Venue switch for vital Asian Cup qualifier criticised
HKFA officials deny commercial considerations are the only motive for move from compact Mong Kok Stadium to Hong Kong Stadium
Hong Kong have surprisingly chosen to play next week's crucial Asian Cup qualifying match against United Arab Emirates at Hong Kong Stadium rather than the smaller, tighter Mong Kok pitch, the venue where they beat Vietnam in March, seemingly to try to sell more tickets.
Hong Kong Football Association officials denied it was only "commercial considerations" which prompted the move of venue against group leaders and favourites UAE next Tuesday.
"It was not an easy decision and was certainly not taken on commercial considerations alone," HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe wrote on his blog yesterday. "We looked carefully at what would give us the best chance for a positive result, the likely crowd size, the view of the head coach, public opinion and commercial consideration before taking this decision."
Hong Kong have a good chance of qualifying for the Asian Cup for the first time since 1968, lying second in their group with a win and a draw from their opening two pool games. With four more games, home and away to UAE, home to Uzbekistan and away to Vietnam, Hong Kong will need points from their home encounters to at least finish second and qualify for the 2015 finals in Australia.
"I know this decision will not be universally popular but I hope people will accept it has been taken with the best of intentions and they will come and support the team. And without giving away any secrets, we will be doing what we can within the laws and spirit of the game to improve our chances of success," Sutcliffe said. "International matches should be played at the national stadium and the hope is we get a crowd big enough to justify the decision. But I know we will be criticised if we lose the match."
In March, 6,639 packed in to Mong Kok Stadium to witness Hong Kong's 1-0 victory over Vietnam. Many spectators were turned away and it is believed this led to the HKFA deciding that the next two home games, against the UAE and Uzbekistan next month, would be played at the 40,000-capacity HK Stadium.
"I don't think moving will affect our performance and I hope we get our fans coming out in strength," Hong Kong head coach Kim Pan-gon said. "Just imagine if we got 25,000 or 30,000 people - that would create a great atmosphere."
But former Hong Kong international Tony Sealy questioned the decision. "UAE will have more space and time on the ball at the bigger Hong Kong Stadium. And with their superior technical qualities, it will be hard to break them down. I would have thought we would have more of an advantage playing at Mong Kok," he said.
"I don't know if commercial interests come into play here but it would be crazy to sacrifice any chances we have of winning for the sake of selling more tickets."
Hong Kong forward Jaimes McKee admitted: "Playing at Mong Kok is great. When the stadium is packed, as it was against Vietnam, we could not only hear the crowd but feel it."