The Rational Ref

Did Tang King-shing's leadership suffer from lack of refereeing experience?

Statistics don't suggest that 'disciplinary and refereeing matters' improved during the tenure of Tang King-shing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2012, 3:37am

With their officious uniforms, black notebooks and piercing whistles, police officers with a proclivity for discipline appear to share similarities with referees. So when former police commissioner and avid soccer fan Tang King-shing joined the Hong Kong Football Association last season the perception was he would add steel and zeal to disciplinary and refereeing matters.

There is no question of his zeal for the game. As one of three independents in a board of nine directors, Tang contributed more than his share of duties at the HKFA last season. He also watches as many First Division matches as he can. Of the eight major committees at the HKFA, Tang was convenor of two (disciplinary and appeals) and chairman of a third (referees). He also sat in two further committees (finance & strategy, and technical & playing), as well as in various sub-committees.

When it was revealed Tang had surprisingly resigned, the public perception of an ex-police chief beefing up the local soccer scene persisted. HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak sang Tang's praises, saying: "Tang has contributed a lot to the development of the sport since he joined the board, especially in the disciplinary and refereeing areas."

Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. Whatever the politics within the HKFA that forced Tang to suddenly resign from his four-year term, there is some doubt whether he added steel in the areas he oversaw: disciplinary and refereeing matters.

One measure whether clubs and players are wary of disciplinary sanctions is the number of cautions and players sent off they accumulate over a season. If significant disciplinary sanctions are in place, clubs and players feel more pressure to behave themselves.

In Hong Kong's top flight during the past three seasons (from 2009 to 2012), there were 40, 37, 35 red cards - an average of 3.5 to 4 expulsions per team every season. Also in the same period there were 536, 491, 556 yellow cards - an average range of 49.1 to 55.6 cautions per team every season.

Although crude, these figures give an indication that over the past three years clubs in general have not significantly changed their attitude, behaviour, quality, or style of play to reduce their card counts. If there was a strong incentive to do so - such as establishing a strict disciplinary system based on accumulative fines and suspensions - then there would be a noticeable improvement in players' behaviour and a significant drop in card counts.

Has this happened during Tang's one season of service? And has there been a stricter disciplinary system set up to encourage better discipline? The answers appear to be "no" if we consider last season's statistics.

Interestingly, going back a further three seasons (from 2006 to 2009), there was a range of 5.6 to 6.1 red cards per team every season, plus a range of 66.2 to 70.7 yellow cards . So, although discipline has improved significantly from several seasons ago, it has not improved in recent years and seemingly not during Tang's tenure.

Tang was also the chairman of the referees' committee. Rational Ref has not observed any improvements for referees, especially in terms of support, resources and development. In the glow of Project Phoenix, there are no enlightened initiatives to help improve refereeing.

Tang was referees' chairman last season but not many referees knew of his position, let alone understood what he did. The peculiar thing about Tang is that, although he obviously appreciates the importance of discipline having once been head of Asia's Finest, he has never whistled in the middle. The truth is, having experience in refereeing matches helps better appreciate the game, especially "disciplinary and refereeing matters".

All disciplinary committee members would improve their contributions to the sport and gain better insight into the Beautiful Game if they took a referees course and then try refereeing matches.

This will help them understand what it is like for an official to apply the rules fairly, consistently and honestly in the face of relentless pressure, increasing bitterness and occasional abuse from biased players .

After all, that's what happens off the pitch during committee meetings, too. Perhaps a compulsory referees' course for disciplinary committee members should be considered as one solution to help improve discipline on a grand scale in Hong Kong soccer?