Time to go north and prosper
Local soccer's path to redemption lies in forging closer ties with the mainland and inserting teams into its leagues
Steven Lo Kit-sing's words as the former boss of South China stepped away from soccer after being convicted of bribery and money laundering in Macau were simple: "Look to China."
Lo began his self-imposed exile from the game vowing to come back one day, but only if the sport underwent dramatic changes, which in his eyes means forging close links with the game on the mainland. His views are nothing new as there has been a long-standing belief that the only way for the game to emerge from its deep hole is to piggy-back on China's league.
Lo says "we can start by forming two top teams to compete in China's league, either in the second or first Division, before gaining promotion to the Super League".
American settlers in the late 19th century were urged to "go west", and if Hong Kong soccer is to blaze its own trail, it must "go north". China is the El Dorado for many, be it in business or sport. And these days there is hardly a distinction between the two, for successful sport is all about big business.
We had a reminder of this only the other day when just across the border, one of the most ambitious soccer clubs in the world, Guangzhou Evergrande, signed a deal with mainland e-commerce giant Alibaba. It happened when their respective owners were having drinks in Hong Kong. Club owner Xu Jiayin, a billionaire property magnate, asked Jack Ma, owner of Alibaba, if he wanted a stake in his club. It is reported terms were decided in 15 minutes and Alibaba bought a 50 per cent stake.
Last season, under the tutelage of former Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, Guangzhou Evergrande became the first Chinese team since 1990 to win the AFC Champions League. Buoyed by a handful of South American imports, the club draws tens of thousands of fanatical fans to their games.
Imagine in 2020, new China Super League club South China hosting Guangzhou Evergrande at the new Kai Tak Stadium. The 50,000 - or is it going to be a 55,000-seater? - stadium would be sold out. This is the stuff Lo dreams about. This is what he believes will revive the local game - the regular appearance of the big guns from across the border.
But creating one or two "super" clubs in Hong Kong alone is not going to help. When Lo talks about two top teams taking part in China's League, there is no mistaking that he is referring to South China and Kitchee, the reigning league champions.
But can we afford to ignore the rest of the clubs and allow Hong Kong soccer to be split between the haves and the have-nots, as is already the case?
It would be best if the rest of the clubs raised their standards to the levels of South China and Kitchee, both of whom have been granted AFC licences, allowing them to play in the AFC Champions league provided they qualify.
With this in mind, the new Premier League takes on more significance. Nine teams have applied to join the league and while the Hong Kong Football Association will be happy to go with even an eight-team structure in its inaugural year, it would be best if we could make it an even 10.
The aim of these pioneering teams in the Premier League is to set up a firm foundation. For this, each need to have their own training ground, a good coach and players who are committed to the game and training. The development of the game must be broad-based and go in tandem with the top two teams vying for a berth in the mainland league.
Lo believes the game must first be raised to a certain standard before it warrants a Premier League. He might have a point but if we are to fast track the sport, it would be better to take the plunge right away. Enough talking about grassroots and development; fans need to see results, that Project Phoenix is working.
It is vital the government continues backing the renaissance. In the meantime, let market forces decide the rest, and if we can afford to have two clubs playing in China's league, so much the better.
The top two in the Hong Kong league should have the right to play first across the border. If they cannot afford to do so, it must be thrown open to those who can. South China and Kitchee should not be given carte blanche.
This would be the perfect incentive for the rest of the clubs to pick up their game.