Hong Kong Stadium's 'killer pitch' needs new management

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 4:53am

The least that the world's most famous soccer team should expect when it comes to town is a pitch fit to play on. Yet when Manchester United took on Kitchee at our city's premier venue, the Hong Kong Stadium, its players encountered not well-prepared turf, but an unstable patchwork of grass and brown sand. A practice session the previous day was called off; the muddy field, a product of days of rain and intensive use, was considered too dangerous. So bad were conditions that English media covering the game and the preceding Barclays Asia Trophy tournament, during which Tottenham Hotspur defender Jan Vertonghen was injured after slipping, had dubbed it a "killer pitch".

That is not the sort of publicity Hong Kong sport needs, nor is it the way to keep such high-quality fixtures coming to our city. The secretary for home affairs, Tsang Tak-sing, has apologised, but it is not the first time the pitch has been criticised. It has been a problem since reconstruction of the stadium in 1994. A 10-year contract awarded to the original operator, Wembley International, was terminated after just four years, and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has since been responsible for management. In light of the latest debacle, it seems time to again review the arrangement.

Weather and use can never be an excuse for a pitch being in poor shape for an important game. Proper management would have ensured drainage systems were working and the surface kept in order. It is what top teams need and expect for the best performance and safety of players, some of whom have been signed for tens of millions of dollars. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has rightly promised solutions.

A state-of-the-art stadium with an all-weather roof is planned for the Kai Tak site, but delays have set back the opening to at least 2019. Competition for sporting events in the region is fierce, especially from Singapore. If Hong Kong is to continue to attract tournaments and the cream of the soccer world, the government has to ensure facilities are professionally run. Fortunately, there is already an organisation with a solid record of sporting management which also has a growing interest in soccer - the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

We need quality facilities if our most popular spectator sport is to progress to a professional level which allows it to compete abroad. If the competitions that will allow that progression are to continue, the barest necessity is a good playing surface.