The opportunity of a lifetime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


If it is only a case of getting your lines mixed, then the recent goings-on at the Ho Man Tin headquarters of the Hong Kong Football Association should be brushed aside as nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.

But that hardly seems to be the case, with HKFA chief executive officer Gordon McKie coming out with a strongly worded statement last week when he complained that 'leaks of confidential board discussions are extremely unhelpful as it damages our reputation and credibility'.

The bee in McKie's bonnet was over two issues. The first was reports that the Chinese Football Association had invited a Hong Kong club to take part in the mainland's FA Cup this summer. The second was that a Japanese club were interested is setting up a First Division team in Hong Kong next season.

McKie was angry it was leaked to the media, especially as both matters were brought up at a board meeting the previous week, under 'any other business'.

But in this case, it was none other than HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak who revealed the details. Talking about the invitation to play in the Chinese FA Cup, Leung said it was a great opportunity, adding 'there is no way we will turn it down'.

It is not so cut-and-dried as far as McKie is concerned. He insisted that only after a 'thorough evaluation' would a decision be made, adding that most of the HKFA board members had no prior knowledge that this topic would come up for discussion.

But now that it is out in the open, we have to agree with Leung. It would be absurd to turn it down. The opportunity to play on a bigger stage, and especially where our clubs will be exposed to a huge audience, is invaluable.

For some time many people have advocated the only way forward for Hong Kong soccer was to attach itself to the dragon's tail. Yes, mainland football might be in a mess, still trying to shake off corruption and match-fixing, but it also offers a genuine entry into the big time for our clubs.

A sponsor who might have second thoughts about backing a local club, might not be so hesitant if they knew the same club would be appearing in the mainland league. At the same time, clubs would love the chance to play on a bigger stage. Right now, the only chance to do that is to qualify for the AFC Cup - two berths available to the winners of the league and the Senior Shield, which last season went to Kitchee and Citizen.

The two will enjoy playing away in places like Singapore and Vietnam and thus exposing their name to an outside audience, which will surely please their sponsors and fans. But what about the teams who missed out? South China, arguably the biggest club, have only domestic honours to fight for this season.

Wouldn't it be great if they had the opportunity to play in the Chinese league? The local backers of South China would pounce at the chance.

Well, the first opening seems to have materialised with this invitation to take part in the mainland's FA Cup. We should not quibble over niceties like following protocol - yes, it would have been better if the normal channels McKie was used to when he was in charge of the Scottish FA had been followed - and just accept the invitation.

The worrying thing, however, is the fact that Leung chose to go public with this without approval from the HKFA board. Perhaps this is what McKie is so riled about. Or maybe it is the fact the chairman deliberately left him out of the loop when making the announcement.

If it is the latter, then it could be a sign that the pair don't see eye to eye, which is troubling with McKie brought in specifically to do the job of turning the ship around. And if this is the case, he seems to be running into stormy waters.

In his statement, McKie said: 'To retain the trust of our stakeholders and sponsors, the board must be seen to be accountable and responsible and to be adhering to the principles of due process. Ultimately, we will reach a decision one way or another that is in the best interests of Hong Kong football.'

Leung has no doubts that it is in the best interests of the local game to have a Hong Kong club take part in the Chinese FA Cup. McKie is most likely to agree, too. But he has been placed in a difficult position. For one thing, he has virtually been bypassed in the decision-making process with Leung all but making it a fait accompli.

It does not look good when there appears to be infighting at the highest levels of the HKFA. Let's hope, for the sake of Hong Kong football and Project Phoenix, this is just a case of the chiefs getting their lines mixed up.