Hong Kong soccer clubs wonder when Project Phoenix funds will help them
Government-supported project, which is halfway though its three-year tenure to revive the game, has had little impact on local teams
The government-sponsored Project Phoenix was supposed to revamp Hong Kong soccer from top to bottom. Midway into its three-year cycle, it has achieved half its goal - those at the top are doing well indeed, much to the chagrin of other stakeholders.
Some are even asking if the HK$20 million injected into the game every year under the project is money well spent.
The Hong Kong Football Association is now led by a chief executive, who is assisted by a technical director (in charge of coaching development, refereeing, grass-roots development, futsal and women's soccer), two senior executives (in charge of corporate affairs and marketing) and a general secretary (in charge of league competitions).
Under these directorates (plus the national team set-up), there are also managers, assistant managers and other support staff, making the HKFA possibly the largest sport governing body in the city.
The salaries paid to this large workforce have absorbed most of the project's HK$20 million, leaving little for those who play.
The one silver lining - if one could call it that - is that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department provides another HK$12 million a year for development programmes, though it recoups that via fees for venue hire.
And so, 18 months into Project Phoenix, fans have seen little evidence that standards - particularly in the professional leagues - have improved. That can be measured by attendances at First Division matches.
The recently concluded season was an exciting one, with South China narrowly winning the league from defending champions Kitchee, who had the consolation of lifting the FA Cup, while relegated Wofoo Tai Po clinched the Senior Shield. Kitchee are also through to the last 16 of the AFC Cup, giving Hong Kong at least a glimmer of hope in the Asia's second-tier continental tournament.
But fans do not appear to be impressed, with attendance figures far from ideal. South China, the city's best-supported club, recorded an average attendance of 2,200 at their home ground, Hong Kong Stadium, with their encounter against Kitchee attracting the biggest crowd of the season, 4,294.
Kitchee's average at Tseung Kwan O Sports Ground was around 1,000, with their match against the Caroliners attracting 3,613. Their attendance figure is similar to two other clubs - Sunray Cave Sun Hei and Citizen - who both use Mong Kok as their home ground. The remaining six teams averaged below 1,000, with Southern the lowest at 554.
The reason? Although the government has invested millions in Project Phoenix, club soccer has yet to see any benefit. "People on the street may think we have received a lot of government money under the project, but obviously this is not the case," said Pui Kwan-kay, the chairman of Citizen. "We are still on our own. We can see a lot more people now work at the HKFA, but can that help us an individual club?"
Pui said Citizen spent HK$9 million last season, while their income was so small he did not think it was worth mentioning the exact figure. "We need to pay HK$40,000 each time we use Mong Kok Stadium, a figure that can never be recovered through gate receipts," he said.
"Coupled with other expenses on players' salaries, administration costs, training and other support services, we are losing money season after season. And all this money comes from either our own pockets or sponsor support; nothing comes from Project Phoenix.
"If the government is really serious about Hong Kong soccer, it should at least do something to reduce our expenditure, such as waiving its charges for the use of venues. After all, the government owns these venues. If they want to help, this would be a good way to start."
Even Steven Lo Kit-sing, the outspoken South China convenor, is complaining as the First Division takes its first steps towards transition to the new Premier League. "It looks like domestic soccer is a pond of dead water," said Lo, who has been in charge of the heavyweights since 2006.
"If there is no big money coming in as we prepare to introduce the Premier League soon, it won't make any difference. Either the government or the HKFA has to take a more proactive role in securing big sponsors to make a change."
HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe acknowledged the difficulties the clubs faced but said: "The association has the responsibility to help generate more resources through sponsorships and other commercial deals. But it will take time to find new sources of money.
"To raise the standard of the game, we know the clubs need better quality players and either we train them - which takes time - or buy them. But the clubs hardly have money to spend on high-quality players, unless someone rich enough wants to invest in soccer.
"We need to get some big sponsors coming in; unfortunately, it's difficult to attract major sponsors at the moment as the product is not attractive."
Sutcliffe said the HKFA was talking to the government to at least reduce venue charges. "The clubs, the association and the government have to invest in the future of soccer in Hong Kong, and it's going to take a lot of time, a lot of people working together as it's a gradual process," he said.
Still, Project Phoenix is not a complete washout. One of its main aims was to improve the standards of the national team and, whether by design or luck, that seems to have worked out.
Hong Kong are still in the running for a spot in the 2015 Asian Cup after a remarkable 0-0 draw away to Uzbekistan and a 1-0 win at home to Vietnam in their qualifying group. With respected South Korean Kim Pan-gon promoted from interim to full-time coach, there is a very real chance Hong Kong can make to the finals in Australia in 2015.
So it was a major disappointment the national team ended the season amid shameful scenes at Mong Kok Stadium earlier this month, in a 1-0 loss to the Philippines in a friendly. Sections of the home fans not only booed the visitors, but also hurled racist abuse at the team and their supporters. The incidents were reported to soccer's world governing body Fifa.
As Project Phoenix enters the second half of its initial mandate, perhaps some of the money should be diverted to help the development of professional clubs and educate the fans on how to behave in a civilised manner.