Don't pull the plug on funding

Project Phoenix has laid down an important platform for reform - now it needs continued government backing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 11:21pm

Soccer's new five-year plan has received ringing endorsements from the two international "parent" bodies - Fifa and the AFC - although scepticism still runs widespread as to whether the game will ever be able to lift itself back to the glory days in the 1970s when crowds streamed through the turnstiles.

Perhaps it is human nature to denigrate upliftment efforts, and in Hong Kong it has turned into an art form. Negativity is rife. Everywhere you turn people are more than willing to put down any attempts to make life better in the misguided belief money is being wasted, in this case on Project Phoenix.

This manifold scheme created to revitalise the game had a millstone around its neck from the outset as it was initiated by the government. Anything linked to the government tends to draw immediately public scorn.

It is time for those holding the purse strings to commit more funds. It is estimated the game will need an extra HK$210 million over the next five years to raise the standard of football
Alvin Sallay

The public perception of money ill-spent has been fuelled by words coming from some of the First Division clubs who at every opportunity have taken a swipe at Project Phoenix and the Hong Kong Football Association for not supporting them financially. Among the strident critics is Philip Lee Fai-lap, director of BC Rangers.

Lee remarked: "All the clubs are losing money, but what has the association done to help us?" He is upset that the HKFA hasn't offered a helping hand with funds from Project Phoenix, which receives around HK$20 million annually from the government. This subsidy ends in October, and the question now is whether the government will continue backing the game.

It would be foolish to close the tap having started the revival process. The government should not only continue to give, but it should give more to help the programme move up a gear and gather momentum.

But first let's deal with Lee and his belief that local clubs should be supported. This money was never meant to be given to the clubs to help them pay their players and other bills. Clubs are going through a hard time with rising costs to hire grounds and shrinking budgets due to difficulties in finding sponsors with deep pockets, but they shouldn't take their frustrations out on the HKFA.

What the association can do is to try to alleviate some of the problems, for instance arranging double-headers so clubs can share costs instead of having to bear them alone, as has been proposed by Lee. An example: it costs BC Rangers HK$30,000 to hire the Sham Shui Po Sports Ground but their revenue from ticket sales is a few thousand. Until the game becomes more attractive and meaningful, perhaps it would be better to spread the costs.

The money for Project Phoenix over the past three years has gone to setting up the foundation on which the game can grow - the administrative and technical aspects. The association has hired 23 new people who are ready to push the game's development to the next stage.

Having created this framework it would be silly if the government was to pull the plug now.

The HKFA has received encouragement from Fifa which said the new blueprint was "relevant, compelling and comprehensive". Similarly, the Asian Football Confederation said the master plan was "thorough, detailed and well thought-out". But while these are welcome words, what matters is the message from home.

And that, too, is looking good. Last week the senior government official involved in sport, deputy secretary for Home Affairs Jonathan McKinley said the five-year strategy was "clear and logical".

It is time for those holding the purse strings to commit more funds. It is estimated the game will need an extra HK$210 million over the next five years to raise the standard of football.

This is peanuts compared with the sums of money being bandied around for other projects, for instance the extra HK$23 billion needed to build a basement at the West Kowloon arts hub.

Already there are signs of hope. The Hong Kong Under-16 team qualified for the first time for the Asian Cup in September in Thailand. Our under-21 and under-23 squads held their own against the youth academies from English Premier League sides at last weekend's Soccer Sevens.

The trend is to bicker over everything with our dear filibustering legislators. Let's start believing.