Burst underground pipe 'culprit' in Hong Kong Stadium pitch farce
Broken part of underground sprinkler system was main fault for the turf fiasco that caused global embarrassment during Barclays Asia Trophy
A burst underground pipe, and not heavy rain or an intense match schedule, was primarily at fault for the turf fiasco at the Hong Kong Stadium that threatened the Barclays Asia Trophy and Manchester United's exhibition game this summer.
Top Hong Kong Football Association officials said the international embarrassment caused by the poor surface had nothing to do with the schedule - five matches in five days - or bad weather, but the installation of pipes when the pitch was relaid in 1994.
"The true story is that a pipe from the underground sprinkling system had burst. Unfortunately, this was right under the centre circle and no one knew about it for a long time," said HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak.
"Every time they turned on the sprinklers, water was gushing out from the broken area saturating the ground underneath."
A source close to the subsequent investigation said the saturated aquifer under the pitch had resulted in algae growing on the surface due to it being "permanently wet", which suffocated the grass and prevented it from taking root and growing.
To make matters worse, a large area of the grass had died where the British Lions logo had been painted for the match against the Barbarians on June 1.
"The excuse that the Hong Kong Stadium pitch couldn't handle the frequency of matches was a complete red herring," said HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe. "A well-maintained pitch could have coped, whereas the stadium pitch turned into a quagmire. So the volume of rain was a contributory factor only."
Stadium authorities only found out the problem a few days before the Barclays Asia Trophy featuring Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Sunderland and South China, but by then it was too late as the grass cover was almost non-existent in large swathes near the centre circle.
"As a result of both problems … the grass cover was insufficient and repairs had been less than adequate. This coupled with poor drainage because of a heavily compacted sub-base meant the pitch was ill-equipped to cope with the rain," Sutcliffe said.
"The true culprit was the original designer from the Hong Kong Jockey Club who laid down a racetrack profile for a soccer pitch and then installed irrigation pipes under the playing area instead of in the surrounds," the source said.
The pitch was closed for 53 days, during which emergency repairs and maintenance was undertaken. It has now been opened. "I think now that the main problem has been discovered - the burst underground pipe - and dealt with, the conditions will get better," Leung said.
Sutcliffe, who has suggested that the grass should be replaced by a hybrid surface similar to that used at Wembley Stadium in London, warned: "It still needs some further improvements."
An expert working group comprising the HKFA, the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, the Jockey Club and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, is looking at medium-term and long-term options to improve the pitch.
One group member, Brian Stevenson, (Jockey Club chairman and HKRFU president) has called for the government to look at "the totality of stadium maintenance and not just the turf" as this will be Hong Kong's premier sporting arena until the Kai Tak complex is ready in 2019 or 2020.