Price tag for success for Hong Kong soccer is HK$100m per year
That's how much Hong Kong Football Association chief Mark Sutcliffe says it will take every year if the local game is to make meaningful progress
It's been almost two years since the government-sponsored Project Phoenix was launched with much fanfare and heralded as a new dawn for Hong Kong soccer - the comprehensive 33-point plan expected to act as a catalyst to revitalise the game from grass roots to national level.
But the sobering 4-0 defeat at the hands of United Arab Emirates in the Asian Cup qualifiers a fortnight ago has once again raised questions whether this was a false dawn. The downfall of the national team which was supposed to be the yardstick to measure progress has been regarded as a sombre indictment of plans to raise the stock of the local game.
The failure of Kim Pan-gon's team - Hong Kong's chances of qualifying for the Asian Cup finals for the first time since 1968 look bleak with tough games away to UAE and Uzbekistan at home next month - has led to top Hong Kong Football Association official Mark Sutcliffe engaging in a massive bout of soul-searching in his blog this week.
And he has warned Hong Kong soccer has reached a make-or-break situation where, unless more funds and resources are forthcoming, it could face a miserable future. He has called for a fresh annual injection of HK$100 million, roughly three times what the sport now receives from the government.
"Our plans will not have the impact that they should and could have unless we get more money into the sport," HKFA chief executive Sutcliffe said. "We have reached a tipping point. It is time for our partners and stakeholders to take stock of the situation and to decide how important football is to individuals, to communities and to Hong Kong society as a whole.
"They need to give it the help it so desperately needs. If we do not get better facilities and a level of resources comparable to other sports we will not be able to develop a high-performance culture, or fulfil our other plans, and we will simply fall further and further behind other countries."
The Englishman, who climbs mountains as a hobby, is used to facing tough obstacles. But since taking over the HKFA hot seat last September, replacing Gordon McKie who departed after just six months in the job, Sutcliffe admitted he was on the edge of the precipice.
One of the biggest issues facing the game is that soccer is not part of the system - the sophisticated Hong Kong Sports Institute where 16 elite sports are assured of high-level annual funding for their high-performance athletes. And if the national soccer team are supposed to be the beacon that shines bright, the game needs funding similar to what programmes from athletics to wushu receive as elite sports.
Soccer also loses out from being denied the state-of-the-art facilities at the Fo Tan elite academy, which has been renovated and refurbished by the government for HK$1.8 billion, and was officially opened by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on Friday.
The numbers game highlights the drawbacks confronting soccer's hard-up church-mouse. This year the Sports Institute received HK$325 million as funding from the Elite Athletes Development Fund. There are 719 athletes - including those from 12 sports under the Individual Athlete Support Scheme - which equates to an annual expenditure of around HK$452,000 per athlete. (This is before rugby joined the institute recently)
Soccer in turn received an annual government subvention of HK$4.6 million for its high-performance teams which comprise 288 elite athletes - 12 squads of 24 players. This equates to around HK$16,000 per footballer per annum, which is just 3.5 per cent of the money spent on each HKSI athlete.
This figure is even bleaker when compared to the money that goes towards training an athlete for the Olympics. The Sports Institute recently revealed it spent nearly HK$9 million for each athlete in the four-year-build-up to last year's London Games. This translates to HK$2.25 million per year. When the meagre sums spent on a footballer are juxtaposed with this princely ransom it amounts to , a fraction - 0.7 per cent - of what is spent on an Olympian.
"No expense is spared to develop the HKSI elite athletes, which is how it should be. I have no problem with the resources invested in the HKSI and its elite athletes; indeed I am an advocate of the approach to high performance taken at the Sports Institute and a firm believer in leaving no stone unturned in fostering excellence in sport," said Sutcliffe.
"This is what we so desperately need in football but the problem is that the HKFA has no money to provide even the most basic support. We have no sports science support [physiology, psychology, bio-mechanics, nutrition etc], no gym, no conditioning coach, no analysis software because we can't afford them. It does seem a bit paradoxical that some sports have optimal resources and others including football have virtually nothing."
All these obstacles have been magnified further by the difficulty soccer faces in getting into the "system". The sport was booted out of the Sports Institute in 1998 after failing to meet stringent requirements and now is finding it difficult to get back in.
