Half-time in Hong Kong soccer's revival
The government must continue to fund Project Phoenix beyond November 2014 if the ultimate goals are to be reached
The halfway stage has been reached in the government-funded Project Phoenix. The three-year term of the programme to boost local soccer started in November 2011 and is slowly starting to show results.
From the outset, the yardstick for progress has been the national team. For the 2015 Asian Cup qualifying campaign, the team are second to the United Arab Emirates in their group after a draw away to Uzbekistan and a win over Vietnam in the home-and-away competition.
It has been more than four decades since Hong Kong qualified for the Asian Cup. If the Kim Pan-gon-coached team can hang on to their current position, they will earn a ticket to the finals in Australia in 2015. That would be a massive boost to the game and a shot in the arm for Project Phoenix.
But the clock is ticking. In November next year, the government will decide if it wants to stay aboard this mythical bird. Without its help - HK$20 million annually - the game is likely to regress.
Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe has been seven months in the job and is cautiously optimistic the game is moving in the right direction. Sutcliffe believes the key components of Project Phoenix are a successful national team, building a national training centre (at Tseung Kwan O) and the establishment of a professional league.
All these are in the pipeline. This month the HKFA will make a presentation to the Jockey Club about the new training centre. It has been delayed for years, but at last it seems the parties have got their act together. This venue will be crucial, as it will provide a training base for six of the 12 clubs who will make up the new professional league, which will get a trial run next season.
The top two teams, South China and Kitchee, have no issues with training venues as they will soon have their own facilities. The four district clubs, too, are catered for. It is the other six who will need the new training centre to rid themselves of a nomadic lifestyle and having to scrounge around for a community ground in competition with the public.
The Leisure and Cultural Services Department pumps in HK$17 million a year towards the HKFA's development programme and it does a wonderful job. But it should also ensure that as keeper of the key for public facilities, it guarantees access to training facilities for those clubs who don't have a home.
Yet, overall there is some momentum being gained. The new Hong Kong Premier League and the state-of-the-art national training centre plus the encouraging results from the national team are all good signs. The HKFA has also appointed managers to oversee the women's squad, referees and grass-roots development.
The end game is building a viable product. Sutcliffe says if entertainment can be provided on the pitch, the fans will come back. And you need the fans to take the next step - of Hong Kong getting a toehold in the region's premier club competition, the AFC Champions League.
Right now Hong Kong clubs can play in only the second-tier competition, the AFC Cup. This is because we don't meet all the requirements, including having a fully professional league. That will be remedied, but then what about the other box that must be ticked - that clubs have facilities with a capacity of 5,000 seats and that average attendance at matches be 2,500?
As Hong Kong falls short of some of the requirements, even if Kitchee reach the final of the AFC Cup this season (they are in the last 16), they will still not be able to qualify for the Champions League next year.
Hong Kong needs to be playing at the highest level. That means the national team must be playing in the Asian Cup and individual clubs competing in the AFC Champions League. If this happens, then the knock-on effect will see television companies lining up to secure broadcasting rights to the game. Today, the HKFA pays broadcasters to televise matches.
Sutcliffe is optimistic, saying: "I'm happy with what has been done in the past few months but there is still a lot of work to do."
One thing is certain - the many recommendations in Project Phoenix will not be implemented by next November. The HKFA must be given more time to complete the job.