Left Field: District teams need extra support

Government-backed Project Phoenix will be a failure unless smaller clubs like Tai Po are given more financial help

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 4:00am

Listening to Chan Ping, club secretary of Senior Shield champions Wofoo Tai Po, you get the feeling that the reality in la-la land - aka the Hong Kong Football Association - is treacherous ground for district-based teams and that the much-hyped Project Phoenix is not worth the paper it is written on.

Chan was talking after Tai Po defeated Citizen to lift the Senior Shield last Sunday, the first time the club had won this tournament since being promoted to the top flight in 2006. But as far as Tai Po are concerned, it was a hollow victory because the tournament has been devalued by the powers-that-be in the HKFA.

But more on this later. Of greater concern is what Chan had to say about Project Phoenix, the government's grandiose plan to breathe new life into the domestic game. If Chan is right, this multi-million dollar scheme has done little to help district-based clubs like Tai Po, Tuen Mun and Southern, the very teams that Project Phoenix was supposed to assist. Yesterday, Southern voiced their own concerns.

At present the government doles out HK$500,000 annually to district teams. This is hardly enough to pay the salary for a season for any half-decent professional, leave alone the budget for an entire team.

Tai Po have a HK$6 million budget, with much of the money coming from sponsors. According to Chan, Tai Po are unlikely to hold on to their benefactors when the contracts run out, because the sponsors feel they are getting little in the way of return on their investments.

So dire is the situation, Chan says, that Tai Po may have to withdraw from the top flight next season. Facing a shortfall of HK$800,000 this season, Chan's words can be viewed either as an attempt to force the government to up the ante, or it could be an awful indictment of a system that seems to favour the bigger clubs.

Let's look at the facts. Why has the Senior Shield competition been turned into a non-event? In the past, the winners of the Senior Shield automatically booked a berth in the AFC Cup, the second-tier Asian club competition which, other than boosting a club's reputation, can be a revenue-earner if a team enter the latter stages of the competition. But last year, the HKFA, perhaps urged on by the big clubs, decided to introduce a new Super Cup competition this season which will now work as the second avenue of qualification for the AFC Cup, with the other berth going to the First Division champions.

The HKFA will say that the Super Cup was a decision taken by the board on which only four of the top-flight clubs are represented - South China, Kitchee, Citizen and Pegasus. So it is only the big clubs who had a say in the matter.

And it has worked out well for Kitchee. For the past two seasons, Kitchee have played in the AFC Cup by virtue of being league champions. But next season, this looks precarious as they are now six points behind the other behemoths, South China, in the First Division standings. Kitchee coach Josep Gombau has already conceded that their hopes of retaining the league title are all but over.

But no worries, as far as the AFC Cup is concerned. Kitchee will have a second bite at the cherry, something which wouldn't have been possible if the four-team Super Cup wasn't around.

Winning a knockout competition is tough but small clubs like Tai Po do occasionally spring a surprise. But having won the Senior Shield, then being asked to play again in the Super Cup is a bitter pill to swallow for Tai Po. The government can - and perhaps should - intervene by way of offering sweeteners to district teams who do well in either the league or knockout tournaments. So, for example, if a district team win the Senior Shield or FA Cup, the government could provide a bonus on top of the annual HK$500,000 subvention.

Let's face it. The district teams need more incentives. But instead, the playing field is uneven. Project Phoenix provides millions of dollars a year to the HKFA and rather than spending the bulk of this on hiring highly paid executives, more should be used to help district teams. Otherwise, it will be business as usual with the bigger clubs dominating year after year - and Project Phoenix will be a miserable failure with taxpayers footing the tab.