"The criteria for gaining elite sports status are based on the attainment of medals in international competition. The problem for football is that without the investment that is given to elite sports, it is unlikely to ever gain that level of performance, it is a chicken and egg scenario," says Sutcliffe.
"For Hong Kong to win medals in regional competitions we will have to beat powerhouses such as Australia, Iran, Japan, Jordan, UAE, China and South Korea. To compound matters further, it is more difficult to achieve medals in team sports than individual sports.
"For example, in a major games like the Olympics there are 34 different swimming events with 102 medals available, whereas in football there are two events [men's and women's] and therefore six medals in total. Taking these factors into account, the chance of football gaining elite sport status is very small, if not impossible."
In a bid to address the funding issues, the HKFA in its new five-year strategic plan to be released next month will ask the government to increase its annual total funding to HK$100 million - up from the HK$34 million that it gets mainly from Project Phoenix (HK$20 million) and a subvention from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (HK$12 million).
The bulk of the funding has gone towards administrative costs and paying the salaries of a large workforce led by Sutcliffe, who is assisted by a technical director (in charge of coaching development, refereeing, grass-roots development, futsal and women's soccer), two senior executives (in charge of corporate affairs and marketing) and a general secretary (in charge of league competitions).
Under these directorates (plus the national team set-up), there are also managers, assistant managers and other support staff, making the HKFA possibly the largest sport governing body in the city. But for the system to work, all these cogs have to be well-oiled. Any extra funding can be diverted to other facets.
When Sutcliffe took the job last September, Project Phoenix was more than a year into its first three-year term and with the controversy behind McKie's departure, it was felt that much time had been lost and it was best to condense the 33 recommendations made into a smaller, more achievable target - raising the standard at high performance level, increasing the strength of the professional game, broadening the remit of the HKFA to be the "guardian" of all soccer activities in the city and developing the HKFA into a world-class national sports association.
The government's HK$20 million handout under Project Phoenix has largely gone into the last two areas, leaving the door open to criticism from some quarters, especially clubs, that they haven't seen any benefits trickling down the pipeline.
If money is a major headache, then facilities is another huge problem facing the local game - mainly the delay in the establishment of the national training centre at Tseung Kwan O that Sutcliffe said had the potential to be a "game-changer" when, or if, it came on board.
"When I first came to Hong Kong in 2009 to work on the government's strategy 'Dare to Dream' [the consultation process which resulted in Project Phoenix], I was shown plans drawn up in 2003 for a National Football Training Centre at Tseung Kwan O. Of course developing this facility was a key recommendation of that strategy and then again a key recommendation of Project Phoenix," Sutcliffe said.
"It's almost 2014 now and we are still at the 'planning' stage. Meanwhile, our senior team have to train for international competitions on over-used public pitches across Hong Kong. It might be a synthetic pitch one week and a grass pitch the next. Some weeks we don't train at all because there are no facilities available.
"It is difficult to imagine this 'nomadic' and ad hoc approach being acceptable in any other country that is serious about football," said Sutcliffe.
A national training centre at the 9.6 hectare landfill site in Tseung Kwan O received backing by the Jockey Club in 2005 when the cost estimates were HK$105 million. That cost has ballooned to more than HK$750 million due to the lack of a plan as to how it would be financially maintained after it is built. Those issues are apparently on the verge of being resolved, but hopes the facility with eight pitches, where the national team can train as well as house four clubs in the First Division, would be ready by next year are remote.
"The real 'game-changer' would be the development of the Football Training Centre at Tseung Kwan O. That has to be the number one priority for everyone involved in football and surely can't be too difficult to bring to fruition.
"Of course, that will require the allocation of resources but to me that is the easy part for a place like Hong Kong - it just requires the commitment of funding partners and the buy-in to the vision set out in the strategic plan," he said.
"We are just looking for some parity with the other elite sports in Hong Kong. Hong Kong football teams already compete in international competitions, albeit with their hands tied behind their back, like the National Games of China, East Asian Games, Asian Games, Asian Cup, Olympics and World Cup. We have to prepare properly for these high profile events where being elite is a pre-requisite. It is patently absurd that football in Hong Kong is categorised as 'non-elite'. The pride of this city is at stake," added Sutcliffe.