youth leagues, the referee says. In countries like England, children as young as 13 can start on a development pathway to becoming good referees. In Hong Kong, by contrast, a trainee referee must be at least 18 and be able to read, write and speak Chinese.

The referee said the HKFA should encompass the sport at all levels and with the government-funded Project Phoenix underway to restructure the game here, now is the time to act.

The good news is that progress is being made. The HKFA recently formed a partnership with the Hong Kong Schools Sports Federation to host the All Hong Kong Schools Jing Ying Football Tournament, whose final was played at Mongkok Stadium last Sunday.

Under Project Phoenix, disparate soccer organisations can also seek to become official members of the HKFA, a move that will ensure the 'beautiful game' comes under one umbrella. A uniform code of conduct - and therefore any sanctions for breaching that code - would mean ugly incidents would be few and far between.