Column
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:36pm

Asia Trophy pitch farce was a total humiliation for Hong Kong

Hong Kong has been ridiculed around the world for the state of the pitch, illustrating yet again why a signature arena is essential

BIO

Alvin Sallay, a Sunday columnist with the paper for more than 10 years, has been reporting on the Hong Kong sports scene for the last 25 years. Through his columns he has covered four Olympic Games and one soccer World Cup. A long-time Asian expert, he has also been to seven consecutive Asian Games.
 

The need for a new stadium was underlined in big bold type by the state of the pitch at Hong Kong Stadium on the opening day at the Barclays Asia Trophy. We boast we are Asia's World City, a cry suggesting this modern metropolis functions smoothly and efficiently. By and large this is true, but when it comes to sporting events, we are more a desert outback than a suave New York.

Instead of shouting from the rooftops and celebrating the presence of three English Premier League teams, we were left cowering in embarrassment at our rice paddy pitch in our premier stadium. The British media went as far as labelling the So Kon Po venue a throwback of '70s-style mudbaths back in old England. Instead of promoting Hong Kong as a sporting destination, all we had were negative comments.

Richard Scudamore, Premier League chief executive, might have tried to defuse the situation when he said a few games in his competition last season had been played in similar conditions. But that is small consolation. We are trying to sell this city as a major sporting hub, and to descend into farce - with games being shortened - is not the right way of doing it.

If not for the almost sold-out stadium, I bet both games would have been cancelled. The Hong Kong Football Association revealed it was left to the match officials to decide whether the pitch was safe to play on. There was no way our referees were going to take such an important decision themselves. They would have been told what to do and that was play or run the risk of trying to placate an angry crowd.

The safety of the players is paramount. Thankfully there was only one casualty with Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen suffering an ankle injury. Just imagine the hue and cry if more than one player ended on a stretcher? It is true, the weather was outside the control of the organisers, but it needn't be the case, especially if our new stadium at Kai Tak were up and running. The promised retractable roof would be just what is needed to thwart the elements at this time of the year. HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe called for the government to expedite work on the new facility and believes it is essential for the future of the game here.

Sutcliffe said: "It goes without saying a modern state-of-the-art stadium with a retractable roof would have prevented some of the problems. In an open stadium, playing matches at this time of year in Hong Kong will always be a risk and potentially problematic. If Hong Kong is to remain competitive in terms of attracting this type of event then a new stadium is essential."

His is the latest voice in a growing chorus for the Kai Tak sports complex to be completed ASAP. That will not happen until 2019 at the earliest. It was originally 2018, but that has now been pushed back. Who knows, given time, this might become 2020 or 2021. Meanwhile, places like Singapore continue to steal a march on us.

Our stadium has been riddled with problems from day one. The flaky turf which cuts up badly isn't something new. It has been there from the inception. Managed by Wembley first, and now the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, neither have been able to solve this vexed issue.

But the LCSD continues to make a bundle from it. The HKFA has to pay 20 per cent of the gate receipts plus extra for the cost of the big screen, hospitality suites, advertising and so on. They make a killing, but the product they offer is ridiculed.

The only solution the LCSD seemed to have on the opening day was to send out five (or was it six?) men, armed with pitchforks to bore holes and aerate the ground in the hope the water would drain away quickly. When open heart surgery is called for, we resort to popping a pill and hoping the coronary block will dissipate. So the fans are left with a poor product at the end of the day. No way would the visiting teams have given their best, not when the imminent danger of an injury was just one divot away.

At the end of the day, everyone might have breathed a huge sigh of relief that the games were completed and the counting of the dollars could begin. Scudamore might say Hong Kong will always be in the running to host the Barclays Asia Trophy, this being the third occasion. It will, because it is a profitable exercise coming here as the fans worship the Premier League.

But was Wednesday's show a good advertisement for Hong Kong? No chance.

 

Do you agree or disagree with what Alvin has to say? Email your comments to alvin.sallay@scmp.com

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