The less well off need more help

The HKFA would like to see each First Division club get a HK$1 million subsidy, but some deserve it more than others

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 5:43am

Our Football, Our League. This is the new rallying call for the local game, which is on the cusp of creating a new professional league that will hopefully set the foundation for the revival of Hong Kong's soccer fortunes on the international stage.

Two years ago, all the stakeholders in the Hong Kong Football Association - the clubs - voted unanimously to implement the recommendations set out in Project Phoenix. One such recommendation was to establish a new Hong Kong Premier League for the 2014-15 season.

The current season, which began on Friday, is very important in that it is a transitional one during which all the clubs will have to put their houses in order as they bid to get a Hong Kong Club Licence. Without this piece of paper, they cannot take part in the new league.

One might think it is just a formality, something akin to turning up at the marriage registrar at Cotton Tree Drive and getting that piece of paper which says you are now man and wife.

South China and Kitchee have bigger budgets [and] are likely to again rule the roost

If it were only so simple. Alas, this is not the case according to HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe, who has the unenviable task of arranging local football's nuptials as it faces a game-changing moment. "It is a Herculean task," says Sutcliffe as he tries to soothe clubs who are nervous about the new arrangements. Any change in life is always greeted with a sense of trepidation. Anyone who has tied the knot will have felt the butterflies, wondering right until the end if it is the right decision.

In football's case, the clubs know it is the correct move, but there are "tensions" simply because meeting the requirements for a new licence will mean they will have to reach into their pockets and find the money to pave the way.

Clubs must have their own facilities to train and play home games, and they must improve management and coaching so youth development, and not only the senior team, is nurtured. This will cost money.

Despite voting in unison for the creation of a professional league in 2011, some clubs view these demands as a burden on their already stretched finances. They all know the potential benefits the new professional league will bring. In theory, the future could see clubs share revenue from television broadcasting as a major source of funding. But to be part of the new deal you also need to spend more this season.

Sutcliffe says this is creating "teething issues", with some clubs saying they have still to reap the promised benefits from Project Phoenix.

Sutcliffe has called for "seed money" - at least HK$1 million - to be given to each club to help them in this transitional year. The expected inflow of cash from the corporate world has not materialised. Sutcliffe says it is too early to persuade commercial organisations to take the "leap of faith" and invest in the future of football. This leaves the government as the only candidate capable of providing the seed money for the expanded league this season - from 10 to 12 clubs - so they can put their houses in order as they bid for the new licences.

But should all clubs be treated in the same way? Some, like big guns South China and Kitchee, stand to benefit more than the others by having a professional league up and running. One of the key targets a professional league will accomplish is that local clubs will at last be able to play in the Asian Football Confederation's Champions League.

At present, Hong Kong clubs are barred from participating at the highest level because the local league fails to meet professional standards. The likes of South China and Kitchee can only qualify to play in the AFC Cup, the continent's second-tier tournament, but the real money - from TV broadcasting rights - is in the elite division.

South China and Kitchee are also fortunate that they are in a stronger financial position than the rest. They have more money to spend on players and, with bigger budgets, are likely to again rule the roost.

It wouldn't be fair if the HKFA wants a blanket handout of seed money. The smaller clubs should be given more. The rich are bound to get richer, especially once all obstacles in the way of participating in the AFC Champions League are pushed aside.

And this is exactly what a new professional league will accomplish. "Our Football, Our League" might ring especially true for our big guns.