Hong Kong's soccer team has more in common with mad dogs and Englishmen than some might otherwise believe.
"We have to train close to the middle of the day on a synthetic ground, which is going to be 442 degrees Celsius," quipped Hong Kong coach Ernie Merrick last week as he lamented the lack of available pitch bookings for the senior representative team. "This is because it is a Saturday and there is nowhere we can train in the evening, as there are no grass pitches available. So, we are going to dehydrate the players if we overtrain them."
Merrick's impassioned moan provides an outsider's insight into some of the perceived problems of our soccer set-up and culture.
Understandably, Merrick is frustrated at not being able to closely mimic the playing conditions of international matches, which take place in the Mong Kok and Hong Kong stadiums. Like any good coach, Merrick wants his team to train on good-quality grass pitches, as well as organise evening training sessions since the match times are scheduled at 8pm.
Instead, Merrick's charges have to make do with poor-quality surfaces under the mid-day sun because that is all the Leisure and Cultural Services Department can offer. Players are exposed to higher risk of dehydration and impact injuries.
Relevant to this issue are concerns about the Hong Kong Football Association's general practice of scheduling fixtures. In the top division, there are five matches per round; two on Saturday and two on Sunday (2:30pm and 5:30pm) and one on a week night (8pm). Considering Hong Kong's scorching daytime conditions, why subject professional players to less-than-optimum conditions? Not even the world's best players can exhibit their skills consistently and maintain a decent level of performance for a full 90 minutes. Nicky Butt clearly struggled with the conditions when he played in Hong Kong.
The reason why the HKFA schedules its weekend matches in the afternoon is probably rooted in the soccer traditions of England and northern Europe. Historically, weekend matches in England started at 3pm because in temperate climates, playing in the afternoons during cooler seasons makes sense.
In subtropical, humid Hong Kong, day-time kick-offs make little sense, unless there is a strong case for saving on costs of stadium floodlights. Furthermore, there are concerns that spectators may prefer to watch live English Premier League matches in the evenings.
Despite such worries, Singapore S-League matches start at 7:45pm. The Malaysian Super League kicks off even later at 8:45pm. Both these competition organisers appear to consider the welfare, safety and performance concerns of players. Therefore, should Hong Kong also have evening start times for its soon-to-be privatised and professional league? When famous teams visit Hong Kong, kick-offs are typically scheduled in the heat of the day. When Arsenal visited in July they played at 5pm. That day, the average temperature was 28.9 degrees with a relative humidity of 78 per cent.
An everlasting memory of these preseason tours is players clamouring for water bottles at every opportunity, with the game played mostly at near-walking pace. And like Merrick, visiting managers never fail to comment about the energy-sapping conditions. So why aren't such matches scheduled in the evenings?
Also, spare a thought for match officials. Players can always rely on their colleagues on the sidelines to hand them water bottles during breaks in play, but a referee and his assistants have to wait until half-time and full-time to get their drinks. Consider further the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where average June temperatures reach 44 degrees. Will players and referees be able to perform optimally then?
If the HKFA is serious about improving the standards of soccer, one immediate solution is to modify match kick-off times in the top flight. By allowing professional players to perform in more suitable conditions, there should be a noticeable improvement in overall fitness and technical performance. Hopefully, this message will also filter down to HKFA's lower divisions, which all kick off on Sundays at 1:30pm and 3:15pm. If evening bookings are unworkable, even pushing back kick-off times by one hour can help. Sensibly, the HKFA schedules all youth matches for Friday evenings and Sunday mornings, which helps shield young players.
Ideally, players should be allowed to play in suitable conditions available in the local environment. We need to let go of Noel Coward's legacy of going "out in the mid-day sun" and start a fresh culture based on playing performance and professionalism.