Wisdom comes at a price
Wallace Cheung, new boss of South China, believes his experience and past mistakes will serve him and the club well
Despite a few experiences in the school of hard knocks, it didn't take long for businessman Wallace Cheung Kwong-yung to accept probably one of the biggest challenges of his life by deciding to take over the most prestigious soccer club in Hong Kong.
An entrepreneur who has accumulated his wealth principally through the sale of oil and petroleum extraction equipment on the mainland, Cheung was announced by South China Athletic Association (SCAA) as their new soccer team convenor on June 1, replacing Steven Lo Kit-sing, who stepped down from the position after eight years.
"I was on a business trip to South America last month and one of my friends told me South China were looking for a new convenor," Cheung said.
"I love the sport and was a fan of South China in my younger days. You don't get the opportunity very often to manage a club like South China.
"We started discussions with the SCAA management after I returned to Hong Kong in mid-May and not long afterwards we reached an agreement."
Cheung is relatively inexperienced when it comes to club soccer in Hong Kong, but has learned some hard lessons through the staging of several exhibition matches here and on the mainland which left him severely out of pocket.
"I am learning the game in an expensive way," he joked. "We all know investment in soccer is always without return, especially in Hong Kong.
"I am doing this as a kind of social responsibility, contributing something back to society."
In 2010, he brought the Paraguay national team, of which his firm was the official sponsor, to play against Hong Kong. Cheung forked out HK$7 million to cover costs and, although entertaining to watch, Hong Kong were thrashed 7-0 at the Hong Kong Stadium.
Last year, he took CSKA Moscow, one of the most formidable sides in Russian soccer, to China where they played two friendly games in Jiangsu province to celebrate the "Year of Russian Tourism in China". Unforeseen difficulties encountered in that exercise led to a shortfall of HK$15 million and the dispensing by Cheung of many rolls of bank notes.
In his capacity as honorary chairman of First Division side Citizen, he was also involved in the staging of this year's Lunar New Year Cup in Hong Kong, another deficit project.
Citizen, forming a joint side with Ecuador club Cuenca, lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament which also featured Portuguese Premeira Liga side Olhanense, Krylia Sovetov of Russia and Tokyo FC of Japan, but the tournament's finances failed to make it out of the red.
With Citizen opting out of the inaugural domestic Premier League starting in September, Cheung felt the timing was right to pursue the opportunity with the Caroliners.
"I have gained a lot of experience through running these tournaments and have become a better-equipped person in terms of soccer," he said. "I hope it can help as I have become the convenor of the soccer club with the longest and proudest history of any club in Hong Kong.
"I know some people may question my intentions but I have nothing to hide. As a responsible company, we just want to give something back to the community through soccer.
"Indeed, I have no business in Hong Kong as the markets for all my products are in the mainland or other overseas countries and I am not using soccer to promote my company name. I hope South China fans will continue to support the team and Hong Kong soccer can flourish.
"I love challenges, just like when I set up my own business in China some 30 years ago," he said. "Managing South China is going to be a tough task, but no one should doubt my commitment and determination. I want to make the team continue to be a strong force to be reckoned with, not only in Hong Kong but also in the Asian region.
"We all understand the important role of South China in Hong Kong soccer and it will create a lot of negative effects if the Caroliners are not doing well. But I am confident we can continue the good work and prepare the team well for the inaugural Premier League and our AFC Cup campaign in 2015."
Although the new boss has set a handsome budget of HK$18 million for the new season, some of the club's key players have decided to leave.
Hong Kong international Yapp Hung-fai, the best local goalkeeper, will join Eastern next season along with midfielder Luk Chi-ho, while another national team member, flanker Lee Hong-lim, will return to Sun Pegasus.
"My biggest challenge at the moment is to form a quality team and I leave the task with our coaching staff members," said Cheung.
"It is unfortunate some key players have made up their mind to leave before I have even had the chance to talk with them. We have offered an average of 15 to 20 per cent salary increase for those who stay in order to boost team morale."
South China performed well under former convenor Lo, who brought home five league titles during his eight-year reign, including four in a row from 2007 to 2010. They also won five cup titles during the period. Lo also tried to lift the standard of the team by securing quality overseas players, with the notable cameo appearances of former Manchester United star midfielder Nicky Butt and ex-Serbia international Mateja Kezman in 2011.
Their marketing strategies also worked well, with strong fan support. The AFC Cup semi-final home tie against Kuwait Sport Club filled the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium in 2009 - the biggest attendance of the year in a regional match even though they eventually bowed out of the tournament after a 3-1 defeat on aggregate by the Middle East team.
Lo's strong desire for success also made him a fearsome boss, with a demanding style that kept the team on a tight rein. Cheung's style is very different, always with a smile on his face and an avuncular, engaging manner.
"There is no point comparing the management style of two different persons," said Cheung. "I will keep an arms-length approach to managing the team, with the coaching staff being given full autonomy on the technical side. But that doesn't mean I don't want success.
"South China have the longest history in Hong Kong soccer and everyone is proud of their achievements for more than a hundred years. I don't want this success to end under my rule.
"The players, the coach and his backroom staff all have to prove themselves through results and if someone fails, he has to take full responsibility. This always happens in the business world and I think it is the same in sports."
Cheung said the new Premier League would be a crucial development for the game's future. "They need new people to bring in new ideas and work together for the common benefit of Hong Kong soccer. I am happy I can join in at this particular moment," said Cheung.
Already a scouting team headed by South China coach Yeung Ching-kwong has been to Ecuador searching for foreign recruits.
Hong Kong has never seen Ecuadorians in domestic competition and this new change could just be the beginning of a new era for Hong Kong.