Steven Lo urges change for soccer in Hong Kong as he starts self-imposed exile
Outgoing South China convenor opens up about his passion for the game and his distress at its current state
Steven Lo Kit-sing began his self-imposed soccer exile by saying there needs to be dramatic changes to the game in Hong Kong before he will return.
The self-confessed soccer nut is dealing with life outside the game and as convenor of South China after stepping down from his position last month.
Lo, 54, said his decision had nothing to do with his conviction for bribery and money laundering in Macau and that he had begun the appeal process.
"They are two different matters. I have decided to quit South China for a while as the two-year term as convenor has come to an end. I will only consider returning to soccer when I think the time is right. It has nothing to do with whether the case is over or not," he said.
Lo takes his sabbatical after investing more than HK$100 million since taking over Hong Kong's biggest club in 2006, but says the game is in a sorry state.
"Some would call me the god of soccer, but I would like to consider myself a soccer nut because of the money I have spent, coupled with the many innovative ideas I have created over these years," said Lo.
"But we have been doing similar things in our so-called professional soccer for more than 40 years and little progress has been made. There needs to be some drastic changes so we get a major breakthrough and then it's time for me to return."
Lo said Hong Kong was lagging far behind many countries like Thailand and Vietnam.
"The clubs are spending money and the government is helping the sport, but it seems there is only a small improvement," he said. "We must bring in initiatives to change Hong Kong soccer and what we can do is to look to the China league.
"We can start by forming two top teams to compete in the China league, either in the Second or First Division before gaining promotion to the Super League.
"Then we can have at least one home match a week which will become the main focus for the fans. We can still run a domestic league for young players to nurture their skills before joining the professional sides, either in Hong Kong or other parts of China.
"In five to 10 years we can see if any progress has been made. If yes, we can then start a new Premier League and I would like to be part of this new system and make a contribution."
He accused the clubs of lacking professionalism and still behaving like amateurs.
"In modern soccer, fitness, for example, plays a key role but if you see how we train the players, you will not be surprised by their lack of stamina," he said.
"Most countries train the players for a 120-minute game so they can handle the match, but our routine two-hour daily training apparently lacks the intensity. The players always look to be substituted after 70 minutes or they lose concentration and become vulnerable.
"This has to do with a lot of things - a lack of training facilities and venue support, the expertise of coaching staff, the club management and attitude of players.
"Very little improvement has been made over the years and it is sad to see this hampering Hong Kong soccer."
The businessman, who also runs an entertainment enterprise and restaurants in Hong Kong, admitted he was still adjusting to life without soccer.
"I still miss soccer and the many happy moments I share with the players," said Lo. "In fact, I always gaze out from my office window to the people playing in Victoria Park. Although they are not professionals, I also enjoy watching. Soccer is still the beloved sport in my heart."
Born in Macau, Lo played soccer at different school levels and also joined the amateur first division league in the former Portuguese enclave.
"I always listened to the radio when they had live coverage of Hong Kong matches," he said. "Whenever I came to Hong Kong, I watched South China matches and became a fan of them."
Although his skill level would never earn him a professional career, Lo was appointed South China team convenor for the first time in 1992.
"I was never committed to soccer management during my first tenure and all I was concerned about was showing off as the boss of a big club," he said.
"But I was much more mature in the second term and was determined to improve the club and Hong Kong soccer as a whole.
"In the first season I took charge, South China, with the help of strong overseas players, lifted three titles out of four - the league championship, the Senior Shield and FA Cup, missing only the League Cup.
"And the team grew stronger with the arrival of better quality foreign helpers and local players, reaching its peak at the 2009 AFC Cup when we advanced to the semi-finals before losing to Kuwait SC, filling the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium with South China's colour red."
He admitted he considered quitting the club after their failure in the AFC Cup, but the success of Hong Kong in the 2009 East Asian Games later that year, with South China players the driving force, gave him new hope. The following year, he brought two former world-class stars to Hong Kong, Nicky Butt and Mateja Kezman, but despite their strong promotional value, the duo failed to impress and lift standards.
"Over the years, I have helped the club win many honours, bringing back the glory days of South China. But more importantly, I was able to instil many of my ideas and visions of soccer into the club and have gained a lot of experience in club management," he said.
"The club partnership with Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur has also broadened my horizons and whenever I travelled to Europe, I would visit individual clubs to learn from their experience which is the best in the world in terms of soccer management," added Lo.
"I will probably keep doing it in future and hopefully this expertise can one day help Hong Kong soccer."
Lo is still a vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Football Association, despite taking leave from his post, but said he had no plans to quit.
"I asked for temporary leave because I didn't want to embarrass the association because of what has happened to me over the past couple of months but it doesn't mean I won't come back.
"Given the right place and the right time, I will rejoin the board and continue to contribute to the future of the sport in Hong Kong," said Lo.