Experts scathing of management of Hong Kong Stadium pitch

Experts are scathing of management of the Hong Kong Stadium pitch, saying the embarrassing quagmire for a showpiece tournament could have been prevented

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 4:21am

The battle over the pitch at Hong Kong Stadium has been going on almost since the venue reopened in 1994 - though never before has the turf, or lack of it, caught international attention in the way it has in recent weeks.

The Barclays Asia Trophy debacle at the end of last month saw soccer games involving some of the world's biggest names come within minutes of being abandoned, a multimillion-dollar star injured and Hong Kong's reputation as Asia's "world city" in tatters.

Taking in information from a range of sources and running through the events that led to the tournament mudbath, two key opportunities were missed. In the short term, using higher quality sand from the Jockey Club could have prevented the quagmire. In the long term, better planning would have had the pitch in a better state, experts say.

It puts the spotlight on poor management by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department - already under fire for issues such as failing to preserve many heritage trees in the city.

The calamity began on July 24, when the tournament kicked off in a downpour with games between English Premier League side Manchester City and local side South China, followed by English teams Tottenham Hotspur's clash with Sunderland.

With the pitch rapidly becoming a nightmare, Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen - a Belgian international reportedly valued at €27 million (HK$278.6 million) - slipped and injured his ankle 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute.

"If I can be sincere, I preferred not to go ahead [with the match] but this is the reality we have to face," said Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas after the game.

As the rain continued in the following days, department staff under the supervision of a consultant from New Zealand poured more than 30 tonnes of sand onto the field.

Two hours before Tottenham were due to kick off in the third-place play-off against South China on July 27, Tottenham's groundsman spotted a problem: impurities - including shells, plastic, glass and small stones - in the sand. The London team's officials insisted that the impurities be removed if the game was to go ahead.

The impurities would not only have hurt the players but also worsened drainage problems, said local turf specialist Dr Eric Lee Yin-tse.

Lee, who has 38 years' experience in turf management, starting at the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling in 1975 before spending 20 years with the Jockey Club, believes better planning could have prevented the problem.

"A good management plan should be able to anticipate problems. But the stadium did not," Lee said. "I'm sure they would have been given some good quality sand from the Jockey Club if they had asked for it."

A source close to the club's management said it would not have been difficult to lend a helping hand, as it had hundreds of tonnes stored at its two racecourses. The club's spokesman said the racecourses in Sha Tin and Happy Valley had a maximum stock of 400 tonnes and 60 tonnes of sand respectively.

To the surprise of some local turf managers, officials from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department admitted that the sand provided by its supplier, Wealth Bridge, usually had to be sieved before use. With matches coming thick and fast during the tournament, there was no time to do so.

According to the supplier's contract with the department, a copy of which was obtained by the Post, sand should be taken from a freshwater river and grains should range between 0.25mm and 1mm in diameter. Asked why staff would need to sieve the sand, the department said that it was to "further improve the sand quality" and that it was following up the matter with its supplier.

Football Association chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak wondered whether the sand had, in fact, come from the sea rather than a river, given the mainland's tighter controls on the export of river sand in recent years; others wondered whether the sand was in fact intended for construction purposes, or had come from construction waste.

In contrast, the sand used in racecourses and at a pitch in Sai Tso Wan, Lam Tin - used for training by visiting overseas teams and local professionals - is derived from crushed quartz, Lee said.

"The sand will be piled up according to its size through a washing process. Some grains can be as fine as 0.01mm," Lee said. "Then buyers request a certain composition of large and small sand to make the best combination for turf growth."

While the department pays HK$195 per tonne for the lower-quality sand, quartz sand is available for about 30 per cent more - about HK$250 per tonne - if the volume ordered is big enough.

Another problem for the stadium pitch is a lack of exposure to sunlight - a problem Lee believes can best be solved by switching to an alternative type of turf.

"An improved Bermuda grass named TifGrand was available on the market at least five years ago. Did they do any research or carry out any test?" Lee said, referring to a product developed by the University of Georgia in the United States. He recommended the turf to the department in 2009, when it was seeking answers on how to cope with more shade at an expanded Mong Kok Stadium.

A source close to the department said TifGrand was installed on a patch behind a goalmouth at Hong Kong Stadium in May for a two-month trial.

Tests found TifGrand grew slowly and struggled with wear and tear. A spokesman said the turf was gradually being replaced with another called Transcontinental.

"A scientific test should last at least a season and TifGrand is recognised as the best by international turf specialists," Lee said, adding that TifGrand, in the form of grass sprig, was much more expensive than Transcontinental, sold as grass seed.

One department insider said the long-term planning problems that resulted in last month's quagmire demonstrated once again a deep-rooted problem in the department's use of staff.

Under a deployment system, service managers and amenities assistants such as those responsible for the stadium's pitch can only stay in one post for a few years before being reassigned.

"We do have well-trained staff. But they are now managing swimming pools and other leisure venues," the source said.

The person said the Urban Council, which used to run many of the functions now managed by the department before its abolition in 1999, sent about 100 staff to Britain in the 1990s to learn about grass and tree management.

About 30 remain with the department, but "unfortunately they are not well deployed", the person said.

The department says its staff deployment system is intended to broaden employees' knowledge and help their career development.

It added that the stadium manager and supervisor, who held diplomas and certificates in horticulture, attended a local turf management training course arranged by the department and an overseas turf institute. A team of five ground workers were also responsible for daily maintenance.

It is understood that stadium manager Wong Ying-ming started in the post just a few months ago. The department also brought in a consultant, Alex Glasgow of the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute, to prepare pitches a year ago.

In contrast, the Jockey Club has a team of 22 technicians looking after the Happy Valley course and 40 more for the course in Sha Tin.

Professor Jim Chi-yung, a specialist in soil science at the University of Hong Kong, said the managers responsible for the pitch should, at the very least, hold an appropriate degree. He said the work to clear the pitch was unscientific.

"Coring [punching holes into the turf] is more useful than spiking in case of a waterlogged stadium," Jim said. "Coring will make spores by removing soil but spiking will compact the soil."

He questioned the appointment of Glasgow, whose background is in a country with a totally different climate to Hong Kong. "It's the wrong choice," he said. "New Zealand is at a temperate latitude, with different climate, soil and usage rate of pitches."

The department said the fee for the consultancy, which did not provide for comprehensive contingency planning, was HK$300,000. A spokesman declined to say whether the contract was awarded through an open tender.

Glasgow declined to comment on his suitability for the role, but said the remedial measures taken were based on consensus between the stadium, the English Premier League and the local Football Association.

Jim said: "It's ironic when the government forced the stadium's former operator Wembley to leave because of its poor management [in 1998]. Fifteen years later, little improvement is seen on the pitch."

The latest row echoes a legal battle over the management contract with Wembley International (HK), the management company tasked with running the stadium at So Kon Po when it reopened after redevelopment in 1994.

Problems over the pitch prompted the cancellation of the contract in 1998, when the then Urban Services Department obtained HK$1.7 million to returf the pitch. Returfing is again being considered now.

The cancellation of the contract ended up in a HK$22 million court ruling against the government. Mr Justice William Stone in the Court of First Instance ruled that the stadium had design and construction defects, including a design that blocked sunlight from the pitch.

Lee says the problems are not irreversible. "The mistake made in the earlier design could have been corrected," he said. "How can they tolerate it for 15 years?"

While Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has asked Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing to review the management of the city's soccer pitches, Jim fears that soccer fields may end up going the same way as the wilting heritage trees, warning that the problems can never be solved "without a true-hearted mentality".