Steven Lo needs to step away from HKFA
South China boss is a key figure in local soccer but his legal problems must not be allowed to tarnish game's image
The last thing Hong Kong soccer wanted was another blow to its public image, but that is what they got when a Macau court found South China boss Steven Lo Kit-sing guilty of corruption and money laundering.
Lo and another property developer were each sentenced to a jail term of five years and three months after they were found guilty of paying a HK$20 million bribe to a disgraced Macau minister to secure land near the Macau airport to build luxury residential project La Scala.
There was nothing grandiose or operatic for Lo when the final notes died down on a long-running case and judge Augusto Silvestre delivered the verdict and sentence. Lo wasn't present in court and as Hong Kong and Macau don't have an extradition treaty, he will not be jailed as long as he does not enter Macau within the 15-year period that his penalty will be in force.
Lo has lodged an appeal. And until that process is over, neither the Hong Kong Football Association, of which he is also a vice-chairman, nor the Hong Kong Jockey Club, where he is a high-profile member and racehorse owner, is likely to comment.
We are not here to pass moral judgment on Lo, who, as far as we are concerned, is still innocent until all due process has occurred. What worries us is how much of an effect all this publicity will have on the general perception the public and government have on local football, which has already been dented on a number of occasions over the past 12 months.
Lo was not just any ordinary member of the HKFA. He was a key force in the ongoing developments to revitalise the local game, and a supporter of Project Phoenix. As the convenor of South China, the biggest and most popular club by far in Hong Kong, he was also a central figure in the game.
Coincidentally or not, South China are going through a rough patch, as shown by their poor performance in the AFC Cup competition.
But never mind, South China always bounce back. What matters is the HKFA and its ongoing efforts to lift the game.
Over the past few months the game has taken many body blows: the raid by the ICAC on a match and players being whisked away for questioning; two First Division clubs, Tuen Mun and Happy Valley, being suspended from the league for alleged financial mismanagement; world-governing body Fifa slapping the HKFA on the wrists for failing to rein in racist fans.
It makes dismal reading, especially at a time when the HKFA is looking for continued government support - their baby Project Phoenix comes to an end in October - as well as for backing from the corporate sector.
Mark Sutcliffe, HKFA chief executive, still presented a brave face. The Englishman was all stiff upper lip when he played down any perceived blow to the image of the game.
Sutcliffe said: "Clearly any negative press and public perception does not help at a time when we are trying to find commercial partners for the new league and we are talking to the government about extending the funding given to football. Having said that, I do not believe that this is a hammer blow and I do not believe in the long run that it will impact on Project Phoenix."
Sutcliffe is confident there has been enough positive change in the fortunes of the game for the government to continue pouring in money for development.
Over the past three years, the government has pumped HK$20 million annually into the programme. Sutcliffe and the HKFA want this figure to rise to HK$100 million annually if any serious inroads are to be made in the push to lift Hong Kong up the world rankings and bring back the crowds.
Will the dilemma Lo finds himself in have any impact on the government's decision? Let's hope not.
That is what we would like to think, but the problem is public figures must not be suspected of any wrongdoing. "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" was the declaration from famous Roman leader Julius when asked why he had divorced his wife Pompeia whom he suspected of sexual transgressions.
The HKFA will find itself in a tough position, unless Lo steps down from all his positions within the body until he can clear his name. Lo has been a strong advocate of Project Phoenix and has backed Sutcliffe to the hilt. It would be a real shame to lose such a figure but it must be remembered the sport is always bigger than one person.