Phoenix can still rise from ashes

Progress has been made towards regenerating Hong Kong soccer, but the evidence so far is all below the surface

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 10:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 11:11pm

For many, Project Phoenix is a dead duck. The common view is that the wide-ranging plan to revitalise local soccer, sparked by money from the government, is a failure.

This is the easy way out, especially when the main yardstick used to measure its success is the national team who have yet to catch the attention of the public in the last year other than being embroiled in a "racist" incident involving fans who shouted abuse at the visiting Philippines team at Mong Kok Stadium last year.

When Hong Kong Football Association chief executive Mark Sutcliffe insists the renaissance is just starting, one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow for, after all, no tangible results have been seen. But, as Sutcliffe says, the building blocks which have been put in place are all below the surface.

Critics charge that there have been no trickle-down economic benefits from Project Phoenix. But like most people, they have got the wrong idea of the government's helping hand

Imagine another skyscraper going up in Hong Kong. Before the edifice can be built, you need a solid foundation which is unseen to the public eye. This is what has been happening over the past 12 to 14 months since Project Phoenix has been in "full swing".

Over the next couple of months, the government will decide whether to continue funding Project Phoenix or if it is time to pull the plug. We hope it will be the former, as Sutcliffe insists the increased funding is crucial to build momentum for the sport to turn the corner.

Critics, and there has been a lot of finger-pointing from some of the First Division clubs, charge that there have been no trickle-down economic benefits from Phoenix. But like most people, they have got the wrong idea of the government's helping hand, which was not meant to subsidise clubs but to put in place a system that would benefit clubs in terms of finding sponsorship and corporate support.

The crux of Phoenix - a raft of 33 recommendations on how to revive the game locally - is based on two words: Develop and Deliver. And as Sutcliffe pointed out this week in a "position statement" the system must be developed before it can deliver.

The fastest way to develop the system is to put in place the personnel to run the administrative side as well as the technical side of the game and this is what has been taking place.

Sutcliffe is one key component, being the chief executive, a position which unfortunately had a false start when the first person picked to head the HKFA, Gordon McKie, stepped down after six months. This setback put the entire process back by almost a year and the government's three-year involvement only started to kick in just over a year ago.

But it is gathering steam. On the administrative side, 14 positions seen as essential have been filled, from chief executive to a marketing officer. On the technical side, the number is 10, from a technical director to head coach to women's soccer manager. This is what the government funding has paid for. The HK$20 million annual handout goes to pay for the salaries and the upkeep of all these new personnel.

This money wasn't meant to be given directly to the clubs. It couldn't be given in the first place as many of the clubs are commercial bodies and as such cannot be funded directly by taxpayers' money. This is what has contributed to the resentment from the clubs. They feel they have been let down by the HKFA.

In one aspect they are right. The HKFA has still not been able to unearth any significant backing from the corporate sector. Most domestic games are run at a loss for the clubs. Some matches draw only a couple of hundred fans, leaving the clubs in the red. Clubs are also aggrieved that they have to pay for live television broadcasts of games - HK$240,000 annually. No wonder they are crying foul.

But it takes time to reap what you sow. In this instance the HKFA has put in place the building blocks and as Sutcliffe says has "transformed itself".

It will be absurd if the government pulls out now. They should heed Sutcliffe's cry for more money and more time. Give the HKFA HK$100 million annually for the next five years, and let's see what happens. We have started to take baby steps - the national team's world ranking has improved from 169 when the programme started to 144 now - and let's see if the giant leap can then be taken.