Time to ease the nationality issue

Government can aid soccer's progress by greasing the wheels for committed and settled foreigners who want to play for HK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 5:20am

The government-funded Project Phoenix identified the Hong Kong team's success as the best vehicle to raise the profile of soccer in the city and where better to start than with the 2015 Asian Cup qualifying campaign. Everyone involved in the game should pull out all the stops to ensure Hong Kong move up the Fifa world rankings - where we are currently mired in position No 159 - and success in this qualifying tournament is essential to reach that goal.

But have all the partners in this dream joined hands in the common cause?

The issue the national squad has with leading clubs, as far as the release of players is concerned, has been well-documented. But there is another aspect where the government lags behind - the process to naturalise players who want to represent Hong Kong. There are a number of players of foreign origin who wish to play for Hong Kong. Among them are Festus Baise and Wisdom Fofo Agbo. They have to wait seven years before they can apply for a Hong Kong SAR passport which would open the way for them to represent the city they have made their home.

Is it right that they have to wait for seven years? Sure, that is the law, but sometimes exceptions have to be made, especially if it helps the national cause.

Under Fifa rules, the clause regarding a player acquiring a new nationality states that the player is only eligible to represent the country if he, his parents or his grandparents were born in that country, or if he has lived continuously in that country for at least five years after reaching the age of 18.

The five-year rule was implemented recently. Previously it was two years and this resulted in places like Singapore handing out passports to one and all. Hong Kong has never flouted the rules, always going by the book, which is highly commendable. But now that the government has taken an interest in the renaissance of the beautiful game in this town, cannot this whole issue be seen in a new light?

Many countries in the world serve up passports to top foreign-born players in the headlong rush to boost the fortunes of national teams. We have heard of stories, especially from the Middle East, where players from Africa and South America are almost overnight given a new name and a new national team shirt.

We don't espouse such a move for that is tantamount to cheating. But if a player has made this city his home for five years, he should be fast-tracked by the Hong Kong Football Association (if it believes he can help the cause), and with assistance from the government be granted an SAR passport.

Five years is sufficient time to prove you are serious about a nationality change. Many foreign players who come here are in mid-career, so seven years for them is an eternity. By the time they qualify for a Hong Kong passport, they are well past their best.

Hong Kong is at a disadvantage against teams like the Philippines, who have raced up the world rankings, from 173 to 145, because they have welcomed players of Filipino descent who have been playing in Australia or the UK. As in rugby, there are many whose father is British or Australian and mother Filipina. In rugby, the Philippines Volcanoes are the most successful team next to Japan because of this influx of fresh blood. They have even qualified for the World Cup Sevens in Moscow. The country's soccer authorities have followed suit, resulting in the rise up the rankings.

Hong Kong should follow their example. After all, the Asian Cup was born in this city in 1956. As hosts of that inaugural tournament, Hong Kong fared commendably, finishing third. The city played in two more tournaments, in 1964 and 1968, but the latter event in Iran was the last time Hong Kong qualified for this regional showpiece. There have been 11 editions since and sadly the notation "did not qualify" has been a constant alongside Hong Kong's name.

On Friday, Hong Kong beat Vietnam 1-0 in the qualifiers. The chances of finishing in the top two in the qualifying group, which also comprises Uzbekistan (against whom Hong Kong drew 0-0 away), and the United Arab Emirates, are good. Hong Kong's chances of making it all the way to the finals in Australia in 2015 would be even better if all stakeholders took another look at our passport policy.